“Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage” on Matthew 5:31-32 by Joe Ellis — October 30, 2022
Let’s begin with saying this is a painful text. Divorce is always born of pain. This sermon isn’t just for those who have divorced, or even for those who have married. It’s a sermon for all of us, because we are all touched by divorce. We all have some sort of relationship to divorce. Some of us have been through the pain of divorce ourselves and have spent years working out the implications of passages like the one we just heard. Some of us have experienced the divorce of parents. Some of us have watched with sadness as children’s marriages have ended in divorced. Others have journeyed with their brothers or sisters through divorce. All of us have been impacted by the divorce of friends and neighbours.
I say this because it's important to recognize that when we talk about divorce we are not talking about some hypothetical problem out there. We’re talking about real people, with real histories, with real problems, and with real pain — and all of us are a part of that story to one degree or another. So, my hope is to work through this passage gently. First, I’ll talk about the cultural and scriptural background of divorce that shaped the views of divorce in Jesus’ day. Then, we’ll look at Jesus’ words and views on divorce. Finally, we’ll look at some implications for how to navigate divorce and remarriage today. But I need to say that I won’t come close to saying everything there is to say on this topic. There is ground that I surely won’t cover — if you would like to dig deeper, let me know and we can talk further or I can point you to additional resources.
First, we need to clear up the fact that this passage is not just addressing divorce. It's about ‘Divorce and Remarriage.’ This is important to realize — when Jesus talks about divorce, he’s assuming remarriage. There are two reasons to come to this conclusion. First, Jesus talks about the need to give a legal document to certify a divorce. The legal documents that have been found always entailed the right to remarry. Here are words from a legal document in Jesus’ day: “R. Judah says, ‘Let this be from me your writ of divorce, a letter of dismissal and deed of liberation that you may marry anyone you want.’” The legal documents that Jesus had in mind permitted remarriage as their default. So that is the first reason to assume that we’re talking about divorce and remarriage. The second reason is found when Jesus says in Matthew 5:32, “Everyone who divorces his wife, unless it's in connection with sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Again, Jesus’ comment assumes that remarriage takes place after divorce. Jesus is saying that unless the divorce has taken place for valid reasons, the original marriage has not truly been dissolved. For this reason, when the man or woman remarries, it constitutes adultery. Again, remarriage is assumed. The Gospel of Mark spells this out a bit more clearly in the tenth chapter, v.11-12: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” We aren’t simply talking about divorce — rather we are talking about divorce and remarriage. For Jesus, and those listening to him, divorce and remarriage are bundled together.
So, in this section on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is sharpening the focus on Old Testament laws. There are two other passages on divorce that the Jews would draw on in Jesus’ day. One passage, found in Exodus 21.10-11 was seen by Jews as outlining the conditions necessary for a marriage — food, clothing, shelter, as well as some sense of marital love and intimacy. If these conditions weren’t met, the wife or concubine could sue for divorce and expect it would be granted. There is another passage, found in Deuteronomy 24, that speaks to when a man may divorce his wife. This is a significant passage for our discussion. I’ll read just the first and most pertinent verse: “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…” The passage obviously goes on, but the significance for us is the word ‘indecent.’ A man, in this patriarchal culture, can divorce his wife if he finds something ‘indecent’ about her. The question is what exactly that word ‘indecent’ refers to. There was a wide range of opinions as to what that word ’indecent’ meant. There was a school of rabbis who taught that the word ‘indecent’ could be applied to divorce for any and every reason, whereas other rabbis had more rigorous regulations around divorce and remarriage. Here are some samples of how different rabbis interpreted and applied Deuteronomy 24:1:
The house of Shammai (a Rabbi) says, “A man should divorce his wife only because he has found ground for it in unchastity.”
And the house of Hillel (another Rabbi) says, “Even if she spoiled his dish,” since it is said, “because he has found in her indecency in anything” (Dt.24:1).
Rabbi Aqiba says, “Even if he found someone else prettier than she, since it is said, “And it shall be if she find no favour in his eyes” (Dt.24:1).
