Adultery is unfaithfulness to one's spouse or accommodating another person's unfaithfulness to that person's spouse. Lust is one form of such unfaithfulness; divorce is another. The person who betrays his or her spouse by divorce is no less unfaithful to his or her marriage than the adulterer or lustful person and presumably warrants the same punishment prescribed by the preceding passage-damnation (5:29-30). Although Matthew does qualify the force of the saying, he wants us to hear its demand: marriage is sacred and must not be betrayed.
In principle, remarriage is adulterous because God rejects the validity of divorce. Employing the same teaching technique of rhetorical overstatement that pervades the context (as in 5:18-19, 29-30; 6:3; Stein 1978:8-12, 1979:119 and 1992:198; Keener 1991a:12-25), Jesus declares that God does not accept divorce; hence a divorced woman remains married in God's sight to her first husband, making her remarriage adulterous (5:32). (The image presumably addresses the woman because the Palestinian Jewish law in Matthew's milieu permitted men to marry more than one wife anyway, whereas the sharing of a woman involved adultery-Keener 1991a:35, 47-48; Easton 1940:82; but compare, somewhat differently, Luck 1987:103-7.) Precisely because the very term for legal "divorce" meant freedom to remarry, everyone understood that a woman without a valid certificate of divorce was not free to remarry (as in m. Gittin 2:1); but Jesus declares that if God does not accept the divorce as valid, remarriage is adulterous (19:6, 9; see similarly France 1985:123).
A few churches today take this passage completely literally and demand that remarried partners break up and return to their original spouses. If this passage did not employ rhetorical overstatement, their interpretation would be right; but their interpretation does not square with the rest of the biblical data (such as Jn 4:18, where the woman had five "husbands"). As common as divorce and remarriage were in antiquity (Carcopino 1940:95-100), Paul's letters would surely have reflected it had he been spending time breaking up new converts' second and third marriages. The Roman authorities, already concerned about subversive religious groups disrupting families (Keener 1992b:139-42), would have also noticed and acted swiftly! In practice, the strict position of churches that break up second marriages actually leads to new divorces-a position God surely disapproves of (Mt 5:19). (Supporters of breaking up second marriages sometimes cite 2 Sam 3:13-16, but because David had never actually divorced Michal, Saul's arrangement of Michal's marriage to Paltiel was illegal and adulterous; compare 1 Sam 19:11-17. Had that marriage been legally valid, Israelite law would have prohibited David from taking Michal back; see Deut 24:1-4.)
"Adultery" meant unfaithfulness to one's spouse, and remarriage is adulterous here precisely because in God's sight the original couple remains married. The moral issue of the image, however, is not remarriage but the validity of the divorce; although most people accepted most divorces as valid, everyone recognized that one could not remarry without a valid divorce. Jesus is prohibiting divorce in an incomparably graphic fashion (Keener 1991a:34-40, 43-44; Stein 1979).
In practice, this text demands that we love and serve our spouse. If integrity forbids us to violate vows in general (Mt 5:33-37), this principle applies most plainly to marriage vows (see also Mal 2:14). But most marriage vows promise more than "I won't commit adultery, lust after someone else or divorce you." Most people marry with the explicit or implicit expectation of enduring, mutual love; only in a secure relationship like marriage can people trust enough to intimately expose the depths of their hearts. Yet in all divorces, one or both parties is unfaithful to this implicit promise of marriage.
While Jesus gives divorce as an explicit example of marital infidelity, his principle of challenging all unfaithfulness to one's marriage as adulterous forces his followers to examine their own marriages more clearly. A man may never divorce his wife yet also fail to show her love; a woman may avoid affairs yet despise her husband. These too are acts of unfaithfulness to marriage (though they are not biblical grounds for divorce). If I am to love my neighbor as myself, how much more should I love my wife as my own body, to sacrifice myself for her willingly as Christ offered himself for the church (Eph 5:25)! Provided that my love for my spouse expresses rather than competes with my love for God (Mt 10:37; Lk 14:26; 18:29; Eph 5:1-2, 18-21), any gift of love I offer this daughter of God is too small a gift for the treasure of her sharing her life with me.
