Psalm 119: 1-8
1 Corinthians 3: 1-9
Matthew 5: 21-37
Week after week, we share in Scripture lessons which, taken all together in the course of three years, show us most of the Bible. I love the Bible dearly, and I seek to encourage all of you to love it, too. I hold it as one of our best ways of hearing from God— God Who loved us so much that, in Jesus, He gave Himself for us.
Once in a while, following this pattern of Scripture readings, we are asked to face some of the Bible’s passages that we find uncomfortable, even painful. We have one of those, this week: Jesus’ teaching on divorce, as found in Matthew 5.
God knows that our collection of folks called Bethel includes many who have gone through divorce. And God knows that generations of preaching, teaching, advice, and social opinion have entered our experience and our feeling and our thinking about divorce. Now, I feel God’s call to give you-all a heads-up about this week’s gospel reading. God does not want it to push you away from the Bible, nor from the gathering of the church which is the body of Christ. God wants you to receive Jesus’ teaching on divorce in the Spirit in which Jesus originally gave it.
Let’s start with the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where the teaching on divorce occurs. This segment begins with verses 17-20, in which Jesus explains that he has not come to cancel God’s requirements which were given through Moses and the prophets in the past, but rather to encourage his followers to an even higher standard of obedience to God.
Jesus then goes through seven topics that are addressed by the Law of Moses: murder, grudges or debts, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, self- defense, and love for neighbors. With each topic, Jesus offers a more kind and loving understanding of God’s will than what was common in his time. For example, when God’s command is “You shall not murder,” Jesus calls his followers to refrain from even insulting another person with words— far short of physically harming them. (Matthew 5:21-22)
So, when Jesus discusses divorce (verses 31-32), he begins by summarizing the Law of Moses as found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. I hope you will look it up and study it. It reflects a very harsh, patriarchal situation in which men were likely to get rid of a wife if he was displeased with her for some reason. It was all about the man’s power and privilege. Moses’ law commanded that the man at least give her a document to prove that she was no longer married and was free to re-marry to someone else. This was an improvement over the previous standard, under which the rejected woman would become a homeless outcast, hopelessly stigmatized and legally in limbo.
In New Testament times, circumstances for divorced women had changed from Moses’ times, but not all that much. So, more than a thousand years after Moses, Jesus gave his followers an improved commandment on top of the old one.
In the first part of Matthew 5:32 [my own translation, as word-for-word literal as I can manage], Jesus says, “But I say to you that every man loosing away his wife, aside from whoredom, causes her adultery.” The image of “loosing away” brings to mind untying an animal or a slave and sending it away. In effect, Jesus is warning men that they must think of their wives as neighbors for whom they must not cause trouble, rather than as property or sub-humans whom they need not love. If she has chosen to leave him to go behave like a prostitute, that’s another matter. But mainly, Jesus is telling men to think carefully about what effect their choice might have on the woman’s wellbeing, both practically and spiritually.
In the latter part of Matthew 5:32, Jesus says [again, my attempt at a literal, word-for-word translation], “And who[ever] [while] divorcing might marry commits adultery.” This seems to me to be a warning to all of us: if you’re tempted to divorce one spouse so you can marry another, don’t.
The past 150 years or so have seen the world turn upside-down, with regard to roles of women and men in society and marriage. I thank God that we can each, individually strive to attain our best potential and express the beautiful creation that God made in us. Yet this turning upside-down has also left us amid chaos, making it challenging to apply Jesus’ teaching to couples in our time. This calls for much prayer and discernment.
But no matter what, I have total confidence in this:
“No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid;
that foundation is Jesus Christ. -1 Corinthians 3:11