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Matthew 5:31-32

31 It was also said, "Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

We are working our way through a series of six sections in which Jesus develops the idea of true righteousness.  After telling His listeners that He has come to fulfil God’s Torah, to actually be our righteousness, Jesus goes on to say “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  True righteousness, living by God’s will and intentions, is a righteousness that goes beyond what they have seen in the lives of the scribes and Pharisees.  It is a righteousness that involves our very nature, our deepest being.  It is not merely making sure you do the right things or even say the right things.  It is to be set right from the depth of your soul.  It is to be truly made right, to have the totality of your being in line with how it was created to be. To have this righteousness, we must be made right.  It is impossible for us to achieve this on our own.  We are already not right in our inmost being.  We are broken and often less than good and helpful in our thoughts and actions.  We need the righteousness Jesus offers us in Himself as the One who fulfils God’s Torah, His purpose and will, and offers it to us as a gift to be received from Him through communion with Him.

In these six sections Jesus invites His listeners to go beyond an attitude that righteousness is something that we can do if we try hard enough.  God is not interested in just getting us to do a certain amount so that we fulfil a number of requirements.  Righteousness, in the end, is not mainly fulfilling our end of a contract, doing our duty.  Righteousness is far more about who we are, rather than what we do, say, think, or even feel.  All these things are still not at the bottom of what righteousness is.  God desires to make us so that we are completely right, at home with Him.  Of course, when the core of our natures are set right, what flows from our emotions, attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions will be right as well..

This section is actually connected with the previous section we just studied and has to be seen in context with what Jesus just finished saying.  In the last section Jesus is speaking about the roots of adultery.  When I looked at this section I chose to emphasize the need for God’s righteousness in our thoughts and broaden the application of the text to include everyone.  Now we need to go back and look at it more narrowly, in the actual words.  Both this previous section and the one we are now looking at are addressing men and their understanding of and relationship to women in general and their wives in particular.  In both sections Jesus deals with adultery. 

God speaks against adultery, as I stated in the last study, in the ten commandments.  Adultery is sexual unfaithfulness in marriage.  God intended for marriage to be a sign of fidelity, ultimately of His fidelity to us.  The image of adultery is used in the Old Testament to speak of Israel’s running after other gods.  God’s righteousness is right relationships between us and God and between  us and others.  When we are in right relationships, the relationships we were created to know and enjoy, then there will be perfect faithfulness and therefore complete vulnerability and intimacy.  When a marriage is rooted in faithfulness between husband and wife, it reflects the greater, more perfect faithfulness of God to us.  But our relationships are only signs, pointers.  The deepest reality is God’s faithfulness to us. The deepest truth is that God will never be unfaithful to us, will never leave or divorce us. 

In the first section on adultery, the one we looked at last time, Jesus is leading His listeners to see that destruction to the intimacy and faithfulness of the marriage relationship takes place way before any possible real act of adultery.  That act of adultery and all the pain that it causes, begins in a lustful look.  To be righteous, to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, to be continually and always in right relationship with one’s spouse--to be able to enjoy giving and receiving love in a faithful relationship where there is no fear or doubt.  This is the righteousness Jesus gives us in Himself, this is the righteousness He is growing us up into. 

As I have mentioned before, Jesus is leading His listeners to realize that to ask the question,  “What do I need to do to fulfill the law?”  often leads to the question “What can I get away with?”  or “What is the minimum I need to do to fulfill my duty, or my end of the bargain?”  But this kind of thinking is not from the heart of God and cannot lead us to “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  God is drawing us to long to see all things filled to overflowing with righteousness, to be made right ourselves and to see all of creation made right.  To ask questions like “What is the minimum I need to do...?” is to hope to have the appearance of righteousness and the benefits of righteousness while remaining twisted  and broken at the center of our being. What real fruit could be had from such an arrangement?

So Jesus speaks to our tendency to try and hide our unrighteousness in our thought life in the first section, and more specifically, for men to hide their sins of adultery against their wives by indulging in lust.  In the section for this study, Jesus is addressing the common practices of divorce in his day.  There was always provision for divorce and remarriage in the Old Testament.   Deuteronomy 24:1 says, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because of something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of the house.”  Jesus says in Mark that it was because of their “hardness of heart” that this provision was made.  Divorce obviously does not reflect God’s faithfulness to us.  But God provides for it because we are fallen and sinful human beings.  Laws governing divorce and remarriage were intended primarily to protect the woman, to prevent falling further in sin. Women in that culture were primarily cared for by men:  their fathers, their husbands, or their sons.  A woman who was given a certificate of divorce by her husband was then able to remarry and be taken care of.

