“It was said also, ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement’:
but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).
Jesus addresses a matter controversial in almost every age.
It is no secret that marriage, divorce, and remarriage (MDR) issues are tearing the church and the Lord’s people apart. People prove too eager or not eager at all to discuss divorce and remarriage. Nevertheless, we do well to consider what Jesus is saying in context and to what end He says what He says.
In Matthew 5:31-32 Jesus speaks about divorce and remarriage as the third of six contrasts between “what was said” and what “I say unto you” in Matthew 5:21-48; these six statements are framed by Matthew 5:17-20 with the expectation that one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees to enter the Kingdom. The previous two contrasts both emphasized not only the avoidance of the physical behavior of sin but also the thoughts and feelings that lead to such behaviors: not just to not kill or commit adultery, but not to hate in one’s heart or look upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:21-30). In all these things the Pharisees would stress the letter of the Law and the physical behavior only; Jesus shows how those who would serve Him in His Kingdom must be as concerned about the heart and mind as the behaviors of the body. Yet this section of the “Sermon on the Mount” is not just about thoughts and feelings vs. behavior; Jesus will go on to exhort believers to not swear at all (Matthew 5:34) and to not resist the evil person (Matthew 5:39), behavior matters indeed. The consistent contrast is between what Jesus’ audience understood as not only the Law but the acceptable and approved interpretation thereof by the scribes and the Pharisees versus the greater standard of righteousness necessary to enter God’s Kingdom (Matthew 5:19-20, 23:1-2).
It is worth noting that Jesus only speaks of marriage, divorce, and remarriage when involved in conversations with or about Pharisees (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-9, Mark 10:1-12, Luke 16:18). The reason for this becomes clear in Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:1-12: the Pharisees attempt to test Jesus in terms of how to understand Moses’ legislation in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 and whether a man has the right to divorce his wife for almost any reason or only for sexually deviant behavior. Pharisaic understanding of the matter was no certain thing as is evident in Jewish sources:
The school of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he finds in her a matter of lewdness, as it says, “If he finds in her an unseemly thing” [Deuteronomy 24:1], but the school of Hillel say: Even if she burnt his food, as it says, “If he finds in her an unseemly thing”. Rabbi Akiva says: Even if he found one more beautiful than she, as it says, “If she should not find favour in his eyes” (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10).
A wide dispute within not just Second Temple Judaism but even among the Pharisees thus stand as a backdrop behind Jesus’ teachings about divorce and remarriage. In Matthew 5:31 He paraphrases Deuteronomy 24:1-2, having the entire scenario in view. He then declares that anyone who would thus put away his wife makes her to commit adultery, and that whoever would marry a woman thus having been put away commits adultery (Matthew 5:32). For many the way Jesus phrases His declaration seems curious: how can it be that a man divorcing his wife causes her to commit adultery? We do well to remember that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is case law based on a particular scenario in which a man might attempt to remarry a wife he had put away who in the meantime had been married to another man. Deuteronomy 24:4 declares such would be an abomination; he cannot have her back since she had been the wife of another. Thus in the legislation as written the assumption exists that the woman will take the certificate of divorce and become the wife of another man (Deuteronomy 24:2). Jesus is saying that in the Kingdom if a woman thus divorced went and became the wife of another, her (ex-)husband has proven guilty of the divorce and has put her in the position whereby she is committing adultery, and the new husband is committing adultery by being married to her as well (Matthew 5:32).
How can it be that marrying another means a person is committing adultery? Many suggest that Jesus is adding a new definition of adultery when in fact He is returning to the simplest definition of adultery: having sex with someone other than your spouse. On the surface Jesus’ statement does seem paradoxical yet is rooted in what He will declare in greater detail in Matthew 19:6: what God has joined man is not to separate. Man can commit the sin of separating what God joined, and God recognizes that he has done so; God does not legitimate that separation unless done because the spouse has committed sexually deviant behavior. Thus, according to the rule, if either spouse has sex with another person, they are having sex with someone other than the one to whom God joined them. This is the case when either the (active) divorcing spouse or the (passive) divorced spouse marry and have sex with another. Jesus’ statements are pretty clear and comprehensive. It is only because of sin that His truths regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage seem so difficult to understand.
Jesus’ contrast is blunt, shocking to His audience, but entirely consistent with what He has been saying. The Law and the Pharisees may justify divorce in many circumstances, but from the beginning it has not been so. God does not want separated what He has joined, either by sexually deviant behavior (which involves one spouse joining themselves to another, cf. 1 Corinthians 6:13-20) or by divorce. It may be a more difficult standard, but it is the standard of righteousness in the Kingdom of God in Christ. What God has joined let not man separate: may this be true of us in terms of both our spouse as well as with God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry