In this Teachings of Jesus series of posts, I want to help people more easily understand and conceptualize the Jesus lifestyle. Matthew 5 thru 7 gives us the essence of the Jesus movement in three chapters, often called “The Sermon On the Mount”.
This post is the second covering a section where Jesus deals with the topics of lust and divorce. Jesus calls His listeners to move past common cultural rules and boundaries and into deeper personal policies of caring deeply for human beings.
You can read about the lust portion of The Sermon On the Mount here. In a nutshell, when it comes to adultery, Jesus tells us to think beyond just controlling our bodies. We should not even allow our minds to move past healthy relational boundaries.
Jesus is ultimately concerned about the vulnerability of women in His day. Using the letter of the laws, with no regard for the spirit of their laws, men of Jesus’ time were using and abusing women through lust and divorce. Men could, under law, leave their wife for a woman they lusted after by simply giving their wife a divorce certificate. It was simple and “biblical” as far as they were concerned. There would be no room for this in the Movement Jesus was starting.
Now we’ll look at a few verses that I believe have been the source of great pain and frustration for followers of Jesus. If we understand the context of the teaching, we can better apply His Divine Wisdom.
I wish Jesus gave us an entire book on marriage and a lot of clarity on divorce. Rather, we only have a few verses. Here are the divorce verses in the Sermon On the Mount. Then, we’ll talk about what they say and what they don’t say.
THE “PLAIN” TEACHING OF JESUS
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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.
This is often considered one of the most straightforward teachings from Jesus on divorce. It is also thought to be exhaustive. Put simply, “If no one cheated, divorce is a sin.” Divorce is usually understood to be a massive unforgivable wedge between a person and God. The Bible says God hates divorce, it’s true. I’ve been asked. “Pastor, am I going to hell because I got divorced?”
I want to take a look just under the surface. The details would have said more to an ancient crowd than they tell us today.
In past posts, I’ve written that there is a specific formula Jesus uses throughout His sermon. Whenever Jesus launches with the verbiage, “It has been said… but I tell you…”, He’s invoking an awareness of a common understanding, and then taking it to another level with His new interpretation.
By mentioning a certificate of divorce, Jesus is immediately drumming up the ancient Jewish understanding of divorce. Moses had told the Israelites they could divorce, so long as they gave a certificate that made it legal. SUPER IMPORTANT!: There was an ongoing debate about whether or not a man could divorce his wife for any reason, so long as he gave her a certificate. When Jesus uses His formula, “You’ve heard it said… certificate of divorce…”, He is clearly calling His listeners to this debate. He is about to give His opinion on a well-known debate! This immediately removes the teaching from an exhaustive treatment of divorce and into a very specific question about divorce. Let me rephrase Jesus: “You guys talk about divorcing your wives for any reason by simply giving her a certificate and calling it legal. Here’s my take on that!”
For the most part, only men could initiate a divorce in those days. Horrifying as it was for a woman, most women were their husband’s property. They had few rights. She could rarely choose to leave her husband. Did you notice that Jesus only addresses a man divorcing his wife? That’s why. That doesn’t mean it was the way it should be. It just means that was how it was back then. Had Jesus talked to women about a cause for divorce, it would have been cruel because they simply didn’t have that option.
THE RAMIFICATION FOR WOMEN
Many in the day believed they could, for any reason, send their wife packing so long as they provided a legal certificate. This left the woman with few options, especially if her father wouldn’t take her back. She was essentially damaged or used goods in that world. Some rabbis speculated that if a woman burned dinner, or simply because someone more attractive came along, you could dump your wife for another so long as you gave her a certificate. It was completely above board. See why this naturally follows His thoughts about lust? Lust could lead to a divorce certificate and be completely above board in Jesus’ culture.
Can you imagine the hell this would have created for many women?
JESUS PROTECTED WOMEN
This passage appears to say that there is no cause for divorce if no one cheated. I’ve heard men use this to trap wives into abusive marriages. I’ve heard miserable spouses interpret this as a command to endure a life of misery. I don’t believe this was Jesus’ intent. I’m absolutely certain this was not meant to be used to imprison women into an abusive marriage! I also don’t believe God is honored by one caring spouse enduring a life of agony by staying married to a disinterested spouse just because there was no cheating!
“You’ve heard it said, ‘You can divorce your wife by giving her a legal certificate.’, but I’m saying it’s only a real separation in God’s eyes if she’s cheated on you!”
This at least provided domestic protection for the woman with no other rights. At the very least, she could no longer be thrown out on the street for no reason! Now a husband has to make the best of his situation because he can’t just hand her a certificate and find a replacement. I’m sure this is far from God’s dream for a marriage! Do you see, though, how this one teaching would have offered reasonable protection for the well-being of a wife?
What if, all this time, a teaching that was meant to offer women just a little bit of protection in its original context has actually been used to imprison wives in an abusive relationship? Should we necessarily assume that, if women had had the right to divorce back then, that God would have expected them to stay in an abusive relationship? Jesus was trying to protect women’s well-being with this teaching, not imprison them!
Divorce is terrible. Divorce is heartbreaking and creates a wake of pain. I could not begin to tell you when it’s time for a divorce. What I can say, however, is that these two verses were not meant to be an exhaustive list of causes for divorce. Jesus was most certainly not saying cheating was the only allowance for divorce. He was saying that, in His Movement, men were not to disregard the well-being of the wife of their youth by handing them a certificate of divorce in order to pursue the object of their lust.
My interpretation flows with the context of Jesus’ sermon, fits with the formula He uses throughout the sermon and fits with the historical arguments of His time.
If you look at the spirit of Jesus’ teachings on lust and divorce, they work together to cast a strong vision for marriage. In the Movement Jesus came to start, when a couple committed to marriage they were committing to a lifetime of joy and growth together. They were committing to oneness and love. There would be no visualizing yourself with another. There would be no loopholes to end the relationship to pursue selfish gain, leaving the other to flounder. Nor was this teaching to be used to entrap a partner into a lifeless or abusive marriage just because there was no physical affair. This passage (and article) is not to be used as an excuse for a divorce! Nor is it meant to be used as a chain to enslave.