Sitting on the Mountainside-Studies in The Sermon on the Mount

Day 23: “Divorce” 09.03.2018

Matthew 5:31-32 (NIV) “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.”

Divorce. A tough and tender reality. Painful to families. Hurt hearts. Sometimes it seems as if almost everyone we know has been divorced. Years ago, when our sons were little, one of them brought up divorce at the dinner table. He was maybe in fifth grade or so. He said “Ya’ know, I think I might be the only kid in my class who has his own original parents! Everyone’s got an extra mom or dad and other grandparents.” Then he looked at Donna and me and asked, “Are you guys ever gonna’ get divorced?” We said “No. No matter what happens. No way.”

Regrettably, divorce is almost as common in the church today as it is in the society in general. There are so many instances of non-marrieds living together without a marriage covenant. They are “trying things out.” Yet, that hasn’t diminished divorce rates. Some even admit to “starter marriages.” Fully understanding that they might “move on” if things get boring. So, divorce is as common as fast food in today’s America.

As background let’s remember as we sit and listen to Jesus … what he said earlier. That we are to be people longing for spirituality and mournful about our world, and meek and hungry for righteousness, and merciful and pure in heart. Peacemakers willing to endure persecution. So, Jesus is saying “If this is you, then you will behave in the following ways. Our attitudes will be as follows.” Then he goes on to talk about these real-life questions. Including divorce. Consider exactly what he said:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’”

Who said that? To whom is Jesus referring? In the “Mishnah” (the written collection of the Jewish oral traditions) it said that a man should give an unsatisfactory wife a certificate of divorce that made it clear the marriage was severed. Hence, she would be free to marry again. In the first century, including among the Jews, divorce was common. That was a patriarchal society in which women had few if any rights or options. Such a certificate was an attempt to free the woman if her husband no longer desired her as his wife.

Now, Jesus is about to stun his listeners by telling them that this act of executing a “certificate of divorce” was itself quite unacceptable for any reason except one. We hear him say:

“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.”

Once again, Jesus is claiming the right to supersede the teaching of even the most famous rabbis. Now, in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the similar passage is not as complete. As we sit on the mountainside, we hear Jesus say something that is more developed. Namely: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness…” Marital unfaithfulness includes the Greek word “porneia” from which we get “pornography.” Jesus is specifically referring to sexual infidelity. This then is the only exception that Jesus offers. His point is that a marriage covenant is so sacred and permanent, that it should NEVER be broken. In Matthew we read:

Matthew 19:3-6 (NIV) “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?’ ‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at 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.’”

Now, back to the mountainside. We might put up a hand and say “Excuse me Jesus. We heard you say at another time that man must never break apart what God has joined. But now you are saying it can be broken if there has been marital unfaithfulness. Ok…adultery is very bad but why is it bad enough to justify divorce?”
At this point, I am uneasy imagining the response of Jesus. But I think the answer lies in the fact that when a married person literally joins himself or herself sexually to another, not their spouse, they have, in a sense married that person.

In other words, by entering into sexual union with someone, we are entering into what God designed to be a marriage. After all, what did Jesus say was the primary indicator of marriage? “The two become one flesh.” My own thinking is that Jesus offers the “exception” allowing divorce because the unfaithful partner has already divorced their spouse by their unfaithfulness.

An important question should be considered: were these words of Jesus all that can ever be said about divorce? Paul certainly seems to suggest that desertion would be a valid reason to dissolve a marriage. Consider:

1 Corinthians 7:15 (NIV) “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”

Volumes have been written on this subject. From a pastoral point of view, sometimes divorce, even when there has been no adultery, must be considered. I have, at times, encouraged the dissolution of a marriage when there is ongoing abuse and even danger to one party in a marriage. But the Lord Jesus Christ was saying something deeper. He was saying that the true disciple ought to honor God by keeping the marriage covenant. He was not saying that a violated party must divorce the unfaithful partner, but that they may if they choose to do so.

I have known a few people who forgave the violation and resumed their marriage successfully to the person who had betrayed them. I’ve never told anyone so violated that they really should do that. But it is a work of grace to see that happen. Indeed, it is an example of these words: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”

Peace. Pastor Alberta

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