Matthew 5:31-32 (NRSV)
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But 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.
If you were here last Sunday you may recall that my sister-in-law was in town from Omaha for the weekend. Omaha is not close to Staunton, Virginia, so she took one of those things that flies around and moves a lot quicker than a car. She flew in and out of Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. So this past Monday Paxton and I took her back to DC so she could get back home.
On the way to the airport there were three of us in the car. If you have ever driven into DC taking 66, you know that there is something special about the far left lane. It has a diamond painted on the surface of the road and a sign overhead with the letters “HOV” printed on the sign. This is, of course, the carpool lane.
The carpool lane is a beautiful thing. If you have two or more people in your car, you can use the carpool lane. This means that as I drove to DC with Sonya’s sister and Paxton we used the carpool lane and other people had to sit in traffic while we drove past at high speeds and just waved. The purpose of the carpool lane is for people who are trying to get to work or to get back from work to be able to use this special lane if they share a ride and therefore reduce the amount of traffic on the road.
Paxton and I spent a little extra time in DC and then headed home after dropping Stacy off at the airport and we began to drive home as traffic was beginning to pick up on the way out of the city. So as traffic was starting to thicken, we merged into that left lane with the triangle and the letters “HOV” on the sign above the lane. And as I drove along at those high speeds, waving at the people stuck in traffic, I began to wonder, “Can I legally use the carpool lane when it is only me and the baby?”
We technically met the requirements to use the carpool lane by having two people in the car. Sure, one of those people stands less than three feet tall, has a vocabulary of about 10 words, and refers to any fuzzy animal as a puppy. But he has a heartbeat, skin, and bones. On the other hand, the purpose of the carpool lane is to encourage people to ride to and from work together to save an additional car from being on the road. Paxton would not have driven by himself if he had not ridden with me.
What does any of this have to do with divorce and remarriage? Absolutely nothing. All of that is to say that there are some grey areas when it comes to interpreting laws and rules. There are and will always be questions that we don’t have all of the answers for, and different people will likely interpret the rules differently.
We have been working through Matthew chapter 5 for the last six weeks. We will take two more weeks after this Sunday to finish up the chapter before we begin our Lent series. I hope that we have all been challenged by Jesus’ words and I hope that I have helped to clarify what his teachings mean for us in the 21st century. Today’s passage is a complicated one. It is complicated because there probably isn’t a person here whose life hasn’t been affected in some way by divorce. Maybe your parents, an aunt, an uncle, a brother or sister, or you yourself have been through a divorce. Surely each and every one of us has someone in our life that has had to deal with issues surrounding divorce and remarriage at some point.
With this in mind, I will try to do my best to present today’s sermon in a gentle and loving way without sugar coating what the Bible has to teach about divorce. And what the Bible has to teach might surprise some of you, just as it has surprised me as I have studied this brief, two verse long passage this week. So what we will do today is look at a couple different perspectives on this topic and then I will end this morning by sharing with you where I am at personally on the topic of divorce and remarriage.
Divorce is not a new subject. We know that this is a subject that was being debated as far back as 3,300 years ago when Moses was given the Law. This is what Jesus is referring to when he says, “You have heard it said that anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” This is found in Deuteronomy chapter 24.
To understand what this certificate of divorce was about, we need to remember how women were viewed in 3,300 years ago. Today’s modern woman can be as independent as she wants to be. Women make up a large percentage of the work force; women are involved in every profession and hold any position. They do not need to rely on a man to provide food and shelter for them. But in the days of Moses, women were seen as property. Some men acquired a lot of “property”, just look at Solomon. And women were sent away just as easily as they were acquired. If a man didn’t care for a woman, he could just send her away. Divorce was that easy and that common.
The problem with this is that there was not a lot a woman could do in Moses’ day to earn a living. A woman that had been sent away by her husband only had a few choices in what she could do for food, clothing, and shelter. She could beg, she could voluntarily enter into slavery, she could become a prostitute, or she could starve to death. Those were the options.
I think that it is safe to say that God never intended women to be treated in such a way. So what we see in the Old Testament seems to be God making provisions for women. Where the husband had been able to send a woman away for no reason at all before, now God is requiring that the husband at least slow down a little bit and take the time to make out a certificate of divorce. And because she now had a certificate of divorce, she was able to marry another man who could provide for her in that 2nd century BCE context.