It became a subject of great debate as to when a divorce should actually be allowed.  What was considered “objectionable” enough about the woman to warrent divorce? Many thought that divorce was primarily intended to be allowed in cases of unfaithfulness, but others were more broad in their interpretation. The Mishnah records this debate as it developed between the rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai:

"The School of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. And the School of Hillel say: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written: Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. R. Akiba says: Even if he found another fairer than she, for it is written, And it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes."(Kingdom Ethics, IVP, p. 278)

You can see what has happened.  “A text that was intended to protect women from being casually divorced was now being examined in search of commands and permissions enabling men to know when they might initiate divorce.”(ibid., p. 279)    What has occurred in the hearts of these people?  Instead of loving God’s intentions and character,  they now want only to be justified, to do “enough” that they still appear righteous but to actually life their lives with no concern for right relationships that really honor the God to whom they belong.

By Jesus’ day men were using divorce as a way to become interested in and sexually involved with a woman other than their wife and yet try to maintain that they were righteous because they were not committing adultery.  These men would divorce their wives in order to marry their new interest.  Since divorce was allowed, or some would even would say “commanded,” they could convince themselves that this was all perfectly lawful and did nothing to change their status before God.  They “forgot” God’s orginal intent for marriage and the reasons He allowed for divorce.

So Jesus sets the record straight here. He tells His listeners, “every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress.”  This makes sense in that adultery is in itself a tearing apart of the “one flesh” of marriage.  It breaks the marriage apart at its very core.  There was a real “one flesh” that occurred in this marriage Jesus is saying.  It is not something to be broken on a whim without consequences. You think you are avoiding the sin of adultery because divorce is “commanded” by Moses.  But you are now using the divorce law to do whatever you want with the woman you are united to in marriage.  Adultery is committed by this kind of act Jesus says.   By forcing her to go out and remarry when there was no real unfaithfulness in the first marriage, the man is making his wife an adulteress.  Divorcing, legally or illegally, with the intent to join with another is not righteousness, it cannot be a faithful reflection and sharing in God’s own faithfulness to us. Entertaining the thought of somehow legally abandoning your spouse is where unfaithfulness begins. A legal devorce might be where it leads. But when the remarriage is justified on the basis of mere legality, we do not have righteousness, but adultery.

Jesus finishes His thought with these words, “and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Here Jesus is just following out the consistency of his approach by identifying another supposed legal loophole used to maintain the appearance of righteousness. Some men properly divorced their wives to marry another woman.  Of course women could also seek a divorce or attempt to get her huband to divorce her in the hopes of marrying another. So whether  a woman or a man divorced in order to get remarried to another, this was no righteousness, but unfaithfulness. And this is what Jesus saw going on around Him in the name of righteousness.

Really counting on God would first mean hoping and trusting in Him to see if even a broken relationship might be remade and transformed. Seeking reconciliation is faithfulness that comes out of trust in the working of God. If and when there might result a divorce, it would come as a great sadness because one or the other party was unwilling to pursue healing and transformation and reconciliation but rather continued to live in unfaithfulness at some level in the relationship. Divorce would be a very last resort when the God who made them one flesh, knowing the limits of the broken relationship grants a grievous permission because of the hardness of one or the other’s heart.  It would be a thing that God allows and that we repent of at the same time. We admit that it does not repesent God’s own faithfulness.

However,  that grief, suffering and repentance while real and agonizing is not the last word from God. God can restore blessing to the repentant one. He may even  grant remarriage as a gift of grace that has no need to be legally justified. Only the blood of Christ can cover our past failures of any and every sin, those we commit or those commited against us. New signs of God’s faithfulness can spring up even as another whithers away.  Because what God wants for us is a life in which His blessing of faithfulness, especially when He grants us marriage, is gloriously reflected in our lives. For that is what we were created for. Truly right relationships with God and with each other. That is the gift of righteousness that comes from our faithful God.


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