Anyone Who Divorces His Wife (Matthew 5.31–32), Part 3


Over the past two days, I have made some pretty strong statements about marriage and divorce based on Matthew 5.31–32. To recap: The will of God for our sexuality is marriage, the lifelong “one flesh” relationship between a man and a woman (Gen. 1.23–24, Matt. 19.4­–6). From a biblical perspective, whatever tears the “one flesh” fabric of marriage is contrary to God’s will for our sexuality and is therefore sinful. This includes lust (Matt. 5.28), sex outside marriage (1 Cor. 6.9–10), adultery (Ex. 20.14), and divorce (Matt. 5.31–32).
 
We know that lust, extramarital sex, and adultery are always sinful, but is divorce always sinful? No. There are some circumstances in which divorce is a tragic but morally blameless action. We see this clearly if we look at the teachings of both Jesus and Paul on the subject.
 
Jesus talks about divorce at several points in the Gospels: Matthew 5.31–32, 19.1–9; Mark 10.1–12; and Luke 16.18. In each of these passages, he takes a very strong stand against divorce. But in the two passages from Matthew, he allows divorce for “marital unfaithfulness” (5.32, 19.9). The Greek word that the New International Version translates as “marital unfaithfulness” is porneia, which derives from the Greek word for prostitute and from which we get the word pornography. According to R. V. G. Tasker, porneia is “a comprehensive word, including adultery, fornication, and unnatural vice.” According to John Stott, it describes “some act of physical sexual immorality.” It is difficult to be more specific than these broad definitions.
 
Paul addresses the issue of divorce in 1 Corinthians 7.10–16. In that chapter, he responds to the Corinthian belief that celibacy is superior to marriage, a position with which he, as a celibate, partially agrees (7.1, 7). However, he disagrees with several conclusions the Corinthians mistakenly drew from that belief.
 
(1) Unlike the Corinthians, who discouraged marriage, Paul encourages marriage for those who do not have the spiritual gift of celibacy (7.1–7).
 
(2) Unlike the Corinthians, who discouraged married couples from having sex, Paul encourages married couples to have an active sex life. “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” (7.3).
 
(3) Unlike the Corinthians, who seem to have advised believers to separate, Paul encourages them stay together (7.10­–11).
 
And (4) unlike the Corinthians, who seem to have advised believers to divorce their unbelieving spouses, Paul encourages them to stay married (7.12–16). “How do you know, wife,” he asks, “whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (7.16). If the unbelieving spouse abandons the marriage, however, divorce is acceptable. “A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances” (7.15).
 
So, by examining the teachings of Jesus and Paul, we can conclude that the Bible allows divorce in two circumstances: adultery (broadly construed as some physical sexual immorality) and abandonment. Although the Bible does not address it specifically, I personally think abuse might serve as a third circumstance. The sexual abuse of a spouse or a child obviously constitutes porneia, after all. And persistent, extreme, and impenitent abuse—whether physically or emotionally—seems to be an abandonment of one’s marriage, in spirit of the vows, if not in fact. But as I said, this is only my personal opinion.
 
Here are two more personal opinions: (1) Many—perhaps most—divorces in America do not fall into these circumstances. And (2) many—perhaps most—of the marriages that are heading toward divorce can be saved, if biblical principles for marriage are followed and sound psychological counseling sought.
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Anyone Who Divorces His Wife (Matthew 5.31–32), Part 2


The will of God for our sexuality is marriage, which may be defined as the lifelong union of a man and a woman.
 
The writer of Genesis, after describing the creation of Adam and Eve, comments: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2.24). Paul cites this passage in his argument against prostitution (1 Cor. 6.16) and Jesus in his argument against divorce (Matt. 19.5). From a biblical perspective, whatever tears the “one flesh” fabric of marriage is contrary to God’s will for our sexuality and is therefore sinful. Such sins include lust (Matt. 5.28), sex outside marriage (1 Cor. 6.9–10), adultery (Ex. 20.14), and divorce (Matt. 5.31–32).
 
But is divorce really sinful? After all, the Old Testament allows divorce under certain circumstances (Deut. 24.1–4). However, it does not make similar allowances for lust or sex outside marriage. Does divorce really rise to the level of sinfulness?
 
