“It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)
Divorce is a huge and painful issue; I’m not, in this post, going to give advice or attempt a clinical commentary on allowable or not allowable.
Instead I want to attempt a recalibration.
I would argue that’s what Jesus is doing here too; every moral teaching in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is not a new law but a reorientation to an old one. He’s not changing the law but changing the way we understand and relate to it.
The Old Testament Law on Divorce
I know that’s controversial in itself. Some say that Jesus WAS changing the law here. But he wasn’t. I can prove that.
To change the law of Moses was a mortal sin, and as a Jewish man “born under the law,” himself bound to the Father through the Hebrew covenant, Jesus could not change the law without making himself a sinner.
Anyway, nothing about this needs changing.
Last week I said that Jesus’s words on divorce are part of his words about lust, not a separate topic; and as we saw there, the crux of that passage isn’t so much reining in natural desires as it is marital faithfulness—not in act only but also in the mind and in the heart.
Your body belongs to your spouse; in this sense, so do your thoughts. It is no more okay or harmless to look at porn within marriage or to follow other women with your eyes than it is to actually cheat on your wife. Ask any woman who’s caught her husband doing this how deep the pain and betrayal go.
Love can’t and shouldn’t be compartmentalized. In a commitment as entire as marriage— “they are no longer two, but one flesh,” the Bible tells us—love has to involve all of you.
I pointed out, too, that I see a possible connection between Jesus’s sarcastic/hyperbolic/slant (maybe) “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” and the tendency throughout history of human beings to throw one another under the bus.
We would recoil in horror at the idea of actually dismembering ourselves but think nothing of cutting off and throwing away another person, even a spouse.
That’s where the link is: that’s why Jesus goes to divorce here. I’ll tip my hand: I DON’T believe Jesus was talking straight with all that “cut off your hand and gouge out your eye” business; I think he wanted his listeners to react with horror at the thought, and then he let them know that’s what divorce is.
If you would go to great lengths, any length, to preserve your right hand or your right eye, why do you look for the quickest way out of preserving your marriage?
The Bible’s radical teaching is that marriage makes one entity out of two entities: that when a man and woman are joined in marriage they are not two bodies any longer but one.
Nothing Here Is New
People who say Jesus changed the law here generally put the emphasis on remarriage: the Old Testament said it was okay to remarry, but Jesus says it isn’t; remarriage is adultery, so divorced Christians should not remarry.
Some will go so far as to say that Christians who are in a second marriage should divorce their second spouse and return to the first because only the first marriage is valid in God’s eyes; I’ve taken issue with that at length elsewhere.
(If you are interested, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and my assistant will send you a PDF on the topic.)
The claim is also made that Jesus is giving new revelation here: people in the Old Testament didn’t know remarriage was adultery.
Both claims are false. Jesus was not actually telling the people anything new here. They were perfectly aware that remarriage constituted adultery under the Old Covenant, it’s just that it was an allowable adultery. Briefly, in Scripture the word “adultery” is synonymous with the word “defilement”; to “adulterate” something (even in English) is to “defile” it, to make it impure or unclean.
Although defilement is always a negative in the Old Covenant, under certain circumstances it could be allowed, so Moses isn’t inconsistent when he allows remarriage. Again, the Jewish people were perfectly aware that remarriage was defiling; see Deuteronomy 24:4.
So Jesus isn’t telling anybody anything new here. He’s reminding them of something they already know.
In the process, recalibrating them.
Provision and Protection
Because here’s the thing: in the Old Covenant, Moses permitted divorce and remarriage as a form of protection, specifically for women. The cultural background is this: men, who had all the legal and actual power, would reject their wives and send them away, and those rejected women had nowhere to go. Since the entire economy revolved around households and farms, a woman without a household had no means of providing for herself, no protection, and no home.
Historically such women have typically ended up in prostitution.
To protect rejected women, Moses ordered that any man who wanted to send his wife away had to write her a certificate of divorce. In other words, he had to give her papers that gave her a legal status and rights. With these papers, she could marry someone else, without fear of being stoned as an adulteress or labeled a prostitute. She could gain the protection and provision of a wife in a husband’s household again, because her first husband set her free to do so.
No, Jesus is not snatching that protection away from women in the New Covenant. That would not be moral or loving at all.
Rather, he’s addressing men who were abusing the law. The law was given to protect women, but instead, men were turning it into a license to reject their wives for any reason and whenever they wanted to.
Instead of dignifying women with this provision of Moses’s, they were using it as a get-out-of-marriage-free card for themselves.
That was never its intent.
Jesus’s words here are a smack upside the head, especially to Pharisees and religious people who were waving the law of Moses around as a justification for forgetting all about Genesis 2 and the “one flesh” reality: You’re not fooling anyone, Jesus is telling them; that right you’re waving around is a filthy rag.
The provision is a provision to protect the vulnerable from the consequences of something tragic and awful.
Marriage creates a new life; divorce is a living death. Stop treating it like a game.
That’s the point.
What do I take from all this, ultimately?
I’m not married, never have been. The topic of consecrated singleness is one I can speak on with personal authority. Marriage is not.
But I can draw a few conclusions from Jesus that apply to me too.
First, that Christians ought to stand for the sanctity of marriage. Jesus treats the one-flesh union of husband and wife as incredibly sacred.
Second, that God cares about the vulnerable and looks out for their needs, and that although his standards are black and white, he provides for people who find themselves swimming in a gray world.
Third, that provision should never be turned into license. This doesn’t just apply to marriage and divorce. Who hasn’t heard of “greasy grace”? How many times have we taken Jesus promise of forgiveness as license to sin? How many times do we wave our get-out-of-jail-free cards in the air instead of exulting and glorifying in actual victory over sin?
Yes, we will be forgiven when we sin, but we are called to live in holiness. Yes, God is patient with us, but we’re meant to live consecrated lives.
Jesus is more compassionate than anyone who ever lived. Compassionate enough to take our sins on himself and die with them on the cross in the ultimate act of deep, painful empathy.
But he also has the highest standards of anyone who ever lived. Moral excellence—faithfulness, purity, self-sacrifice, radical fidelity—is the way of Christ.
No matter what the world, or the church, may say.
(This is Part 48 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)