As you read these passages, notice how the so-called “exception clause” is recorded only in Matthew’s account (Matt.19:9 – “except for sexual immorality”). This phrase has been the center of a storm of varying interpretations through the ages. Though I certainly don’t expect to resolve all scholarly debate on the subject with a brief blog posting, perhaps it will be helpful to keep the flow of thought in mind throughout the entire text in Matthew and to put that flow of thought into our own words. Following is my attempt to do just that with my take on the flow of things interspersed in italics in the text of Matthew 19:1-12 (TNIV). The italicized words are meant to somewhat summarize the thought of the preceding verses of Scripture. After reading the following, go back through and read just the italicized portions.
When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. (2) Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. (3) Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“What are the right reasons for getting a divorce?”
(4) “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ (5) and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?’ (6) So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
“God thinks about things differently than you do. Rather than thinking about divorce, let me give you the reason for staying married, for keeping the union God created.”
(7) “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
“There’s nothing wrong with divorce. The law is soft on divorce.”
(8) Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.
“From the fact you continue to pursue thinking about divorce, I can tell you what is truly hard – your hearts!”
(9) I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
“Marriage is about pursuing utter faithfulness to the deepest degree. You’re unfaithful if you don’t see it that way and act accordingly.”
(10) The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
“If that’s true, then there’s something really wrong with this thing called ‘marriage.'”
(11) Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. (12) For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others have been made eunuchs; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with marriage, but marriage is not the thing for everyone. Still, I’ve shown you the shoe, so if it fits, wear it.”
Matthew 19:3-12 has a chiastic structure to it, the outline of which shows three pairs of contrasts between bad and clear-headed thinking (A,B & C in the following outline) with the centerpiece of thought (D) being God’s intentions for marriage and the heart of humankind on the matter. Notice:
From all this it should be clear that Jesus’ concern in this text is not so much legislating on the “right reason(s)” for divorce as it is on setting forth how radically different God and people tend to think about things. Humankind is composed of two kinds of people – those yet to believe and those who are disciples of Jesus – but they both have two things in common – they tend to ask the wrong questions (or draw the wrong conclusions) and have much yet to learn.
So, the chief issue in Matthew 19:1-12 issue is not so much the “right reason(s)” for divorce, but just how messed up humankind’s reasoning is indeed – and how badly it is in need of God’s way of thinking. Matthew is not depicting Jesus as offering some form of comprehensive, yet concise, legislation on the entire subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Rather, he records this incident as yet another sample of just how dark is the heart of humankind and hopeless a state it is in without a continuing pursuit of the mind and ways of God.