The view of divorce held by Rabbi Hillel and his followers became known as “any cause divorce,” and it's this sort of distortion of the biblical text that Jesus is countering hard when he speaks on divorce. This becomes quite clear when you read the discussion on divorce in Matthew 19:3 “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” When the Pharisees said, “any and every reason” they were referring to this debate that was common in the day on “any cause divorce” spoken of by Rabbi Hillel, and they are wondering if Jesus’ sides with the view held by Rabbi Hillel. In all the passages in which Jesus speaks to divorce, he answers with a strong and emphatic “NO!"
So, going back to that list of three differing views, Jesus’ view sits comfortably alongside Rabbi Shammai who interpreted the word indecency in Deuteronomy 24 as referring to some sort of sexual immorality. And that’s what Jesus seems to say in Matthew 5:31-32, as well as in Matthew 19: “Anyone who divorces his wife, unless it's in connection to sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery.” Scott McKnight summarizes this as saying, “Jesus grants divorce for a general reason: ‘sexual sins,’ and that means a variety of sexual sins would constitute grounds for divorce and remarriage”.
But we need to pause this discussion about appropriate grounds for divorce and remarriage — because that’s not truly the heart of what Jesus wants us to hear about marriage. You see, a temptation is to come to these passages to find out about what constitutes a permissible divorce. To do that is to miss the point that Jesus is trying to make in all these passages. The point Jesus is at pains to make in all this is to uphold the sacredness of marriage. We need to hear that loud and clear. Look how he responds to the Pharisees question on “any cause divorce”. In Matthew 19: 4-6Jesus asks, “Haven’t you read that at 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 flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The Pharisees respond to that by asking Jesus in 19:7“Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Again, they’re referring to Deuteronomy 24). Jesus answers by essentially saying that Moses never commanded anyone to do any such thing. Rather, Jesus says in 19:8 “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” Then Jesus repeats in 19:9 what he said in the Sermon on the Mount in 5: 32 that “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
We need to make sure we hear what Jesus is saying. Jesus is crying out for us to hold onto the beauty, sanctity and, some would say, sacramental nature of marriage. Jesus calls us to the most sacred view of marriage possible, recognizing that from the beginning a new thing happens when a man and a woman exchange their wedding vows and consummate their marriage. They become one flesh. The Creator saw that it was not good for man to be alone, and so He gave Adam and Eve to one another as a mutual gift. Adam beholds Eve and breaks into poetry: “Bone of my bone! Flesh of my flesh!"(Genesis 2:23) Jesus’ words on divorce are shaped by His deep regard for marriage. His words on divorce are meant to preserve marriage; to underscore the fact that God does not desire divorce; that divorce is always contrary to God’s creation designs; and that God grieves deeply over the hardheartedness of our human condition that leads to divorce.
The primary application for us in these passages is to become a place of help and support to struggling families. When marriages are on the rocks, we need to not sit idly by, but prayerfully seek the Lord’s guidance as to how to best come to the assistance of these struggling couples. I’ll be the first to say that we’ve done this imperfectly as we have muddled our way through this in the past. But we need to keep muddling our best to support each other together in our marriages. To couples, let me encourage you to seek counselling early. Don’t feel like you’ve got to be really struggling to warrant going to marriage counselling. Studies have shown that when only one person of a couple goes to counselling, divorce is far more likely than when couples go to counselling together. Our church does have a fund to subsidize counselling fees. Talk to me or someone on council to help set that up. Michelle and I have really benefited from seeing a counsellor together.
If you are divorced, let me invite you to pray for your former wife or husband. Ask the Holy Spirit about the question of reconciliation. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus talks about reconciliation with someone you’ve done wrong by. Reflecting on that passage might be a good step towards reconciliation. Consider praying to the Holy Spirit, asking Him to reveal whether there is anything that you need to make right with your former spouse. Maybe that’s a first step towards reconciliation. Maybe there will be more steps — then again maybe more steps are not possible or maybe they are not advisable. Yet do bring these things before the Lord in prayer. He is safe. He wants what is best for you.
