This week we come to a section of the Sermon on the Mount that can be difficult and painful. Unlike the secret sins of anger and lust, divorce is very obvious and public.
You can have feelings of anger and keep them secret. You can mutter insults under your breath. You can harbour lustful thoughts without anyone knowing.
You cannot divorce your wife without her knowing.
Jesus says anger and insults are the same as murder. He says lustful thoughts are the same as adultery. These are bold and absolute statements. As Christians we should be very serious about these two things. In real life we tend to be very relaxed about these two things, and get very serious about divorce. Why is that?
I find this very interesting. Strange, but interesting.
Jesus did not say ‘You must never divorce’. It is what we are expecting, but he has us off balance. Jesus says ‘a man who divorces …’ Why is that?
In the society of first century Palestine, divorce had become a very casual matter. A man could send his wife away using almost any excuse; such as her having spoken to another man, or burned his meal.
The first thing Jesus does is remind everyone what Scripture actually says. This is more fully explained in Matthew chapter 19. Moses essentially gave permission for divorce when a marriage had already broken down. What had happened by Jesus time was that people had changed this teaching into a command that they must divorce. But it never was a command. It was a concession that if reconciliation was impossible and the relationship was utterly broken, then divorce was allowed as a public recognition of that fact.
And therefore when Jesus confirms this, he is stating that those who indulge in anger and insults and lust, taking his examples, are able to break relationships to the point where divorce is allowed.
We live today in an age very like the one when Jesus first spoke these words. Many in our world take marriage very lightly and think nothing of divorce, or so often think so little of marriage they don’t even bother with it.
I personally think we should live and work to uphold and preserve this sacred institution, but we shouldn’t lose sight of all that Jesus said. Nothing in what Jesus teaches about marriage and divorce makes it all right to break a relationship, but he seems to accept that divorce itself as the public statement that a relationship has been broken is not the end of the world.
Jesus recognised the reality and admitted the possibility of divorce, but he also upheld the sanctity of marriage as the divine ideal. He says in Matthew 19:6 – “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
Jesus goes on to explain the logical consequences of the casual attitude of people to divorce. Remarriage was inevitable and Jesus outlines the consequences. Adultery! Again he doesn’t issue a blanket ban on remarriage.
Marriage was created by God to be for ever. Breaking this sacred relationship is a sin with consequences. And because Jesus is an equal opportunity Messiah, he lists the consequences for both the man and for the woman.
Adultery is an act that establishes an illegitimate sexual union in violation of the sacred sexual union of marriage. Many Jews of Jesus’ time taught that this demanded an immediate divorce, but Jesus seems to leave the door wide open to reconciliation instead. If there is any way, it is best to save the marriage.
His teaching on divorce follows on naturally from his teaching on adultery. But Jesus doesn’t actually use the same word. He has also just spoken about anger and insults, and so many theologians conclude that he is in fact broadening the grounds for divorce to encompass other betrayals of relationship.
Jesus also passed up the opportunity to ban remarriage, leading to the idea that he expected it.
We have a great challenge to adjust our way of thinking to the new righteousness of Jesus. We have to take on board the unacceptability of anger. We have to get serious about the things that damage relationships. And we have to learn the times to show mercy, grace and forgiveness.
Some Christians maintain that divorce is always wrong and should always be illegal.
Some Christians maintain that divorce may be allowed under some circumstances, but remarriage is always wrong and should always be illegal.
Because this is an area of Christian teaching where there is much disagreement and some hard positions, and because the society around us has such a different view, it can be hard to find what Jesus is teaching us here today. Some find Jesus too liberal. Some find Jesus too conservative.
I urge you thus to earnest prayer and serious consideration of the words of Jesus in Scripture.
Whatever else we can conclude about this teaching on how to be more righteous than a Pharisee, we must surely agree that Jesus teaches us the best way built upon a foundation of love. We can see that what he teaches is the way of reconciliation and the way of building relationships, with God and with each other.
Certainly divorce cannot be worse than the cause of divorce.
We cannot turn a bind eye to anger and lust while banning divorce, for then we would be in danger of hypocrisy.
I suggest we focus on the divine standard that Jesus holds up for us. Marriage is supposed to be a permanent relationship in which two people become one. And that new one is united with God. It is a holy status.
As Christians who have been reconciled to God, we are called to reconcile with others. We are tasked with being filled with the Holy Spirit, we are given the love of God. And Jesus is telling us to cherish relationships. Relationships are holy. Let’s seek to grow in our relationships and truly build up our fellowship. Will you join me in this task?