Jesus’ words about divorce appears to provide a technical reason for justifying the breaking of the marriage covenant. Is this what this passage really means, or is there something more significant that Jesus was saying? This sermon provides an unexpected answer to this question.
The traditional interpretation of this passage teaches that those who are divorced actually remain married in God’s eyes. However, if one partner commits infidelity, then there is grounds for divorce. Otherwise, they remain married from God’s perspective, and therefore, those who are remarried are actually committing adultery. There are many problems with this interpretation, one being that this elevates technicalities over the realities of what is going on in a relationship.
To properly interpret this passage, we need to understand the Old Testament teaching on divorce from Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which serves as the background of Jesus’ teaching.
God’s ideal is for marriage to be with one person for life, but in this fallen world, God’s ideals often get broken. Therefore, God had Moses require the writing of a certificate of divorce with two stipulations found in Deuteronomy 24. First, this certificate was the woman’s proof that she has been released from her marriage vows and is now available to remarry. Second, as an accommodation, the Lord stipulates that once the husband has written that certificate of divorce and his ex-wife remarries, if for any reason she finds herself single again, she is free to marry anyone except the husband who first divorced her. These stipulations were meant to challenge men to slow down before they arbitrarily sent off their wives based on their whims.
In the first century, there was great debate over what Moses meant when he said a husband could divorce his wife if she “…does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her” from Deuteronomy 24. Jesus responded to this in Matthew 19:3-9, which reads:
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”
What does Jesus mean by “except for unchastity”? Some argue Jesus is saying that you’re justified if your wife has an affair or does something sexually immoral. For a wide array of reasons explained in this sermon, this is ultimately problematic. All divorce breaks God’s ideal for the marriage covenant, and therefore it is absurd to argue about whose divorce is more righteous than whose.
Does this mean that Jesus is forbidding all divorce and remarriage for his followers? Jesus’ goal in his teaching was to point out that Moses’ permission was an accommodation, not a grounds for the divorcing spouse to feel righteous about walking away from the marriage. Jesus says that honoring covenantal vows is a matter of urgency, just like guarding our hearts against hate and lust is as urgent as avoiding murder and adultery.
In fact, as is true of Deuteronomy 24, Jesus assumes the divorced woman will likely get remarried. While this is a break from God’s ideal, Jesus doesn’t say she shouldn’t therefore get remarried. It’s only by God’s grace that any of us can get married, whether for the first time or second or third time.
The goal of the marriage covenant isn’t to prove you could endure a lifetime together with a person you can’t stand, as though the goal of marriage was just to avoid divorce. The goal is for couples to learn to love in a way that reflects the love of the triune God. No marriage does that perfectly, but a Kingdom marriage aspires towards this and takes steps to move in that direction.
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