Keeping Covenants


Matthew 5:31-32

“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.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

We live in an age of disposable relationships. We are told by very wise sounding authorities that it’s unrealistic to expect a marriage to last a lifetime – that instead, we should plan to have three or four relationships that meet our needs at different stages of our lives. In the introduction to a graduate level textbook in Marriage and Family Therapy, by Ahrons and Rodgers entitled, Divorced Families: “This book … looks at divorce as a normal process of family change… a family experience through which many families go with positive results.” I have yet to meet that family. The families I know and have worked with experienced divorce as an abnormal process – like an amputation or tragic death. Theirs were feelings of betrayal, abandonment, rejection. It was as though a part of them had been ripped away. Divorce was no normal process of family change like entering kindergarten or braces or graduation. It was an upheaval that left a trail of broken lives in its wake.

I must confess my own trepidation as I approach these two verses in the Sermon on the Mount. As I mentioned last week, there are just some passages, as a preacher, that you’d rather skip over when you’re preaching, because of the difficulties they bring up.

It is true that they are difficult verses, but more than the exegetical challenge they present, I recognize, as do you, that they are the battleground of controversy and debate in churches across all of Christendom. They are laden with emotion and endless personal examples of human pain. We can approach every other passage with a certain amount of objective detachment. But this passage is different. We bring our own set of opinions and sympathies and expectations – until we have so clouded our judgment that we cannot cut through all of the clamoring voices to hear what Jesus says.

And in that sense, we are not so different from those original listeners. Jesus did not speak in a vacuum. By this time, there were already centuries of speculation and debate accumulated on the subject. Within Jesus’ own contemporary time, the debate raged between two rabbinical schools. One, lead by Rabbi Shammai, and the other by Rabbi Hillel. Shammai took the rigorist line and taught from Deut. 24 that the sole ground of divorce was some serious marital offence. On the other hand was Hillel, who held a very lax view. Hillel interpreted the unseemly or indecent thing of Deut. 24 in the widest possible way to include the most trivial offences – If a wife should happen to burn her husband’s breakfast or if he lost interest in her because of her plain looks and he found another younger, more beautiful woman, these things were deemed “unseemly” and justified him in divorcing her. Hillel’s view prevailed.

And when we read the words of Jesus here and in Matt. 19:3-9, we need to be aware of the context in which he speaks. He is not giving a textbook treatise covering in a comprehensive way every particular and possibility with regard to divorce and remarriage. He is responding to those who are trying to trap him in controversy and justify themselves or condemn others with their brand of legalism.

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?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “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. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matt 19:3-9)

What we hear in Matt. 19 is a question – seeking, not wisdom or God’s will, but corroboration, justification, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” The real question is: “Jesus, will you enter the debate?” Can they draw him into the controversy? His response is in vs. 4 – “Haven’t you read, that in the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female.’”

You see, they are asking the wrong questions. The Pharisees were preoccupied with the grounds for divorce – Jesus was concerned with the primacy and permanency of marriage.

And in fact, their concern isn’t really about getting down to the truth of God’s will. It is in proving a point and justifying their position. They assumed the legitimacy of divorce. Now, they wanted it codified and restrictions minimized. They had already created substantial loopholes – and not with the plight of people in mind, but for the purpose of rationalizing sin.

Jesus says in response, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’”

At the center of the controversy was a quotation from Deut. 24:1-4, 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, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

Once again, we find the problem in the perspective from which one reads this. The Pharisees called Moses’ provision for divorce a command – Jesus calls it a concession to the hardness of human hearts.

The situation to which Moses spoke, to which Jesus spoke, and one that is not at all unfamiliar to us today was that marriage was treated so casually that divorce was simply a matter of a husband saying to his wife, “I divorce you,” three times and the act was done. In fact, the woman was defenseless in this. She had no recourse, and was treated as little more than a piece of property that could be discarded at whim.

When Moses addresses the issue he is setting in place a check on the process. A careful reading of the passage reveals that the thrust of the passage is to protect a woman from this kind of exploitation. It is built upon a number of conditional clauses – “if, if, if, if… then her first husband who divorced her is forbidden to remarry her.” It prohibits the remarriage of one’s own divorced partner.

The Pharisees’ emphasis was on the giving of the certificate of divorce as the most important part of the Mosaic provision, and referred to it in Matt. 19 as the command of Moses.

There is certainly no command to divorce, nor even encouragement to do so. Instead it stands as a warning against a hasty or thoughtless decision, because once it was made it could not be rescinded.

How did Jesus respond to the Pharisees’ question about the regulation of Moses? Jesus attributed it to the hardness of people’s hearts. He did not deny that the regulation was from God. He said, though, that it was not a divine instruction, but only a divine concession to human weakness.

Let’s return to Matt. 5 – “Anyone who divorces his wife…” Jesus focuses on the perpetrator of the sin. (In the Jewish context, only the man had the right and prerogative to divorce. The wife could not initiate or block such action.

The situation in Matt. 5 shows the laxity of their society toward marriage and divorce. Technically, there could be no divorce on the basis of adultery. Legally, adultery was dealt with by the death penalty (remember the verses we noticed last week in Lev. 20 and Deut. 22). So neither a man nor a woman could enter a second marriage to another who was guilty of that sin. But the death penalty was no longer practiced.

