The SERMON on the MOUNT (8)

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Matthew 5:31-32 (8)

Jesus continues to show how the righteousness of the citizen of the kingdom is to surpass that of the Pharisee, moving quite naturally from lust to divorce.

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (5:31-32)

The statistics on the number of divorces in the UK are depressing, if not frightening, and very few families are spared being involved in some way in the fall-out of divorces including now many Christians. The very deep wounds that this subject can open up has caused many Bible commentators to decline to comment on passages like this. However, since Jesus was not afraid to speak about it neither should we be.

Was this as much of a ‘hot potato’ in Jesus day as it is today? We get a clue from the Pharisees own words, who “came to Him, tempting Him and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?’ (Matt 19:3) They came from rival rabbinic schools, those of Hillel and Shammai. Shammai took the hard line that the sole ground for divorce was some matrimonial offence based on the words of Deuteronomy “he has found some uncleanness in her”, (24:1) probably meaning that she was not found to be a virgin. Hillel, on the other hand, took a very soft, liberal view, according to Josephus, so that a man could ‘be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever’. Hillel used the word ‘uncleanness’ to mean anything which displeased the husband. The husband may have just lost interest in her and seen someone else he wanted to marry and so on this whim he was able to justify divorcing his wife. No wonder many of the Pharisees were attracted to the Hillel school of thinking. ‘The Pharisees were preoccupied with the grounds for divorce; Jesus with the institution of marriage’. (J Stott) You see why Jesus talks of divorce immediately after talking about lust. Sounds a bit like today doesn`t it. ‘I am suing my wife because of irreconcilable differences – she`s burnt my toast’. Get real! Do your own toast. By the way did you hear about the father of three sets of twins who sued his wife for divorce on the grounds that she was overbearing.

How did Jesus answer this question? Let us read on. “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mat 19:4-6) Rather than answering as they expected Jesus goes back to God`s original purpose in creating woman to be the help-meet for man. The Pharisees wanted to focus on divorce, Jesus wanted to raise the God ordained estate of marriage. Many marriages could be saved if the focus was on the positive instead of the negative. John Stott said that he made it a policy that, he would never talk about divorce, when marriages got into difficulties, before showing God`s plan for marriage and reconciliation.

The Pharisees thought that Jesus was saying something that was at odds with what Moses had said, so ask, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matt 19:7) Isn`t it amazing how we can mis-interpret Scripture to suit our own ends. What did Moses command them to do? Let us look at the situation in Moses` day. The pagan world, which Israel had lived in until God brought them out of Egypt, saw a wife as possession that could be easily taken and just as easily discarded for any and every reason.

If a wife was discarded in this way the only way for her to survive was to become a prostitute. God was making provision, by this law, for a wife to marry again. Without a certificate of divorce a woman could not re-marry because legally she was still married and there were no multi-million pound divorce settlements in those days. They were permitted to divorce their wives but only with a justifiable reason. The command was to give a certificate of divorce, which would give the reason why, not a command to divorce as the Pharisees said.

Jesus continued by telling why the command was given, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matt 19:8)

Jesus reminds them that God was not changing His original plan for marriage but he was making a concession because of their sinful hearts. This was a provision of love, made by God, so that a divorced woman might not be cast aside with nothing.

Jesus then says what the grounds for divorce are, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matt 19:9)

The word used here for “sexual immorality” is ‘porneia,’ which is derived from the word ‘pornë ,’ a prostitute, and normally translated ‘fornication’. It is the same word used to depict the unfaithfulness of Israel as represented by Gomer in Hosea. In Matthew 5:32, as here, Jesus brings the seventh commandment into focus, “You shall not commit adultery”. He does this because his aim in still to show how our righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisee. Marriage is a covenant relationship in which, in the modern service, each person is asked, ‘Will you love, honour, keep, and be faithful to…, so long as you both shall live?’ This includes the only two reasons, given in the Bible, for the breaking of this marriage covenant, death and unfaithfulness or sexual immorality. Death obviously breaks the marriage bond. In God`s eyes the two joined in marriage are one in a union, cemented by the sexual act, which is why there should be no sex before marriage, but within the marriage relationship sex is exclusively for the marriage partner so unfaithfulness also breaks the bond. ‘There is only one cause for divorce. There is one; but there is only one. And that is unfaithfulness by one party.’ (M Lloyd-Jones) The Pharisee who regarded divorce lightly would not consider that he had broken the law by divorcing his wife for any reason and marrying another. Jesus again lifts the standard for the kingdom citizen to one higher than the Pharisee`s.

What about ‘irreconcilable differences’? When the Corinthians asked Paul if they should divorce their non-Christian partners he said, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” (1 Co 7:10-11) The last thing the kingdom citizen must want is to make their marriage partner adulterous by divorcing them for any other reason than that given in Scripture. There is no command to divorce but always to forgive and seek reconciliation.

Divorce is not the second “unforgivable sin,” as many seem to view it, but, if it is for any other reason than unfaithfulness, it is a sin and must be repented of, as any other sin, so that God`s forgiveness may be received. As I close let us remember those characteristics of the kingdom citizen and live accordingly. ‘For he that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others how shall he be at variance with her that is his own?’ (Chrysostom)

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