Matthew 5:31-32

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32

Given that roughly 50% of all marriages end in divorce, a statistic that hasn’t moved much over the years, this is always a tough Bible text to read. There are people – I know because they have told me – that purposefully skip worship when they know that this will be the assigned text for the week. I get that.

As I noted yesterday, “People, and their quality of life, obviously matter to Jesus. Again and again here in the Sermon on the Mount that is the key to understanding what Jesus is teaching.” That is also the case with Jesus’ words on divorce. I want to notice three things.

First, deeper than the dissolution of a marriage, Jesus is attacking the way that women had been victimized by the ease with which men threw them to the curb, justifying themselves by use of the religious ritual laws. Consider Deuteronomy 24:1-4, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.”

I included all four verses to demonstrate how easily a man could throw a woman away,”he finds something objectionable about her”. And do note that the entire point of this is protecting a man’s ritual purity. The woman is no more important than the tent out of which she was thrown. This, Jesus absolutely denounces and rightfully so.

Second, consider Jesus’ words from Mark 10:2-12, “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Did you notice here that Mark – a copy of which I believe the writer of Matthew had right in front of him as he wrote – says nothing about “unchastity” as justifiable grounds for divorce. Even Matthew, in quoting Jesus attacking the divorce loophole in Deuteronomy, adds a new loophole that isn’t there in Mark. That is what we do to the law and Jesus knows that the powerless usually end up with the short end of the stick.

Believe me, I know how painful divorce can be, not only to the marriage partners but to their children, their extended families, their friendship networks. I also know that marriage partners are not property to be dispensed with when they have outlived their usefulness or novelty. But sometimes marriages end. Sometimes they need to end. Sometimes the pain and damage of staying together is worse than the pain and damage of divorcing. We are not called to judge but to love and few need the comfort and support of community more than those who suffer through the emotional and practical pain of ending a marriage. There is life after divorce.

Finally, when Jesus quotes Genesis in this reading from Mark the deeper point that he is making is not about the gender of the marriage partners but about how the partnership of marriage is rooted, not merely in human tradition or property rights, but in God’s will for how life works. Marriage isn’t for everyone but for those who choose to share their lives with another person, marriage is intended to be about trust, safety, love, mutual respect, and wholeness.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for the gift of marriage and the deep joy that comes from shared lives. We pray today for continued healing within those who have suffered the losses on both sides of a divorce, both the before and that after. We pray today for humility and honesty, that we might be encouraged to do all it takes to protect and nurture marriages. We pray for forgiveness, for peace, for insight, and for hope. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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3 Responses to “Matthew 5:31-32”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you so much for this post and perspective, Pastor Kerry.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Jesus did not say “For this reason a person shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his partner, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” He specifically said a “man” and a “wife.”

  3. Carolee Groux Says:

    Hebrews 13: 4-7
    4 “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” 6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” 7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”
    I thank God for the gift of marriage and pray that we will always strive to protect and cherish our marriages and have faith and joy in our partnerships. May God continue to bless and be an integral part of our marriage vows.

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