The Gospel of Matthew:
Marriage and Israel’s Story
Part One: September 2022
Jesus revealed the great dignity of marriage when he was born into a human family. He revealed his glory for the first time at a wedding in the small Galilean town of Cana, and he acted as Israel’s long-awaited bridegroom in his interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well. In the next two sections of this study (September and October), we will use the Gospel of Matthew to examine what Jesus said about marriage, how he used marriage to describe his work and mission, and what he said about divorce. Jesus used the wedding feast as a parable for the kingdom of God in his various recountings of Israel’s story, and he announced that the long-awaited wedding of God and his people was about to begin. Jesus is the bridegroom; he is Israel’s God come to claim his bride. The long-awaited day of the Lord is here!
John the Baptist understood the story of Israel in much the same way that Jesus did. He was convinced that this was the time that Israel’s God had chosen to act. We know from his fiery comments to those who came down from Jerusalem to spy on him while he was baptizing in the Jordan River that he fully expected the day of the Lord to arrive, and with it, a terrible judgment on Jerusalem (Luke 3:1–17). John was steeped in the prophetic tradition, and he saw himself as being not unlike Isaiah or Jeremiah. His words about the axe being laid to the root are highly evocative of the language of the Assyrian king in Isaiah 10. Now the “axe in the hand of God” is Rome! John believed that this was the time that God would send his Christ, and he makes the connection to the bridegroom this way:
“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore, this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:28–30)
When Jesus was asked why both the Pharisees and the disciples of John fasted and his disciples did not, he said:
“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” (Mark 2:19–20)
Jesus was deeply in tune with the prophetic tradition. He claimed that now that the Day of the Lord was here, it was no longer time for fasting (see Zechariah 8:18–23). Further, guests at a wedding not only do not fast, but as Jesus demonstrated, they celebrate sometimes with extravagant gifts and lots of wine.
Also, in keeping with the prophets, Jesus understood that marriage was for a lifetime, and like them, he was opposed to divorce (see Malachi 2:10–16). He was critical of the pharisaical approaches to divorce and the profound misunderstanding of the Scriptures on the part of almost all of the leaders of Israel—not only about marriage, but about all aspects of the kingdom of God, and what it meant to be faithful Israel. The permanence of marriage spoke of the faithfulness of his Father to the covenant, the marriage of the one God to his chosen people. And now with his arrival, the long exile was finally ending. That meant that the old decree of divorce that represented the shame of Israel and her folly of going after false gods was being torn up. The bridegroom was at hand, and it was time for his wedding feast. Tragically, they did not recognize that; they did not know the time of their visitation (Luke 19:44).
Other questions and concerns faced the young church as it tried to find its way in the thoroughly Roman world of the first century of the Common Era. Jesus said nothing about the concerns that would come up later in the young Christian communities about how husbands and wives should relate to each other (see Ephesians 5:21–33, for example), or about codes of behavior for children and slaves in a household (see Ephesians 6:1–9). That is not to say he had no opinion, but it is to say that he is not recorded has having talked about it.
Jesus’ clear respect for the dignity and permanence of marriage, his affirmation of its special value as a metaphor for what God was doing in the world, and his deep love for his mother and the other women in his life was revolutionary, and highly subversive of the approach of both the Romans and the Jews.