So Moses allowed divorce, but this was never God’s plan. God’s plan, God’s ideal for humanity was that two people would marry for a lifetime. We can see this in Mark’s gospel when some Pharisees come to test Jesus. Mark 2:2-10 reads:
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
“What did Moses command you?” he replied.
They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘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 flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Notice that Jesus asks “What did Moses command you?” not “What did God command you?” And the Pharisees reply that Moses “permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce.” This wasn’t God teaching his people how to be holy. This is Moses, on behalf of God, permitting divorce because the people had hard hearts. And if you read Deuteronomy 24 in context, you can see that God never says that divorce is okay. It only says that Moses required a certificate of divorce before a man could send away his wife.
Jesus then goes on to paraphrase the creation text from Genesis. And the emphasis seems to be on the two fleshes becoming one. And what God has joined together, no one should separate. Or to put it as clearly as possible, we read in Malachi 2:16, God hates divorce.
Back to our scripture for this morning. After reminding his hearers about the certificate of divorce that was permitted in Deuteronomy 24, Jesus says, “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Moses had made it more difficult for a husband to divorce his wife. And remember, it was always a husband who divorced his wife in those days. A woman couldn’t divorce her husband. So Moses made it more difficult as a way to care for someone that couldn’t have cared for herself in that context. Then Jesus comes along and makes it even more difficult yet. Moses required a certificate of divorce, which slowed the process down a bit and allowed the woman to be remarried. Jesus required sexual immorality for divorce.
You may recall that a few weeks ago I spoke at length about the two different schools of thought that would have been dominant during Jesus’ day. There was the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. Hillel would have been the more liberal rabbi and Shammai would have been the more conservative rabbi. And the people were coming to Jesus, this new, young, hip rabbi who was gaining quite a following, and they were asking him, “Are you a part of the house of Hillel or a part of the house of Shammai? Are you with us or are you with them?”
The teachings of these two rabbis are preserved for us in the Jewish book called the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a Jewish commentary on the Hebrew scriptures. The Mishnah says:
The School of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. And the School of Hillel say: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.
You see what just happened there? They put the emphasis on different parts of the teaching. Shammai says that there is only one reason that a person can divorce his wife, and that is because of sexually immoral behavior. And Hillel comes along and says, If a man finds anything objectionable about her, he can divorce his wife.
So in the 1st century, with the teachings of people like Hillel, we find women becoming more and more like property once again. If a woman burns your morning toast, you can divorce her. Jesus comes in and sides with Shammai, and that isn’t something that he does too often.
So what I believe Jesus was doing here is not just trying to prevent divorce, he was also trying to protect women. He was coming in against the teaching that was gaining popularity that a man could acquire and send away women like property. He was affirming the humanity of women. He says This whole thing about sending away a woman for burning toast is not what we do in the kingdom of God. We are all humans, not property.
Now Jesus did provide in our Matthew text an exception for when a man could divorce his wife. And if you look at any number of translations, they will probably use a different word in verse 32. The NRSV says “unchastity”, the NIV says “sexual immorality”, and the KJV says “fornication.” The Greek word used here is porneia, which is the word that we get the word pornography from.
Some people have assumed that Jesus is talking about adultery here, thinking that the only biblical grounds for divorce is if your spouse commits adultery. I have even heard of Christian people who were hoping that their spouse would commit adultery so that they could get a divorce and be under this exception clause. What a healthy marriage! But the second half of verse 32 uses the word adultery twice, and it is a different word altogether. Porneia should probably be translated as fornication, which is sex before marriage. What Jesus is talking about seems to be exactly what his father Joseph went through when Mary was found to be pregnant.
Matthew is the only gospel that talks about Joseph considering sending away Mary when she is found to be pregnant and he knows that the child isn’t his. So it makes sense that Matthew’s gospel is the only one that would include this exception clause. If you find your wife to have committed fornication, then you can send her away like Joseph considered doing.
God’s intention is that marriage is for life. That is God’s ideal. And anything outside of God’s good and perfect plan is sin. It misses the bull’s-eye.