Yes and no.
 
Yes. For example, a man who divorces his wife so that he can take up with another woman (or a wife who does so with her husband to take up with another man) has committed a sin, regardless of whether he (or she) committed adultery with the other person prior to the marriage’s dissolution.
 
And no. The innocent spouse in the example above has not committed a sin. She (or he) has been sinned against.
 
Why, then, does Jesus 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” (Matt. 5.32). This is a very hard saying. It seems to blame the victim. How, then, should we interpret it?
 
First, we should be careful not to explain it away. Jesus affirms that God’s will for our sexuality is marriage. Period. Whatever falls short of that ideal is sinful.
 
But second, the sinfulness of divorce is asymmetrical. Unless there is a just cause for the divorce, the divorcer is doubly guilty of his own actual adultery and that of his wife, if she remarries. He “causes” her to become an adulterer. Rabbinic interpretations of Deuteronomy 24.1–4 were husband-centered. Marriage existed at the pleasure—and dissolved at the displeasure—of the husband. Jesus’ phrasing of the issue forces the husband to look beyond his own pleasure or displeasure in order to see the consequences of his actions on his wife.
 
Third, there are circumstances under which divorce is permissible—“marital unfaithfulness.” More about that tomorrow.
 
Frankly, I am uncomfortable discussing Matthew 5.31–32. It is an intrinsically difficult passage to interpret, made all the more difficult by knowing the ugly details of divorces among my family, friends, parishioners, and neighbors. Divorce may sometimes be a sin, but it is always a tragedy. It always falls short of God’s ideal for the husband-wife relationship, even if it is justified. We must read and reread Jesus’ words against divorce, if only to remind ourselves of this fact.
 
But here’s another fact: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5.17). If, for whatever reason, divorce is in your past, Christ has a new future for you—a future of forgiveness of sin and healing of wounds.

Anyone Who Divorces His Wife (Matthew 5.31–32), PART 1


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In 2003, for every two new marriages beginning in America, an old marriage was ending in divorce.

According the National Center for Health Statistics, there were approximately 2,187,000 marriages celebrated in the United States in 2003. That results in a marriage rate of 0.75%, or 7.5 marriages per 1,000 people. The divorce rate for the same year was 0.38%, or 3.8 divorces per 1,000 people. (The divorce rate is actually higher since four states, including California, do not collect or report divorce statistics.)

Since a marriage involves two people, 2,187,000 marriages equal 4,374,000 men and women who married in 2003. The corresponding number of men and women who divorced was 2,216,160.

That’s a lot of people who might be offended by Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.31–32: “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.” In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples, divorce is a sin.

Those are pretty strong words in our divorce-prone culture, and they require some explanation, which I’ll do tomorrow. Today, however, I’d like to look at the flip side of Jesus’ words, for if divorce is a vice, surely marriage is a virtue.

In Matthew 19.1–12, Jesus engaged some Pharisees in an argument over divorce. They asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” This reflected a debate in their own circles between the strict position of Rabbi Shammai, who required a grave marital offence for divorce, and the lax position of Rabbi Hillel, who allowed divorce for just about any reason. Jesus sided with Shammai and reminded Hillel’s followers about God’s purpose for marriage with these words:

“Haven’t you read that in 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.”

One of God’s gifts to us is marriage. When I marry a couple, I read them the following words from the Book of Common Prayer: “The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.”

Mutual joy. Help and comfort. Procreation and nurture. Marriage is a virtue, especially if practiced virtuously. It is God’s intention for the men and women he created. Only when we see marriage in the light of God’s creative purposes can we begin to understand why Jesus took such a strong position against divorce.

If Your Right Eye Causes You to Sin (Matthew 5.29–30)


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Jesus says the craziest things.

For example, in Matthew 5.29–30, he says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for you whole body to go into hell.”

F. F. Bruce tells a true story about a controversy these verses occasioned in sixteenth-century England:

"Shortly after the publication of William Tyndale’s English New Testament [in 1526], the attempt [by the government] to restrict its circulation was defended on the ground that the simple reader might mistakenly take such language literally and "pluck out his eyes, and so the whole realm will be full of blind men, to the great decay of the nation and the manifest loss of the King’s grace; and thus by reading of the Holy Scriptures will the whole realm be brought into confusion."

