“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)
This text is certainly among passages of scripture that have chiefly caused pain down through the ages. Matthew sets out this teaching of Jesus in a very brief way that has causes people to think that this issue is cut and dried in Jesus’ mind. I believe that this has led to a lot of assumptions by well-meaning people who fail to catch all of the complexities of the situation Jesus is addressing. I will try to address these using the following points.
- Jesus was not addressing divorced people or even people considering divorce. He was addressing the scribes and the Pharisees whose teaching suggests that divorce is a God given right that Jewish men have to divorce their wives at their own pleasure. Jesus is being firm about the wrongness of their assumptions. He was teaching that lifelong exclusive marriage between a man and a woman is God’s desire. It is not a social convention. It is a fundamental building block of society that God has built into creation. Divorce is only to be used in the direst circumstances. It is not for the convenience of one party.
- It is hard to deny that divorce and remarriage are confusing for family relationships. We cannot deny what Jesus has said about remarriage. However according to Jesus the man who remarries is no worse than one who looks lustfully at woman. For a Christian our confidence does not lie in our ability to fulfill the law, but in in Christ’s fulfillment of the law for us. I don’t believe that Jesus was prohibiting divorce or denying people the opportunity to remarry. But he was asking everyone to carefully consider God’s concern for the sanctity of marriage itself.
- We live in an environment where divorce and remarriage are fairly common. Care must be taken to avoid harsh judgements of individuals. People who have experienced tragedy in their marriages need support and full integration into Christian community. In all ways the Holy Spirit’s work is to strengthen marriage. But it is also the Spirit’s work to bind up the broken hearted. Christ’s forgiveness covers all aspects of sin and human suffering. And our role in the kingdom is to love each other and fellow children of our Father as we walk in the newness of life in the Spirit today.
In summary, Jesus remarks about divorce in the Sermon on the Mount are not meant to establish a legalistic understanding about divorce. They are meant as evidence for how the scribes and the Pharisees have minimized God’s central concerns in the law. When people use callous justifications for breaking marriages they act contrary to the central teaching of Jesus. But the broken hearted refugees from dysfunctional marriages very much need the grace of Christ to find healing and wholeness.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)