Sexual sin violated the covenant relationship of marriage. The word Jesus uses, “porneia” describes a broad category of sexual sins. Rather than minimize the offense, Jesus notes that anytime a husband or wife is involved in sexual immorality of any kind, they have violated the marriage covenant.
And that is what is really at issue here – covenant. When a Christian man or woman enters into a marriage, they are making a covenant. And the sin of divorce is the sin of covenant breaking. The word, “adultery” in the Bible is used far more frequently in the metaphorical sense of unfaithfulness to a covenant – Israel is described as committing adultery against her God. Now, there may have been sexual sin involved, but that’s not what the prophets are condemning. It is the people’s unfaithfulness to their covenant with God. The very word “adultery” comes from the Latin root “advowtry” – “breaking a vow.”
And, in fact, as Jesus continues, that is the very word that he uses to describe the consequences – though the wife may be innocent of any wrong-doing when her husband divorced her, he “makes her an adulteress.”

Understand now, this is an immediate consequence of the divorce. Some suggest that it implies a later marriage and that that is the adultery. But Jesus says when her husband divorces her he “makes her an adulteress.”

I guess that brings my concern – I can understand how a man who divorces his wife becomes an adulterer, but how can this husband by divorcing his innocent wife make her sin as an adulteress? And the reality is found in the grammar of the passage. (Again, back for a moment to high school English class.) Most words can be expressed in three distinct voices: active, middle, and passive – e.g., “He killed the man” / “The man killed himself” / “He was killed by the man”. That is our problem here in vs. 32 – the English verb doesn’t have a precise way of expressing the passive. Let me try to explain that – the word for “committed adultery” is used in vss. 27-28 in the active voice. But when we come to vs. 32, it is in the passive voice. But how do you say that? Unless it is something like “she is adulterated,” or “she is stigmatized as adulteress.”

In this passage, the one who sins is the man who divorces his wife – he is the one who commits adultery. But in a very real way, his innocent wife bears the brunt of his sin. She is stigmatized as an adulterous woman. The assumption of society will be, if there is a divorce and the husband puts his wife away, she certainly must be guilty of sin. And it has a ripple effect. Any man who may later marry that woman is stigmatized as an adulterer as well.
I recognize that this issue is far more complex, and other passages in the NT complicate the matter. Jesus doesn’t try to present a comprehensive answer to every “what if” concerning divorce, nor is that his purpose. And it would be impossible this morning to try to attempt any kind of detail on the subject. Let’s try to come back to God’s original intention: Jesus says, “In the beginning…”
As I listen to Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees in Matt. 19, I am struck with what Jesus is really trying to communicate. They are concerned with what constitutes a “scriptural divorce” while Jesus says, “You don’t even understand God’s will for marriage … ‘In the beginning.’”
We need to hear two things about marriage that are God’s perfect will for marriage: That it is exclusive and it is permanent.
One thing you can know about God’s attitude toward divorce – he hates it. Divorce always involves sin. Somebody must always violate their covenant with God in breaking their covenant with their husband or wife. If you want to get to the heart of what Jesus is saying, it’s not about condemning, but reaffirming God’s love for covenantal faithfulness. God loves marriage. It thrills him when husbands and wives live in covenant faithfulness to each other.

God hates divorce because he knows the pain and the heartache and the shattered lives and the broken relationships that it leaves behind. But tragically, divorce occurs in human relationships, due to the hardness of people’s hearts.

And while God hates divorce, he dearly loves the victims of divorce. If there is healing to be found, if there is to be reconciliation in troubled marriages, if we are to understand how to treat those men and women whose lives have been devastated by divorce, it will be found in the loving forgiveness and healing of God.

This is where the church comes in, not in judgment and exclusion, but in ministry. For we have always dealt with sin and the consequences of sin. And our job is not to exclude people from the kingdom of heaven, but to minister healing and wholeness. By our own lives modeling faithfulness to our marriage covenants and faithfulness to God. I doubt there is a family here that hasn’t been touched by divorce – whether you have been divorced, or your parents, or your son or daughter, or brothers or sisters – we have all felt the pain and the heartbreak. And if you have been divorced, you don’t suddenly become a second-class citizen in God’s kingdom. It makes you one of those whom God has held through the storm and redeemed from failure and loved as only God can love. And if you are remarried, God’s will is the same as for every marriage – for faithfulness to your covenant and commitment to be the best husband or wife that you can be.

I don’t have all the answers to every question and contingency you might come up with, wanting to know who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s in and who’s out. Those aren’t the questions Jesus is answering.

What I do know is that we need to hear Jesus within the context of the Sermon on the Mount. It is not just the physical act of murder, but the attitude of the heart – hatred – which is the sin. It is not just the physical act of adultery, but the attitude of the heart – lust – which is the sin. You think you can justify the act of divorce with a piece of paper? It is the sin of breaking covenant which God hates.

If you come to this passage looking for a way out of an unhappy marriage; if you think Jesus is going to tell you who can, who can’t, who’s right, who’s wrong you’ve missed the point. Jesus isn’t providing a roadmap for divorce and remarriage.

No one can justify themselves by legalizing God’s will and minimizing his own responsibility by slipping through the loopholes. We are guilt of sin and in need of a Savior. Whether we murder or hate, commit adultery or lust, divorce through the proper channels or treat our mate like a piece of property – we stand convicted of sin. And we all in brokenness and poverty of spirit need to come to God’s throne of grace and mercy.