This is part 5 of 8 in a series on what the bible says concerning divorce and remarriage. For the other posts see here:
The last post looked at the various elements that comprise Jesus’ sayings on divorce and remarriage. Now I’ll place each verse within its local context.
These two verses are one of six antitheses in Matthew 5 in which, each antithesis consists of Jesus presenting a well-known segment of the Law and contrasting it with a demand that transcends the Law[i]. These demands are merely pointers to a larger axiom: “You must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). This is what it means to have “righteousness greater than the scribes and the Pharisees” (5:20).
This antithesis is unique in that it pairs naturally with another one, the one before it. In that one, where the Law says “Do not commit adultery”, Jesus demands that even looking lustfully at another woman is, in effect, committing adultery. In a strict sense, this isn’t true. Adultery is breaking faithfulness in a contract/covenant. Marriage covenants of the day didn’t mention anything so personal. If the man started fooling around with another woman, then the covenant would (probably) be broken and adultery would be committed. But that misses the point. The lustful glance indicates the same heart-orientation as adultery, even if to a lesser degree. Thus Jesus’ demand heightens the Law’s demand and penetrates to the very core of one’s being. It’s also important to note that “lust” is merely the translation for a word that simply means “strong desire”. The imprecision is important. Again, if one was to scrutinize and mention the exception of one’s wife – surely it’s not wrong to have strong desires for a woman if she happens to be your wife – then that misses the point. Jesus is demanding a heart re-orientation, transcending law; not creating more law.
As this is the same orientation for all six antitheses, it would be straining the text of Mt. 5:31-32, to treat it as strict law: if you do this, you automatically commit adultery. The quote in Matthew 5:31 is taken from Dt. 24:1 though the wording isn’t strictly the same. In Deuteronomy, giving the “certificate of divorce” isn’t a command, but part of the “if statement”[ii]. However, the Law did generally permit divorces, with the exception of special cases, and the orientation of Jewish society during Jesus’ day was that the only thing hinging on whether or not divorce was morally valid was whether the certificate of divorce[iii] was given. Jesus contrasts and demands that in fact divorcing one’s wife constituted adultery in the same way as “strongly desiring a woman”, whether or not the divorce certificate was given or not. In effect, “you think you’re okay because you’ve issued a certificate of divorce when in fact your heart-orientation is of committing adultery.” That Jesus, via Matthew, mentions an exception just shows a pragmatic orientation towards the this-worldliness that we live in and the fact that marriage is something that depends on two, not just one.
To wonder about what exceptions allow for non-adultery divorce is to miss the point. Jesus is demanding a heart reorientation that takes marriage more seriously than release of obligation by mere certificate. It is only from this framework that one can truly consider actual scenarios in which divorce is an acceptable solution. If one assumes the traditional translation of the 5:32b, this is reinforced by mention that marrying a woman who has been divorced also is adultery. The heart-orientation transcends how man sees to how God sees. The man thinks he has a valid divorce when in fact he doesn’t and the woman who was let go should still in fact be married. (See my previous post for a different translation.)
The summary of all the antitheses is that “you must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). How “perfection” works out in this world with regard to ethics is not always a straightforward matter of law or code[iv]. This is especially true regarding marriage and divorce since one’s actions are so dependent on the second person that extenuating circumstances may warrant drastic measures while one’s “heart” may still be in the “right place”[v].
In the larger narrative of the this section of Matthew, the hard-hearted person, who cannot forgive or live in proper relation to others in Christ’s body (18.1-35), will also despise weaker people in society – in Jesus’ day, people like one’s wife (19.1-12; cf. Mal 2:14-16) or anyone’s children (19.13-15) – in contrast to Jesus, who is unimpressed by worldly status (19.16-22).
When we look specifically at the passage, much of the thought in Matthew 5:31-32 explored above is present in these verses as well. The first important thing to note here concerns the Pharisees question. What they specifically ask in verse 3, contrary to some translations, is “Is it lawful for a man to divorce for any reason at all.” Given that “they did this to test him” no doubt makes this episode connected to the Herod-Herodias episode in chapter 14 – hence, in part, mention of Jesus going back to Judea (19:1), where Herod ruled. Their specific question is not about whether divorce is permissible at all, but for what reasons divorce is permissible. This “any reason at all” mentality is merely the flip side of saying, “all you have to do is give a certificate of divorce and the divorce is valid.” In contrast, Jesus asserts the creation standard, which goes beyond human “hard-heartedness”. The standard is constant unity and mutual love and edification, not dismissal at the whim of a certificate. Those who think that marriage is merely annulled by a piece of paper find that, when they go to remarry, they’ve already committed adultery.
