Today’s passage is a doozy. It’s a common “clobber” passage used to judge others and exclude them from full fellowship in some churches. Even before you read this blog, please know that we are not a shaming church; we believe that God loves us all and shuns no one. Pastor John shared that these two verses in the Sermon on the Mount almost kept him from doing the entire series. Yet, like the rest of Jesus’ sermon, we are looking at the full context, looking at the heart of Christ, and exploring the deeper meaning of his words.
Here we go: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5:31-32 ESV).
The Passion Translation words it like this: “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her legal divorce papers.’ However, I say to you, if anyone divorces his wife for any reason, except for infidelity, he causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
And the NIV like this: “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 sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Before I go any further, I want to say that I believe God’s original intent for marriage is that it lasts, is fulfilling for both husband and wife, and a healthy reflection of God’s relationship with us. However, all the way back in the Old Testament we see that marriage didn’t look like this. And, in these two verses, Jesus is addressing the men. Why? Because in that culture they had power, and they abused their power.
Culturally, in that day, a woman had no rights. She was considered property and horribly undervalued. It was rare for a woman to be able to make it on her own; her chances for gainful employment were slim to none. Yet, a man could decide at any time to dismiss his wife, and send her out to fend for herself. His reason could be as simple as she over-salted his food. She had no value, and a hard-hearted man would not have a whit of care about what happened to her.
Let’s briefly recap what we’ve learned up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began with the beatitudes–the inner character that drives the outward behavior of Jesus’ followers. Then he says his followers will be like salt and light in the world–our depth of character and our presence making a positive, kingdom of heaven difference in the here and now. After this, Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. We’ve studied how Jesus spoke of the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery, yet jumped right over the action words and focused on the heart of the matter–anger and lust. Now we’re on these verses about divorce. Jesus has not changed direction; he is still concerned about the heart of the matter.
In the book of Genesis, when God created humankind, God said:
“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and overall the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (1:26-27)
In God’s original design, male and female each reflect who God is, each bears his image, and each was given the same task–to steward well his created world. Nowhere in the creation story does God create a hierarchy. Yet, all throughout the Old Testament we see men marrying multiple wives, sleeping with servants, dismissing and mistreating women–even among the patriarchs and kings.
Jesus enters the scene and models something completely different. Even before Jesus’ birth, we see God highly esteeming women. There are five women named in the genealogy of Christ. Tamar who was wronged by her husband and had to trick her father-in-law in order to bear a child; Rahab, the woman from Jericho who resorted to prostitution in order to survive and hid the Jewish spies on their way to the promised land— she married into the Jewish faith and gave birth to Boaz; Ruth, the widowed foreigner who honored her mother in law and later married Boaz. Bathsheba (Uriah’s wife) is the next woman mentioned. She was taken advantage of and then became one of the wives of King David who was the grandson of Ruth. A few generations later the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary first–not Joseph.
In Jesus’ earthly ministry he gives women his full attention. He encouraged Lazarus’ sister Mary’s behavior when she chose to sit at his feet and learn, just like male disciples did.
When the teachers of the law tried to trick Jesus and brought him a woman caught in the act of adultery (where was the man?), Jesus did not condemn her. Instead, he caused each man present at the scene to search his own heart.
Jesus interrupted his trip to the home of Jairus, the powerful synagogue leader, and gave his full attention to a woman who had been a bleeding outcast for twelve years. He gave her time to share with him her full story.
The account of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet shows us that he was not about to allow her to be condemned or poorly thought of.
The women present at Jesus’ crucifixion are named in scripture. The women are the first to see the resurrected Jesus and the first to share the news that he is alive.
The women are present with the men on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. They receive the very same power of the Holy Spirit, and together with the men share the news of Jesus in foreign languages to those within their hearing.
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is probably my favorite encounter. Jesus was speaking to a woman who was from a people group considered inferior to his. Both of those things were taboo. Scripture even tells us that when the disciples returned from getting food, they wondered why he was talking to her. She had been married five times and was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband. (Let me remind you–she couldn’t divorce a man, so she had been dismissed and abandoned five times). Jesus doesn’t condemn her, instead, she is the first person to whom he reveals his identity as the Messiah. Their conversation changed her life. She shared her story and his identity with those in her town, and they came to know Jesus as well.
Back to this week’s verses…Jesus is addressing the men. The man divorces, he is supposed to give her a certificate of divorce, his actions cause her to choose someone else so she can survive, and his actions defile her next husband. It all begins with the man, his abuse of power, a power over her that was never God’s intent in the first place, and the ripple effect of his choices.
The Passion Translation offers a footnote that says the Greek word for divorce (apolyo) can also mean “to loose,” “to dismiss,” “to send away.”By serving her divorce papers, a husband was required to return his wife’s dowry. The divorced woman would then leave his house and receive back her dowry. Think about that, he could dismiss her without papers and not be obligated to return her dowry, leaving her without means.