Yes, the Bible teaches that God’s ideal is for two people to be together forever. Yes, Jesus is saying that divorce is wrong…almost always. And this teaching has been misused and abused by the church for 2,000 years. People have been kicked out of church when they have gotten divorced or denied membership or communion because of a previous divorce. But let’s look at this verse in context. In Matthew 5:21-26 affirms the OT teaching on not murdering, but also says it is a sin to even be angry. If you have ever been angry, it misses God’s ideal will for your life. Matthew 5:27-30 affirms the OT teaching on adultery and then goes on to say that if you have even lusted for a woman you have committed adultery in your heart. You have missed God’s ideal and you have sinned. How many of us have never gotten angry? How many of us have never lusted? And how many of us were denied membership, communion, or been excommunicated because you have gotten angry at some point in your life. I believe that Jesus’ words in the passage about the woman caught in adultery are appropriate here. Let the one without sin cast the first stone.
God’s ideal is that marriages be for life, but there are other times when the Bible, the New Testament even, tells us that it is permissible to divorce. In 1 Corinthians 7:15 Paul writes, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”
Paul permits a person to be divorced from their non-believing spouse because God has called us to live in peace. But this isn’t new to Paul. In Ezra 10:11 God tells the Israelites to be divorced from their pagan wives. Again, I don’t think that it is God’s will to get divorced. But if a marriage is not God-honoring, if it doesn’t reflect the kingdom, then God allows for divorce.
We have probably all heard tragic stories of women who have stayed with husbands that treated them poorly, maybe even physically abused them and their children. And the woman stayed in the relationship all because she was told by the church that divorce was a sin. I believe that there isn’t much in this world that is more ungodly than a man beating his wife and children. And both the Old and New Testament seem to allow divorce when someone is acting in a way that does not honor God. Paul said that when an unbeliever leaves the marriage union, then the other person is not bound to the marriage any longer. If someone is physically abusing another, they are not following the Prince of Peace. They are not following the one that called us to lay down our lives for others. They are not serving the one that has called us to be a servant to others, and I cannot imagine that God is going to be too upset if a woman or man in that situation leaves a marriage.
The last question that I want to address this morning is “Is a divorced person living in sin?” Some people have tried to differentiate between sins like anger and lust and divorce by saying that when you become anger, you commit a sin and when you get a divorce you are living in sin. I can understand how someone can read our scripture for today and say that since a divorce causes a woman or a man to commit adultery that it is an ongoing sin; that the remarried person is “living in sin”.
The first thing that we should do is look at how many times the Bible uses the phrase “living in sin”. And by my count, I get zero. Absolutely there are times when the Bible talks about things that people are making a part of their lives that are destructive and causing pain and leading them further and further away from God. But those destructive, sinful lifestyles are not a non-stop string of sinfulness. We make individual decisions and commit individual sins. One’s life is not sinful; one’s choices might be.
What examples do we find in the New Testament that God holds a choice or decision against us even after we have repented of it like some suggest is the case with divorce? No, as the Psalmist writes, God has removed our sins from us as far as the east is from the west.
If to be a divorced person means that they are living in sin, then it would always be God’s will that two divorced people get back together, right? God doesn’t want us to commit sins, and if living in sin was a biblical concept, then I can’t imagine that God would want us to live in sin either. But let’s look one more time at Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the passage that talks about Moses permitting the Israelites to write their wives a certificate of divorce.
1 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Deuteronomy 24 tells us that a divorced woman cannot go back to her first husband. If divorce was living in sin, I would think that God would allow them to get back together again. While I believe that divorce is a sin, I also believe God honors the dissolution of a marriage even if it is not his ideal will. Living in sin is not a biblical concept. But forgiveness is. Divorce misses God’s ideal, but it is in no way the unforgiveable sin.
We as a church should always stand up for marriages. We need to fight to keep our marriage together and we need to do whatever we can to help others keep their marriages together. It isn’t always easy, but God hates divorce. The gospel message is about reconciliation: reconciliation between humans and God, and between humans and other people. So as a church we are called to always be about fidelity in our relationships. We are to always seek healing for ourselves and for others. And as Paul wrote in the passage from 1 Corinthians 7, God has called us to live in peace, in shalom.
When a marriage fails to honor God, when there is no shalom, when there is abuse, violence, when the relationship is destructive, divorce should be seen as a way to live in peace. God hates divorce, but God loves us. And God has called us to love each other as well.
-See Hays Moral Vision of the New Testament for some excellent scholarship on the biblical texts pertaining to divorce.