Being a parallel passage to Mt. 19:3-9, this passage in Mark shares much of the same thought as the Matthew counter-part: including the backdrop of the Herod-Herodias issue to the Pharisees’ question (Mark 6:14-29) and the overarching issue of kingdom-status within the narrative (children – 9:33-37; one’s wife – here; the rich man – 10:17-31; and Jesus, who transforms status by death on a cross – 10:35-45). The Pharisees’ question is slightly different and seems outright different at first glance: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” It seems like it’s the opposite question of Matthew 19 – Is divorce permissible at all? However, their response to Jesus’ counter-question reveals their orientation. All that’s required is a divorce certificate, as Moses permitted; that’s what makes it lawful to divorce. So their question and orientation is really no different than what Matthew attests to. Jesus’ answer is the same: what’s required is the creation standard, as Creator God made it to be - the standard of absolute unifying love, faithfulness, and edification.
Unlike the locations in Matthew and Mark, this one verse about marriage in Luke seems so out of place that even many commentators don’t know what to do with it. Even many translations struggle with it and place the verse in it’s own paragraph, which is hardly warranted. Again, within the larger narrative, there is a theme of kingdom status starting from the beginning of Luke 15. There the Pharisees and scribes gather and mock Jesus because he accepts “sinners”. The parables that follow speak of God’s acceptance (better yet, desire) being for the one who finds himself lost but repents (15:1-32) and is faithful to “the master” rather than possessions, which accord status (16:1-13 and 16:19-31).
The interlude of 16:14-18 centralizes on the authority of God’s kingdom (vv. 16-17), which should influence one’s values, and hence result in a values reversal (v. 15). Given what we know of the Pharisaic system in Matthew and Mark, that Jesus here responds with divorce equating to adultery cuts through their self-justification to condemn how they treat those of lower status, women, in the most fundamental of relationships.
Summary of Jesus’ Pronouncements
Jesus demands a reorientation of the heart - to have a heart and will that is nothing less than the perfection of Father God himself. This impacts the fabric of every aspect of our existence and being. But though Jesus’ pronouncements are absolute in this sense, this does not mean that he has given case law that covers every exception to what he has stated. In Matthew 5 he is giving a new law, which amounts to requiring an entirely different framework of the heart, not simply following a new, stricter law. In the other passages, Jesus is addressing those who are still operating under the old hard-hearted framework. As Paul says, laws are for lawbreakers (1 Timothy 1:9ff), which entails that it is not meant to further oppress those in exceptional (especially, oppressive) circumstances. The various complexities of fallen beings living in a fallen world make it certain that there will be times when living rightly does not entail living the ideal. The ideal for marriage is that two people be absolutely unified in every aspect of life as God purposed to function at creation. If there is someone who is bound to a situation where this ideal cannot be met on any level because the marriage union has been violated, the question of how to address the situation doesn’t come into view here.
[i] Some see Jesus merely correcting misapplications or misunderstandings of the Law held by contemporary Jewish leaders. However, in my experience this usually arises because of pre-commitments to the Law that are not shared by NT writers. Misunderstandings of the Law work into the mix, but Jesus’ statements transcend mere correction of misunderstanding.
[ii] It’s possible that since “write her a certificate of divorce” in Dt. 24:1 is somewhat superfluous within the long apodosis, that it was almost natural to understand the clause as an implicit command.
[iii] Per Mishnah, Gittin 9:3 “The text of writ of the divorce is as follows: “Lo, you are permitted to any man.” Rabbi Judah says, “Let this be from me your writ of divorce, letter of dismissal, and deed of liberation, that you may marry anyone you want.” The text of a writ of emancipation is as follows, “Lo, you are a free girl, lo, you are your own possession.”
[iv] This is new orientation is repeated in Paul in Eph. 3.18-19, Phil. 1.9-11, Col. 1.9-10, 1 Tim. 1.8-9, Rom. 12.1-2. For Paul, what’s required is a perfect knowledge, understanding, and discernment of God’s will and acting in accordance with that. Thus the Christian operates within the confines of love rather than law, enabled only by the Spirit – the manifestation of God’s personal dwelling with us. See also John 15:15 where we are no longer servants but friends of God.
[v] Craig Keener (Matthew, 2009, p. 466) notes that the exception clause would have been understood by Jesus’ audience as a legal charge. Nevertheless, as Keener implicitly acknowledges, this fact doesn’t obviate taking the verses as an ideal demand rather than strict law. As Keener aptly states, “… its purpose was not to lay down the law but to reassert an ideal and make divorce a sin, thereby disturbing then current complacency.” (Matthew, p. 191, quotes Davies and Allison 1988: p. 532).