Literal biblical interpretation is a hallmark of Protestant exegesis. But the meaning of “literal” can be confusing. A literal interpretation of Matthew 5.29–30 seems to require that we gouge out an eye and chop off a hand in order to overcome temptation. But Christians do not interpret this passage literally, as seen by the wholesale absence of one-eyed, left-handed people in our churches.

A better word than “literally” is “literarily.” We ought to interpret the Bible literarily, — according to the type of literature it employs. A historical narrative is not a poem is not a commandment is not a parable. Each genre follows different rules.

 What kind of statement is Jesus’ statement? Overstatement or hyperbole. In The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, Robert Stein interprets Matthew 5.29–30 in this way:

Tragically there have been instances in the history of the church in which Christians have interpreted these words literally and mutilated themselves. Yet self-mutilation clearly does not solve the problem, for if one removes the right eye, one is still able to lust with the left! Even the removal of the left eye will not solve the problem, because blind people can still think and lust, for it is not the eyes that causes us to lust but the ‘heart.’ What Jesus was seeking to convey to his listeners by this use of overstatement was the need to remove from their lives anything that might cause them to sin. There is no sin in life worth perishing over. Better to repent of that sin, even if it is as painful as tearing out an eye or cutting off a hand, and as a result enter the kingdom of God than to cherish that sin and be thrown into hell. Jesus is saying in effect, "Tear out anything in your life that is causing you to sin and keeping you from God."

 
 
 
 

Adultery in His Heart (Matthew 5.27–28)


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In Matthew 5.27–28, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

If adultery begins in the heart, then a lot of us are adulterers.

But we don’t like to think of ourselves as adulterers. We usually rationalize our lust—what a strong word!—with the phrase, “I was only looking,” as if looking were a morally harmless activity. Looking is not always so innocent, however. A man who peers through your bedroom window late at night is hardly innocent, even though he hasn’t “done” anything to you. He’s a “peeping Tom.” A woman who cases a mall in order to see which stores are easiest to shoplift isn’t innocent; she’s a thief in the making. Whether by itself or linked to a consequent action, looking is charged with moral significance.

So, Jesus warns us against looking lustfully at a woman other than your wife. Obviously, the same warning applies to you women looking lustfully at men other than your husbands. Call it the “Desperate Housewives” Rule (after the show on ABC). But if looking is not always innocent, not looking is almost always difficult. It’s hard not to look when sex is always on display.

Is it just me, or does is seem like sex is everywhere in our visual media? A few years back, Abercrombie & Fitch raised a ruckus when it included naked pictures of twenty-something models in its clothing catalogue. Usually models wear the clothes they’re selling, but A&F knew it would sell clothing if it marketed sex. The same is true of other products. When was the last time you saw an ad in which the guy who uses the product ends up with an ugly woman in frumpy clothing? Sex sells, sales drive profits, and profits motivate corporate officers. So, those same officers sign off on marketing campaigns saturated with sex.

Consequently, we find ourselves in a bind: Jesus tells us not to look, but our culture is taking off its clothes everywhere we look. What should we do?

Martin Luther once said that you can’t stop a bird from flying overhead, but you can stop it from building a nest in your hair. In that spirit, I say, turn off the TV. Stop looking at those magazines (Maxim if you’re male, Cosmo if you’re female.) Avoid movies with gratuitous sex and nudity. And—here’s the important part—cultivate intimacy with your spouse.

You see, the main point of Jesus’ teaching isn’t just negative. Sure, he prohibits adultery and lust. But the prohibition is a negative means to a positive end, and that end is marriage. Jesus wants us to have spiritually, emotionally, and physically satisfying marriages that last our whole lives’ long. The beginning step is to stop looking at other women and start paying more attention to your wife. (And ladies, the “Desperate Housewives” Rule still applies.)

