I said two weeks ago that Jesus doesn’t set God’s Law aside, he intensifies it and fulfills it. Last week, we saw that in the case of the law against murder, as Jesus goes beyond mere outward obedience to the letter of the law to point us to the purpose for which God gave the law; and I pointed out that in so doing, Jesus is taking the scribes and Pharisees head-on, because they taught and followed the law only at the literal level—they refused to ask if their interpretations of God’s Law were consistent with God’s purpose in giving it. This morning, we’re going to take our passage from Matthew 5 back to front, because it shows us the full force of Jesus’ critique.
You see, when we look at the law given through Moses regarding divorce, in Deuteronomy 24, we need to understand two things. One, divorce was rampant and uncontrolled in the ancient world, something that was done for even the most frivolous of reasons; and two, divorce was something men did to women, not the other way around. You’ll notice the Pharisees don’t ask, “Is it lawful for a couple to get a divorce?”—they ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” That’s not an accident.
The divorce law was given to protect women. One, it established that a man couldn’t divorce his wife unless he could prove some major moral failure on her part; no superficial reasons were allowed. Two, any man who divorced his wife had to give her a written statement—which, the way the Law worked, he had to give her in the presence of two witnesses—thus preventing him or anyone else from accusing her of being a runaway or a prostitute or whatever other ugly idea someone might come up with. And three, the decree that any man who divorces his wife is forbidden to remarry her might seem harsh, but it also served this purpose: it drove the point home, for any man who might be tempted, that divorce was nothing that could be done lightly and later undone.
As well, this law was given to protect God’s institution of marriage, in the exception that Deuteronomy makes and Jesus affirms. When there is a catastrophic moral failure within a marriage, such that the relationship is defiled, then divorce is permitted, because it’s a recognition of the death of the relationship which has already occurred. Note, neither Moses nor Jesus commands divorce; Jesus came to make dead people live, and he can raise marriages from the dead, too. But we can only control what we do, we can’t control what anyone else does, and so there are situations for which God allows divorce, as the best of a bad set of options.
Now, at this point, people tend to want to focus on what’s allowed and what isn’t, and start laying out all the lines and the rules, and I don’t want to go that way. Let me just say that the term Jesus uses here is not the word for adultery, it’s a broader word for sexual immorality; I believe his point encompasses what one of my mentors called the four As: adultery, abuse, addiction, and abandonment. I’m not going to take the time to lay that out, but what’s in view here is anything that breaks faith in a fundamental way with the person to whom one is married, that ruptures the relationship at its core.
What I want to point you to is the difference between this and the Pharisees’ attitude. They come to Jesus and say, “Moses commanded divorce, so why are you contradicting the Law?” From their point of view, what’s important about the law is that if you want to divorce your wife, you have to give her a certificate of divorce, and so they’re very particular about that; everything else, they’ve twisted into a pretzel. There were some rabbis, followers of the great teacher Shammai, who were trying to hold the line; but then there was Shammai’s great rival Hillel, and all his school, who held that “indecency” meant that “he may divorce her even if she spoiled a dish for him.” Later, the prominent Rabbi Akiva would add, “even if he found another fairer than she.” This is exactly the sort of thing the Law was given to prevent, and they’re using the Law to justify it—and in fact, insisting on it.
This is the problem with living only by law: if we measure our lives by the law, we tend (consciously or subconsciously) to shrink the law down to where we find it a comfortable measure. We look for ways to justify the things we want to do, and then we “interpret” the law to include our self-justifications. If you’re a Supreme Court justice, you use words like “penumbras” and “emanations” to do this; if you’re an ordinary schmo like us, you tell the cop, “Yes, I know I was technically speeding, but the conditions are good and I could see for miles, so it was perfectly safe”; but whatever ways we find, that’s what we try to do. And we don’t see, or we refuse to see, the damage we do in the process as we carry on doing as we please.
Once again, the Law isn’t fundamentally about behavior, because we can almost always find a way to rationalize doing what we want to do, even when we’ve been told not to do it; it’s about being in right relationship with God, with our families, and with all those to whom we owe faithfulness—and for that, everything matters. There are few concepts in our society more pernicious than that of the “victimless crime.” There is no such thing. As I said last week, we do not exist as isolated individuals, but in networks of relationships, and everything that happens to us—and everything we do, even to ourselves—affects everyone connected to us, and everyone connected to them, and so on. The question is never just, “Is this something I could get caught doing?” Rather, we need to ask, “Will thinking about this or doing this make my heart pure toward God? Will it strengthen my relationship with him, or my wife, or my kids, or my boss? Or—not?”
Both the Old and New Testaments use marriage as an image of God’s love for his people. The commitment to marry is supposed to be the deepest and most all-encompassing that we ever make to another human being—a pledge of exclusive devotion to one another with every aspect of our lives, to put one another ahead of ourselves and everyone else on the face of this planet for as long as life shall last. Yes, sometimes people make that commitment and strive to keep it, only to find it shattered by the person to whom they committed themselves, and so divorce happens. Yes, there are those in the church who have shattered marriages in the past through their own deliberate sin, who are now trying to follow Christ faithfully; like all the rest of us, they are sinners saved by grace. All any of us can do is try to make amends as we have the opportunity, accept the grace of God, and go forward from here. But how we go forward is the point.
And how we go forward is—not trying to justify our sin, but ruthlessly cutting out of our lives anything that tends to draw our hearts away from God, and anything that poisons our relationships with those we love and those who love us. For those of us who are married, obviously we owe this most after God to our wife or our husband. This doesn’t mean that any time we feel any temptation, we’re guilty of sin; as Luther said, we can’t stop the birds of temptation from flying over our heads. The point is, as he continued, we can keep them from building a nest in our hair—and this we are responsible to do.