Is It Lawful?

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Now there’s a lead question, don’t you think? When I’m confronted with a question like that, my first response is to ask, “Why are you asking?” There is really no safe way to answer this question without getting sucked into the quagmire of the law, which is precisely where the Pharisees want Jesus. They are asking Him this “in order to test Him.” They knew the debate. The conservative rabbi Shammai said only in the case of adultery; the liberal Hillel said even if she burned the roast. Is it lawful to divorce your wife? This is hardly in the way of gifts given, received and rejoiced over; more in the way of the law and keeping one’s paperwork in order.

Jesus answers the question with a question of His own. “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees were experts in Moses, and if anyone knew what Moses commanded, they did. They cite Deuteronomy 24 and a piece of legislation from Moses forbidding a man to take back a wife he has divorced after she has married another man. Divorce is presumed here, including the written certificate of divorce which made the whole thing legal.

But Jesus has a different passage from Moses in mind. Not a concession to the hardness of heart that makes divorce a genuine possibility, but the good and gracious will of the Creator in the beginning who made them male and female and declared that in their physical union with each other the “two become one flesh.” “One flesh” means something whole and inviolate, an intimate, organic union worked by the creative Word of God that cannot be undone by a piece of paperwork. This is what elevates human sexuality above the animal. The birds do it, the bees do it, all our fellow creatures do it, but when we, who are made in the image of God, do it, something greater and more significant takes place. “They are no longer two but one flesh.”

Notice that this “one flesh” doesn’t happen when the happy couple walks down the aisle, makes their promises, and signs the wedding license in black ink. The marriage certificate is the opposite of the certificate of divorce. It puts an electrified legal fence around the “one flesh” union of husband and wife. And while you can negate the marriage with a certificate of divorce, so that Moses even forbad the two from getting back together again, no piece of paper can undo what God has done in declaring man and woman “one flesh” in their union. That’s the part that the divorce courts and decrees can’t undo. You can divide the property, the kids, the cars, the house, and the bank account. But you cannot divide the “two become one flesh.”

This all goes back to God’s creation of male and female in the beginning. Adam was made a complete, self-contained individual. He embodied all of humanity in his flesh, just as Jesus embodies all of humanity as the “second Adam.” Adam was made from the earth (Adam means earth or earth man). His vocation, his priesthood, was to care for the creation and have dominion or lordship over it as God’s deputy. Part of his dominion was to name the creatures. God made them and Adam named them. We have no idea how long this naming process took place. It might have been years or even hundreds of years. The text doesn’t say. I like to imagine is was a goodly long time, long enough to realize that there was no complementary counterpart to Adam, and that was not good.

Adam was made to be in relationship. He was the image of God, and even God exists in a trinity of Persons in relationship with each other. God is never alone even in Himself. And so it was not good that Adam was alone, unique, isolated, individual without an external counterpart to himself. And so God put Adam to sleep and took something away from him. His “female side” you might say. Guys, there’s no point getting in touch with your “female side.” You don’t have one. Your female side is your wife. God took that something, the Bible names it a “rib,” and from that He built a derivative creature, a woman. She isn’t made from the earth like Adam, but from his side. Men are not “from Mars” and women are not “from Venus,” though at times it may seem that way. He is from the mud, and she is from his side.

Adam awoke and instantly recognized his own reflection in her. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” She was like him but not interchangeable with him. She was taken from him, and in union with her, he receives what he lost in that deep sleep. This is the mystery of our being male and female, and why we are so fascinated by each other. And it is for this reason that a man leaves that union which produced him – his father and mother (everyone is born out of the union of male and female) and he is joined to his Eve, his wife, and they become one flesh. And the Bible quickly adds that verse that is often skipped at weddings, I know not why: “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Sin had not yet entered the world. Their nakedness was pure and innocent and holy.

Sin changed all that. It brought shame, self-awareness, self-centeredness. They tried to cover themselves with their own fig leaves. They hid from God. They blamed each other. The complementarity between man and woman became a competition to see who would rule. Their “one flesh” union became a struggle leading to divorce and adultery. We bear witness in the brokenness of our own lives – our multiple “one flesh” unions, our divorces, our adulteries, and all the ways we attempt to justify ourselves.

Now you see how Jesus can make the blanket statement that to divorce and marry again inevitably results in adultery, because the “one flesh” union has been adulterated, and no amount of legal fiction will make it right. There are things done in this life you cannot undo, no matter how much you wish you could. If you kill someone, whether intentionally or unintentionally, you cannot bring them back to life, no matter how sorry you are and no matter how much you wish you could. So it is with the “one flesh” that results when male and female come together. You may wish it weren’t so, but a piece of paper won’t make it go away. The Law cannot help us here, something that ought not surprise us Lutherans who know not to look to the Law for our justification. And that’s really the crux of this. The Pharisees were using the Law to justify their divorces instead of seeing the gift for what she is.
There is a good reason we call marriage “holy” and bless it. We have all kinds of warm, bonded, close, committed relationship in our lives – family, friends, and the like. But there is one unique relationship that is blessed and set apart, that is the union of a man and a woman. It is holy and sacred. It is the means by which the human race is propagated. It is also, as the apostle Paul reminds us, an image of Christ and the Church – Christ the second Adam, the Church His Eve, taken from His wounded side in the water and the blood.

He could have divorced her, legally speaking. God could have put us all away for our countless spiritual adulteries and infidelities, file an eternal certificate of divorce, and be done with the whole thing. He had just cause, it would have been “lawful” for Him to do it. But He didn’t. LIke the prophet Hosea with his unfaithful wife, God woos His Church, He sets out to win her heart, to make us His own. Like a bride prepared for her wedding day, Christ washes His Church in a baptismal bath of water and the Word so that she would march down the aisle on her wedding day covered in the pure white of a righteousness not her own, but a gift from Christ, her Bridegroom. She is pure and lovely and radiant and holy in spite of her sins, in spite of what the Law says. She is covered with Jesus’ righteousness, and that is why she wears white on her wedding day.

There is no amount of legal loopholing that can undo our sin and its damages. A certificate of divorce cannot undo the “one flesh” that has been created. All the legal justifications in the world can’t justify us in our sins. Even if we have every blank filled in correctly, every box checked, every line properly filled in, all procedures followed to the letter, these will only be further evidence of the hardness of our hearts on the Last Day.

What matters finally and ultimately is Jesus. Not our legal bookkeeping, not our proper paperwork, but Jesus. Jesus, who became bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh by His incarnation. Jesus, humanity’s new Adam who brings life instead of death, justification instead of sin. Jesus, the One who does the will of His Father, and does it for all of us, and dies with our sin, our death, our rebellion, our corruption. Jesus, in whose His death we are born anew. And joined to Him in baptismal faith, we become “one flesh” with God in a union that transcends every union in this life including that of husband and wife, which is why we are neither married nor given in marriage in the resurrection. The lesser gives way to the greater, and the greatest union of all is our union with Christ in God.

Of this we now get a foretaste in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, a preview of the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. And in Christ we are at last free from all these legalisms – is it lawful, isn’t lawful – wrong questions, all of them. It is a gift from our good and gracious giver-God received in faith like a little child receiving the kingdom – trusting, receiving, wondering, praising, delighting in the manifold mercies of God.

In the name of Jesus,






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