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Marriage, Divorce Reasons and Remarriage, Matt 5:31-32
In teaching on life in the Kingdom of Heaven (KOH) – the life that God intended for all human beings – Jesus addresses his third ethical requirement of God’s law. God’s law is his will and plan for human flourishing. God gave us his blueprint for life and community so that we can truly enjoy all God intended for humanity.
So, in this third ethic that Jesus addresses, he says it’s not about divorce per se, but rather about the integrity of marriage and thus the reason for divorce… and remarriage. Jesus naturally moves from anger in relationships (Matt 5:21-26), to lust and adultery (Matt 5:27-30), to marriage, divorce and remarriage.
Moses allowed divorce (Deut 24:1-4) because of “the hardness of the heart”, as Jesus notes in Matt 19:8… adding that “it was not so in the beginning!” He’s referring to the creation texts in Gen 1:27, 2:24 (see Matt 19:4-6). Divorce in Palestine was scandalously common and easy, just as it is in our day! Men could simply write “a certificate of divorce” for almost “any and every reason” (Matt 19:3), then give it to his wife and send her out the house. Men could divorce wives unilaterally while women could only demand a divorce under certain very narrow conditions, and even then they needed the court’s help (which favored men). Women were largely powerless victims, blamed for divorce. They had to remarry in order to be economically supported and secure. And the social taboo of being single – divorced and not remarried – was unbearable. Jesus’ answer to this sad ‘issue’ was radically subversive and confrontational in two ways:
First, according to Matthew (Matt 5:32, 19:1-9 cf. Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:18) Jesus gives only one cause for divorce: sexual immorality (adultery). That is what, in effect, breaks the marriage covenant before God. Sexual intimacy and union was seen as the consummation and celebration of the marriage covenant, the symbol of integrity and bonding for new life (children) in the covenant relationship. To violate that was to break covenant.
Here Jesus agreed with Rabbi Shammai, his contemporary. They both differed with the more liberal school of Hillel that taught divorce was allowed for “any and every reason” (Matt 19:3). However, Jesus was more radical than Shammai in terms of remarriage: Shammai allowed remarriage for any divorce; i.e. he wasn’t logically inconsistent. Jesus argued that if a woman is divorced for any reason other than sexual immorality the man makes her “a victim of adultery” when she remarries. And besides, he commits adultery when he remarries a woman who was so divorced; i.e. divorced for illegitimate reasons (v32).
Second, in saying that adultery is the only valid reason for divorce, Jesus is showing up male culpability and empowering woman’s dignity in marriage and society. How so? He just defined adultery (Matt 5:27-28) by challenging the men: if they look to lust after a woman, committing adultery of the mind, it’s as good the action. Thus Jesus exposed the many men in his day that believed they could divorce their wives for any reason, exposing their own adultery – of the heart – probably committed daily? Just as it is in our day?
Jesus is saying: those who’ve entered the KOH live in a new and different way. They live God’s new covenant by the enabling indwelling Holy Spirit, in integrity of love and marriage, by purity of heart and relationship. They deal with anger and lust in their hearts, cutting it off at its roots. Thus they live God’s original marriage-creation design of a male and a female united as one in a covenant of love ’till death do us part’ (Matt 19:3-9). This is the ‘bedrock’ of marriage on which Jesus based his views, “therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate!”
And this is also the basic paradigm for all relationships, for all societies: we should live covenantally with one another, honoring each other with purity and integrity of heart, not lusting after each other, not betraying or being unfaithful in relationships, not allowing anything to divide and divorce us from each other, rather resolving our differences and forgiving one another of our sins against each other.
Note how Paul applies Jesus’ ethic of marriage, divorce and remarriage in a new context in 1Cor 7:10-16. He first affirms basic Jesus’ principle in 10-11 (“not I, but the Lord”), then he applies it to a new situation: a marriage where one spouse is not a believer. Here Paul gives his own view (“I, not the Lord”, 12-16). This does not mean Christians knowingly married unbelievers. Most first generation Christians were converted after marriage (marriages were generally arranged by parents).
The issue was: what if the unbelieving spouse wanted to divorce the believer – presumably due to reasons of faith? Paul’s answer to the believing partner is ‘yes’: “let it be so.” However, he qualifies it by saying the believer should not divorce the unbeliever but remain in the marriage as a witness to Christ. Roman society, unlike in Jewish Palestine, allowed either partner to divorce the other. In such cases the believer is “not bound”; i.e. they are free to remarry. But, Paul adds another qualification, they must remarry a believer in the Lord.
“Bound” or “not bound” was legal language in those days for slavery and freedom, for divorce and remarriage, for rabbinical rulings on ethical issues that were binding on (Torah observant) Jews. Paul uses being “bound” as meaning married in God’s sight and “not bound” as meaning not married in God’s sight; i.e. legitimately free to remarry.
Like Paul, we must learn to apply Jesus’ ethic to new contexts by thinking through the right response. I.e. we must not naively impose the literal absolute on the situation – that is legalistic fundamentalism. But neither must we allow every changing context to re-interpret and even change God’s original creation design, ethical principle and good intention for human flourishing – that is liberal relativism. Rather, like Jesus and Paul, we must courageously uphold, intelligently interpret and compassionately apply God’s revealed will to the issues we face in our day, just as they did in their day – that is godly wisdom.