“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.”
The people of Jesus’ day were interested in the legality of divorce. They wanted to nail down the exact parameters for carrying it out, convinced that if they did it in the right way, then it was okay. They’d understood from the Law that a certificate of divorce should be given. That must make it legitimate, right? But there was also the ongoing debate over the justifiable basis for divorce – was it just for issues of marital unfaithfulness or was divorce actually allowable for “any and every reason,”a position the Pharisees would later put to Jesus (Matthew 19:3)?
Jesus takes a different approach entirely. Rather than approving the correct method of proceeding, he casts the whole thing in a new light. And it’s not flattering.
Everyone at the time agreed that adultery was sin. Indeed, just moments before, Jesus had intensified the Law’s teaching against adultery by applying it equally to lust that wells up in the heart and mind. One is as bad as the other, Jesus says. Adultery is sin; so is lust. Now he stretches the sinfulness of adultery in a further direction, stretching it outward to wrap its arms around divorce. One is as bad as the other, Jesus implies. It’s clear that adultery is sin, but divorce, equally with adultery, is a breaking of the bonds of marriage. Divorce, then, is tainted, just like adultery itself.
In the culture of the day, it was the man who held the initiative. When a husband divorced his wife, the assumption was that the wife needed to re-marry, for otherwise she would have little ability to provide for herself. Her former husband, then, was pushing her into a context in which she would be committing adultery, entering into a new relationship outside her original marriage covenant. Likewise, her new husband, the man who took her in and married her, would be doing the same. And since the original husband was the one initially responsible, unfaithfulness ending up touching each one.
Divorce is much more serious than the people of Jesus’ day were taking it. Similarly now.
Flipping the whole discussion around, it spotlights Jesus’ high view of marriage. After all, he created it. He wants to preserve it. Faithfulness is the standard – it’s the context in which the goodness of the Lord’s design can be lived and experienced. Unfaithfulness in all its forms harms it, undermines it, and therefore is out of line with God’s will.
What, then, for those who have gone through divorce, either by their own initiative, or their partner’s choice, or through mutual breakdown of relationship?
Allow Jesus to speak. The words of his sermon speak conviction – at different points, for different ones – to each and every person. Jesus intends it. But not for ongoing pain or sorrow or guilt or remorse. Rather to lead us to him. As he has come to fulfil the Law, he has come to save us in our need, to heal broken hearts, to bind up wounds, and to speak new life over us. Receive his teaching and yield to his grace.
It all takes us back to the opening words of this sermon:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:3-4).
Lord, thank you for your direct words. Thank you for your passion to preserve the goodness of marriage. Thank you for grace that meets us in our need.
Please sustain marriages. Please pour out grace and peace on those who experience brokenness. Your kingdom come, your will be done.
Pray: Think of a married couple (or two) – pray the Lord’s grace and peace upon them. Think of a friend who has experienced divorce – pray the same grace and peace.