Reconciliation is not always possible or advisable. This is particularly important when it comes to situations about abuse. The passages we’ve looked at do not speak directly to the reality of abuse that can take place within a marriage. Now, it would be the worst sort of fallacy to suppose that just because abuse doesn’t fall under the category of sexual immorality that there is no cause for divorce and remarriage in an abusive situation. This is precisely why the discussion of “any cause divorce” is so important. You certainly noticed the unfair and unjust nature of the divorces that were being pushed through; like, if a man found a prettier woman he could divorce her, or if a wife burned his dinner, he could divorce her.
In calling for a stop to these “any cause divorces,” Jesus in doing something in addition to upholding the permanency of marriage. He is calling for justice — these women are made vulnerable, socially, economically and sexually by their husbands' power to divorce them for any and every reason. Jesus isn’t only advocating for permanency in marriage, Jesus is advocating for justice and putting an end to “any cause divorces.” It would be a gross misreading of Jesus’ intent in these passages to say that a spouse must stay married in an abusive marriage unless some sort of sexual immorality occurred. The same sense of justice that led Jesus to advocate for these woman preyed upon by “any cause divorces” would extend to advocating for their safety and protection from a spouse who has destroyed the marriage covenant through persistent abuse. To say that an abused person must remain in the marriage goes completely against the grain of Jesus’ heart for justice in these passages.
There is so much more to say, but sadly, we don’t have time. We don’t have time to talk about Paul saying in 1 Corinthians 7:15 about remarriage being permissible when an unbelieving spouse abandons their spouse. We don’t have time to talk about the hundreds of practical questions that come from what I’ve just said. Questions like what impact does a Christian’s repentance and Christ’s forgiveness have on the question of remarriage? For many of us, talking about the ideal of marriage in light of divorce and remarriage may stir up feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, anger, or falling short.
For that reason, I think it's important to close by looking at Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well, in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus met this woman, drawing water from a well one hot afternoon. As she draws water from the well, He begins telling her that the water He gives wells up to eternal life. Then He says to her in John 4:16-18, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” Jesus sees her — but what he sees is left between Jesus and the woman at the well. We can only make guesses at what Jesus sees. The traditional line is that Jesus sees that she’s broken up a string of marriages and is currently with her live-in boyfriend. In other words, she’s had a string of non-permissible divorces and is now living in adultery. Still, Jesus calls her into relationship with Him. He invites her to worship in Spirit and in Truth. God is seeking her to worship Him.
If you identify with this woman at all, or if you’ve fallen short, messed up your marriage, broken relationships, had sex with someone not your spouse, have shame about your past — the Father is seeking you. The Father is seeking you to worship Him. Jesus sees you. Jesus wants relationship with you, deeply enough to die for us and our sins on the cross. Yes, repentance is certainly a part of worship and relationship — but know that Jesus’ heart reaches out and yearns for you and me no matter what baggage we bring to the relationship. The Father is seeking you just as you are.
Yet there is another line to interpret how Jesus ‘sees’ this woman. It would certainly be a woman of considerable power who could initiate 5 divorces. In light of all we’ve said this morning, I can’t help but wonder if this woman had been a victim of these “any cause divorces”. Most of the divorce certificates found are of men divorcing woman. It is likely she’s been abused, kicked out, and passed around by opportunistic men praying on a vulnerable woman. And Jesus, compassionately says, “I see you. I get it. I know what you’ve been through.”
Perhaps you may identify with this woman. Maybe you’ve had hopes for the goodness of marriage, but it never happened. Maybe you never married. Maybe your hopes for a good marriage went up in flames. Or maybe you’re still in your marriage, but it's so much more work than you thought it would ever be. Maybe you’ve felt hard done by in your relationships. Maybe your husband or wife is gone. Perhaps all of us, in one way or another, need to stand alongside the woman at the well and hear Jesus say, “I see you. I get it. I know what you’ve been through. Come and worship the Father. I will give you water that will heal the wounds of your soul. Come to me. I know what you’ve been through. I love you, and I seek you.” Whatever way we are showing up today, Jesus is seeking worshippers like you and me, just as we are. We are the worshippers our Father seeks.