Settle Matters Quickly (Matthew 5.25–26)


Regarding anger, Aristotle wrote, “We praise a man who is angry on the right grounds, against the right persons, in the right manner, at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”
 
Aristotle lays out five common-sense criteria that must be satisfied for anger to be justified rather than condemned. Although Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5.21–22 seems to condemn anger out of hand, a fuller consideration of the Gospels shows that even he was angry occasionally. According to Mark 3.5, for example, Jesus became “angry” at the “stubborn hearts” of his murderous critics. What Jesus condemns is unjustified anger, in other words, not anger per se. There is something wrong with a person who does not became angry when he sees sin and injustice wreaking havoc on innocent lives.
 
In Matthew 5.25–26, Jesus says, “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5.25–26).
 
The adversary Jesus mentions satisfies Aristotle’s five criteria of justified anger. He is angry on the right grounds (an unpaid debt), against the right person (the debtor), in the right manner (using legal means to collect the debt), at the right moment (the debt has gone unpaid for some time), and for the right length of time (when the last penny is paid). His actions against his debtor are legitimate.
 
But notice that Jesus addresses his remarks not to the adversary but to the debtor. By doing so, he asks and answers a simple question: How do we deal with our adversaries when they are right? Simple: We repent.
 
Notice Jesus’ specific words: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary…. Do it while you are still with him on the way.” To settle matters with a creditor means repaying a debt or making an offer in compromise. If you have done something wrong to another person, repentance involves restitution.
 
And doing so quickly! Jesus advises us to try to settle matters right up to the courthouse door. We live in a highly litigious society. No doubt the amount of lawsuits would drop precipitously if both plaintiff and defendant agreed to work out their problem in good faith and on their own.
 
What is necessary to accomplish such an outcome? A little grace on the part of the person who has been wronged, and a little humility on the part of the wrongdoer. That is easy to say, of course, but not less true because of the ease. Unfortunately, you cannot force your adversary to be nice if you’re the debtor. But your actions are under your control. So, settle matters quickly. If you do, you won’t give anyone cause to be angry with you.

First Go and Be Reconciled to Your Brother (Matthew 5.23–24)


 
Whenever you see the word therefore in Scripture, you should ask what it’s there for.
 
In Matthew 5.23–24, Jesus says: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
 
What’s “therefore” there for?
 
Obviously, it connects Jesus’ words about anger (verses 21–22) to his words about reconciliation (verses 23–24). We should not be angry with our brother—whether biological or spiritual; instead, we should be reconciled to him.
 
And yet, there is a subtle shift of emphasis between verses 21–22 and 23–24. I would have said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that you have something against your brother, etc.” Notice the difference? I would have addressed my remarks to angry people who need to forgive. But Jesus addressed his remarks to people who need to be forgiven by those they have angered. Jesus’ approach is the way of true wisdom.
 
Why?
 
First, reconciliation with those who have angered us follows logically from what Jesus says about the hellish dangers of anger. We forgive them, if not for their sakes, then simply for our own. Jesus does not draw this conclusion explicitly, however, because it is implicit.
 
Second, Jesus wants us to be proactive about reconciliation. When we have sinned against another person, we rationalize our sin by citing his sins—whether real and imagined—against us. (To rationalize a sin is simply to offer a “rational lie” for it.) We then wait for him to ask our forgiveness before we ask him to forgive us. Alternatively, when we have sinned against another person, we feel so ashamed that we are too embarrassed to ask him for forgiveness. It is hard to admit that we are wrong, after all, and even harder to wait for another’s mercy. The way of Jesus demands that we overcome both our rationalizing pride and our embarrassed humility. It requires that we take the lead in reconciliation, whether we are the sinner or the sinned against.
 
Third, reconciliation is more important to Jesus than religion. Notice exactly how proactive Jesus encourages us to be. He encourages his hearers to leave their offerings at the altar if they need to be reconciled to a brother or sister. This is like saying, “Therefore, if you are listening to the Sunday sermon and suddenly remember that your brother has something against you, stand up and leave. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come back and finish the sermon.” Obeying Jesus’ commandments is more important than hearing a sermon, although a sermon should help you obey Jesus’ commandments.
 
So, does someone have something against you? Do you have something against him? Go and seek reconciliation, right now—whether you are wrong or right! That is the way of Jesus Christ.