I have a Lebanese Muslim friend whose marriage was arranged for her. Her family provided a dowry to the groom’s family. When we lived near one another, we asked each other questions about our lives and cultures, so I asked her about that. She told me that the dowry wasn’t a “bride price”, but that it was like an insurance policy. She said if anything happened to her marriage or her husband, the dowry was what she would use to live on. I’d never heard that before, but The Passion Translation footnote indicates the same thing. In other words–“Fellas, if you’re going to be hard-hearted and dismiss your wives, at least be honorable. Give her what is rightfully hers so she has something to live on.” Jesus is addressing their hearts.
God shows us throughout scripture that he sees his relationship with us like a marriage. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with Israel was to be a model of his faithfulness and love to the nations around them. In the New Testament, the relationship between Jesus and the global church is supposed to show the world his love for us, our love for him, and our love for them as a result.
If you are divorced and have been hurt by the church, I’m sorry. Jesus’ words on divorce were never intended to be used as clobber verses, nor were we ever told to exclude anyone from fellowship with Jesus and his church. If you are divorced you are fully embraced and fully accepted by God. There is no condemnation in Jesus.
In the 1970s, my dad’s best friend was leading a weekend ministry event at a church in another town. He shared his testimony with the group, and part of his story is that he is divorced and remarried. A man came up to him afterward and asked: “What’s it feel like to be living in sin?” Pete responded: “I don’t know. You tell me.” It still makes me chuckle.
We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom, Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us.
We are seeing over and over again in this series a process that would be beneficial for each of us to adopt as we make our way through this world. What Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is picking up the law–one piece at a time–and processing it through the filter of a higher law, a law he modeled in every interaction recorded involving him during his life on earth. He ran every single law through the law of Love. The love of God and love of people, which are truly interchangeable, because if we are doing one well, it follows that the other will also be satisfied. The law may allow, require, condone ________ (fill in the blank), but what does Love require?
This is the question, the heart of the matter. It is what Jesus is getting at with every point he makes. You have heard it said… but what does Love require? This week’s passage applies the question to marriage and divorce. It might be the clearest, most straightforward distortion of God’s heart toward his children, because it addresses the stripping away of the inherent value of a woman–her identity as an equal image-bearer–and the reduction of a human being to property that can be used and disposed of at will. Can you think of other examples throughout history and even presently when the value of a human being was reduced to property? I can. Too many to list.
I think that’s part of the ache of these two verses. What Jesus was doing in his brilliant way, was lifting up the “leasts,” as he always did. In this case, the leasts are women. His words honor the value of a woman and, if followed, offer protection from systems that left so many displaced and destitute. Yet, somehow, these exact verses have been used to further abuse and devalue women and abdicate men from their responsibilities, at the hands of the Church. How did that happen?? It happened because, even as Jesus was reorienting the Law around the way of Love, those in power chose to make it about the words rather than the heart behind the words. It became about a list of dos and don’ts, and this short passage has been used against the very people it was meant to protect and left devastation in its wake.
Running the rules through the filter of Love makes all the difference. In regard to marriage and divorce, I’ve seen that difference firsthand. I’ve watched friends and family I love dearly choose the way of self-emptying, self-sacrificing love when they had every right to leave and never look back. I’ve seen people devalued and devastated choose to honor their vows even when their spouse has shattered theirs. I’ve watched, awestruck, as God moved through open channels of love to restore what was lost, as the pile of torn and tattered threads was woven into a tapestry more beautiful than should even be possible after such devastation.
I’ve also seen and experienced what can happen when a lesser love captures a heart. I watched my mom be discarded three times by the same husband, abandoned for other women and a brand new life, left with nothing but the bills and the children and her failing health. I watched her struggle to put food on the table as she worked long hours in multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. I watched as our church turned its back on our family while my dad was still allowed to attend with his girlfriend and her family. I saw my mom’s new church embrace her partially, but warn her that if she remarried, an adulteress she would be. I saw her ache for a community that didn’t really have room for a poor, divorced woman and her kids–one that certainly wouldn’t invite her to use the gifts she’d been given as a full participant in the kingdom within their walls. At best, she was a project, a charity case. She was marked.
Jesus didn’t want that for her. What happened to her was the exact opposite of what he called for in this week’s passage. What happened to her is what happens when we miss the heart of the matter, when we don’t process the law through the higher law of Love. And somehow, we all know there’s a better way. There’s a song that keeps running through my head as I write. Not some spiritual, worship song, but the chorus of a song I didn’t even know all the words to until I looked it up a moment ago. The song is Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, released in 1986. Here are some of the lyrics…
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, and I’ll look inside mine
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where’s that higher love I keep thinking of?
Facing our fear, and standin’ out there alone
A yearning, yeah, and it’s real to me
There must be someone who’s feeling for me
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love, oh (oh)
Bring me a higher love (my Lord)
It’s that higher love I keep thinking of…