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In 2003, for every two new marriages beginning in America, an old marriage was ending in divorce.
According the National Center for Health Statistics, there were approximately 2,187,000 marriages celebrated in the United States in 2003. That results in a marriage rate of 0.75%, or 7.5 marriages per 1,000 people. The divorce rate for the same year was 0.38%, or 3.8 divorces per 1,000 people. (The divorce rate is actually higher since four states, including California, do not collect or report divorce statistics.)
Since a marriage involves two people, 2,187,000 marriages equal 4,374,000 men and women who married in 2003. The corresponding number of men and women who divorced was 2,216,160.
That’s a lot of people who might be offended by Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.31–32: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples, divorce is a sin.
Those are pretty strong words in our divorce-prone culture, and they require some explanation, which I’ll do tomorrow. Today, however, I’d like to look at the flip side of Jesus’ words, for if divorce is a vice, surely marriage is a virtue.
In Matthew 19.1–12, Jesus engaged some Pharisees in an argument over divorce. They asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” This reflected a debate in their own circles between the strict position of Rabbi Shammai, who required a grave marital offence for divorce, and the lax position of Rabbi Hillel, who allowed divorce for just about any reason. Jesus sided with Shammai and reminded Hillel’s followers about God’s purpose for marriage with these words:
“Haven’t you read that in the beginning the Creator made them male and female, 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’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
One of God’s gifts to us is marriage. When I marry a couple, I read them the following words from the Book of Common Prayer: “The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.”
Mutual joy. Help and comfort. Procreation and nurture. Marriage is a virtue, especially if practiced virtuously. It is God’s intention for the men and women he created. Only when we see marriage in the light of God’s creative purposes can we begin to understand why Jesus took such a strong position against divorce.