Anyone Who Is Angry Will Be Subject to Judgment (Matthew 5.21–22)


It is relatively easy not to murder a man. I know. I am thirty-five years old, and I have never murdered anyone. Nor do I intend to in the next thirty-five years of my life. You probably haven’t and don’t too.
 
If righteousness consisted of not doing what the vast majority of us would never do anyway, then we’d all be extremely righteous. But Jesus calls his disciples to practice a righteousness that “surpasses” or goes above and beyond minimalist expectations of decent behavior.
 
Notice, in this regard, what Jesus says about murder in Matthew 5.21–22: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
 
Several important points need to be made about this pronouncement. First, the contrast Jesus draws between “You have heard that it was said” and “But I tell you” is a contrast between traditional interpretations of the Law and his own. It is not a contrast between the Old Testament law and Jesus’ commandment (although some commentators argue this). When Jesus introduces a quotation from the Old Testament, he typically says, “It is written” (e.g., Matt. 4.4, 7, 10). The phrase “it was said” more commonly introduces a rabbinic interpretation of the law.
 
Second, Jesus traces murder to its source in anger. Over the past year, I have become an aficionado of crime shows, especially “Cold Case Files.” This show examines real murder cases from the “cold case” (or long unsolved case) files of various metropolitan police departments. A common element of these cases is the anger of the murderer toward his (rarely her) victim. According to Jesus, what the law really prohibits is both the murderous action and the murderous attitude. Overcoming anger is part of the surpassing righteousness Jesus requires of his disciples.
 
And that leads to the third point. Overcoming anger means getting control of one’s tongue. Anger may begin in the heart, but its first manifestation is usually speech. So Jesus warns us not to demean our neighbors through insulting terms, like calling someone a “fool” (literally, “moron”). Hell is the divine judgment against such abusive name calling.
 
As I said at the outset, it is relatively easy not to murder a man. It is harder to stifle an insult, and far harder still to get control of one’s temper. Speaking only for myself, if anger and insult are the true threshold of murder, than I am a killer many times over. Perhaps you are too. What Jesus wants of us is not a minimal conformity to easily obeyed commandments, but a maximal commitment to serious heart change. Only a changed heart surpasses the otherwise easily attainable righteousness of the Pharisees.

Unless Your Righteousness Surpasses (Matthew 5.20)


According to the rabbis, the Law of Moses contains 611 commandments. They touch upon every aspect of human existence, sometimes in embarrassing detail.
 
A while ago, reflecting on the number, variety, and intricacy of the Old Testament laws, a parishioner remarked how glad she was that Christians are “not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6.14). She did not believe she could remember, let alone obey, all those commandments.
 
Without knowing it, this woman had made two theological mistakes. The first was to think that the Law of Moses plays no role whatsoever in the Christian life. To this way of thinking, law is for Jews, but grace is for Christians. Theologians call this idea antinomianism, from the Greek words anti (“against”) and nomos (“law”). It teaches that there is no grace in the Old Testament and no law in the New.
 
But the Old Testament is shot through with grace. Consider this description of God in Exodus 34.6–7a: “And [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin….”
 
Moreover, law is found in the New Testament. Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5.17). Paul writes, “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13.10). Of course, Christians understand and apply the Law of Moses differently than observant Jews do, but the law still plays a role in our spiritual and moral development.
 
Which brings me to my parishioner’s second theological mistake: the assumption that Christians can play fast and loose with the commandments because grace is so readily available to them. Jesus rejects that assumption when he says, “For I tell you the truth that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5.20). To follow Jesus is to strive for greater, not lesser, personal holiness and social justice.
 
Indeed, such surpassing righteousness is an intended outcome of Jesus’ ministry. In Jeremiah 31.33, God promised: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time…. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” As the writer of Hebrews explains in chapter eight of his letter, this promise finds its fulfillment in Jesus’ ministry. (Pay close attention to verses 6–12.)
 
In other words, contrary to antinomians, grace does not destroy the commandments. Quite the contrary! Grace makes an ever-increasing obedience to God both desirable and possible. My parishioner quoted part of Romans 6.14. I’ll quote it fully: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.”
 
God has given us grace. Let us keep his commandments!

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