It was also said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But now I tell you: if a man divorces his wife for any cause other than her unfaithfulness, then he is guilty of making her commit adultery if she marries again; and the man who marries her commits adultery also.
[With these words Jesus continues to teach about the Law of Moses as the Sermon on the Mount continues. He takes some of the most important topics and explains to his disciples, in specific terms, what it means to be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires” (See Day 23).]
Jesus is referring to the Law stated in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 that a man can divorce a woman at any time without cause as long as he provides her with proper divorce papers so that she can legally remarry another man. Back in those days women were treated like property and if they didn’t behave themselves they were thrown out like trash. As long as the husband provided the proper papers, he could throw out his wife without a dime or even the clothes on her back. For no reason whatsoever. He could either throw out the kids, or keep them. His choice. It’s very hard to imagine the societal situation Jesus was addressing. When people married there were no vows to stay together forever. There was no understanding of marriage as some kind of sacred spiritual union. Divorce was not a sin. And polygamy was legal.
Adultery, on the other hand, was a serious sin in Jewish society at the time of Jesus, punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10). Adultery was defined as relations between a married Jewish woman and any man. Because Jewish wives were the property of their husbands, adultery was a serious violation of the property rights of the husband. If a man, married or single, slept with an unmarried woman or a married woman who was not a Jew, then it was not adultery.
Adultery was not considered cause for divorce because if there was proof of adultery, both the offending man and woman were executed. No divorce needed!
Look carefully at what Jesus says. Jesus says the innocent divorced woman and the man she remarries are guilty of adultery. But not the husband. He is guilty of making them commit adultery, but Jesus does not accuse the husband of being an adulterer. I don’t think he said this to make things more difficult for the woman who has been tossed out; I think he’s trying to instill some kind of sense of responsibility in the husband so that he won’t selfishly toss out his used wives.
Does Jesus intend that every rejected woman who has been fortunate enough to find another husband should be killed? No, Jesus gently implies that no one should be killed. Jesus says that a man has the right to divorce a woman who is guilty of adultery; he does not have the right to kill her. In this scripture Jesus sort of cleverly says that adultery should be punishable by divorce, not execution.
Are you following all this legal-ese? The reason it’s complicated is that life under the Law is very complicated and ambiguous, both then and now.
Marriage has continued to evolve since the time of Jesus. Today we “spiritualize” marriage and try to make it much more religious than it was in the time of Jesus. In Jesus’ time it was more of a property arrangement – a woman was the legal property of the man. About 1000 years after the time of Jesus the Roman Catholic Church turned it into a “sacrament” of the church and defined it as a union between one man and one woman. Although there is no provision for divorce (a big huge sin that will get you excommunicated), there is however a loophole called annulment, which is based on the assumption that marriage never really existed. Even after people have lived together as man and wife for 10 or 20 years and had kids.
All mainline Protestant churches perform spiritualized marriages, although most do not consider it to be a sacrament. Although divorce is frowned upon and every attempt is made to prevent it, it is usually not against church law so divorcees are still members in good standing in their churches. Nevertheless most Protestants feel that divorce is a sin and I’ve certainly never heard of a church that performs divorce ceremonies to release people from their sense of guilt and failure. Protestant divorce is tolerated but not sanctioned.
Although the church has tried to spiritualize marriage we continue to divorce, so civil divorce laws have become far more complicated and much more equitable over the years. Most states in the United States have “no fault” divorce where both parties can separate amicably. Wives often get half of the property and custody of children is shared. Many people enter into “pre-nuptual” agreements so that the division of assets is easier in the case of divorce.
My husband and I were married in a church, “in the presence of God.” The vow I took was: “I, Susan, take you, John, to be my husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.” My husband said the same things to me, and we subsequently we exchanged rings. We’ve been together 26 years and I assume we will stay together.
However we had both exchanged these vows before with other people and it didn’t work out. When I married the first time neither of us had any religious affiliation and so we wanted to elope and have a civil ceremony. Our plans failed when my aunt intervened and talked her pastor into marrying us, so we ended up having a spiritualized ceremony. The marriage was pretty much a disaster and ended as soon as we both grew up a little. There were no kids involved.
My sister got divorced, but she and her husband continued to raise their child together and support one another. Their divorced relationship was probably more functional and supportive than many marriages. They put aside their hurt feelings and have remained good friends for more than 30 years for the sake of their child and because they are both nice people.
I don’t think Jesus’ point here was to put more laws and sins in our rule books. He wanted men to stop using up women and throwing them out when they were no longer young or beautiful or competent or obedient enough. He didn’t want to literally label divorced women as adulterers and stone them to death; he wanted to scare the men into taking care of their responsibilities. It’s like that rule you see in stores – you break it, you bought it. He wanted those husbands to recognize that they have taken something from those women that can’t be restored with a piece of paper, and that they have an obligation to provide continuing support.
He also seems to state that once a wife commits adultery, it’s no longer a marriage. When the contract to remain exclusive sexually has been breached, then divorce is appropriate and the man is released from the responsibility of providing support for the unfaithful wife. The woman must suffer the consequences of her actions. But Jesus clearly does not believe that she should be killed – just divorced. That’s what he says.
I think that spiritualizing marriage places too much pressure on people. Many think marriage establishes some kind of supernatural link that makes them “one person” and that they will be like one person and will never disagree on anything important. I think marriage should be viewed as a beautiful partnership, a special commitment to your best friend to walk through life and share all of their joys and struggles. Although there is sex involved, it shouldn’t be based solely on lust or anything else so superficial and ephemeral. My husband is someone I can be myself with. He’s the person I can depend on no matter what. Even when I’m not at my best.
Today many people don’t want to bother getting married because they figure it will end in divorce anyway. On the other hand, gays are very enthusiastic about marriage. Both church and civil marital laws as well as divorce laws continue to evolve as they always have.
Marriage should be about true love, the kind that Jesus calls us to, a deep and faithful love that mirrors the love of Father God for all his children; the same love that Jesus came to reveal and affirm through word and deed. Out of the wisdom gained from marriage we are better able to love all of mankind. In the playpen of marriage we learn tolerance, patience, communication, and so much more. Whether it’s a civil, spiritualized, or common law marriage. I don’t think marriage is just about having kids, but when God blesses a marriage with children it just expands the circle of love.
Jesus says earlier that we should also heed the teachings of the prophets (Matthew 5:17). What do they say? “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel. “I hate it when one of you does such a cruel thing to his wife. Make sure that you do not break your promise to be faithful to your wife.” (Malachi 2:16).
I don’t think this word from Malachi applies only to marriage. I think God hates it whenever we turn away from each other. Relationships break apart all the time – best friends, parents and children, neighbors, co-workers, husbands and wives. It always hurts, whether you are married or not. A breakup with your father, mother, child, or best friend can be just as painful as splitting up with your spouse. I think it’s the heart of God that when relationships are broken we would all work together to mend them and live in some kind of peace. We may not be able to sustain that special partnership or live in the same house. We may not be able to share our finances or share a bed. We have to figure out what works, what’s best for the relationship. Sometimes that requires a little distance; sometimes it requires a lot. But whatever happens I think it’s important to God that we try to stay friends with everyone no matter what and help each other out to the extent that we can.
What does this scripture say to you?