In warning against the sin of abandoning one's marriage, Jesus is defending rather than oppressing those divorced against their will. Yet instead of examining our own hearts and marriages as Jesus wills, some Christians today resort to the very kind of Bible interpretation Jesus was opposing. Jesus' words protected married people from the schism of divorce, but we sometimes turn them into a weapon against wounded Christians. Assuming that anger (Mt 5:21-22) and lust (5:27-28) are forgivable offenses because we have committed them, some nevertheless look askance at those who divorced in the past, as if that sin were unforgivable. Not content with that, some condescendingly claim to "forgive" innocent parties in divorces (such as a young mother who is single because she was abandoned by a drug-abusing husband). Perhaps none of us is a perfect spouse, and many of us live in a culture that confuses right and wrong, but the Bible does take sides on some issues. For instance, it plainly assigns guilt to the adulterer without assuming guilt on the part of the adulterer's spouse (Lev 20:10); nor may one automatically assume any more guilt for the abandoned spouse than for a spouse who is not abandoned (see Stephen 1993:14). Punishing one divorced against his or her will to show that we are against divorce makes as much sense as punishing a mugging victim to express our disdain for mugging.
Although many marriages do end by default, I have witnessed countless Christians who fought to preserve their marriages while spouses left them against their will; David Seamands tells me he has seen hundreds of such cases. Some in the church compassionlessly explain devastating illnesses as evidence of lack of faith, perhaps to assure themselves that they could never suffer them (compare Job 6:21; 12:5; Ps 38:11). Many other Christians do the same with divorce.
Matthew specifically states an exception. When Jesus offered a proverb stating a general principle (Mk 10:11; Lk 16:18), ancient hearers understood that such sayings often needed to be qualified for specific situations (Keener 1991a:22-25). Two similar divorce sayings in different contexts actually conflict if pressed literally: Mark 10:9 assumes that divorce should not but can occur, while the Q saying in Matthew 5:32 par. Luke 16:18 assumes that marriage is indissoluble and a genuine divorce cannot occur. But the conflict arises when we ignore Jesus' teaching style (Catchpole 1993:238): such a disharmony simply means that each saying must be read as a demand rather than a law, and the overarching social function of both must be recognized. That function is a call for absolute faithfulness in and to marriage.
To put the matter differently, Jesus' "purpose was not to lay down the law but to reassert an ideal and make divorce a sin, thereby disturbing then current complacency" (Davies and Allison 1988:532; compare Down 1984). In practice, the early Christians immediately began to qualify Jesus' divorce saying; other principles of Jesus, like not condemning the innocent (12:7) and the principle of mercy (23:23), would have forced them to do so in some circumstances.
For instance, when confronted by Christians wanting to divorce unbelieving spouses, Paul used Jesus' saying to forbid such an intention, but noted that if instead the spouse left, the believer was "not bound" (1 Cor 7:15). (Some others also view Paul's exception as implying that Jesus' prohibition is "not comprehensive"; see Blomberg 1992:111-12; Vermes 1993:34 n. 34.) Paul's words recall the exact language for freedom to remarry in ancient divorce contracts, and his ancient readers, unable to be confused by modern writers' debates on the subject, would surely have understood his words thus (see, for example, m. Gittin 9:3; CPJ 2:10-12, 144; Carmon 1973:90-91, 200-201, 189; Keener 1991a:61-62). Subsequent history has nevertheless saddled Christians with prejudices; thus, for example, after the NIV rightly notes that one who is married should "not seek a divorce," it translates the same Greek word for divorce as "unmarried" in the next line, where remarriage is permitted (1 Cor 7:27-28). One could presume that both uses of the Greek term "loosed" mean "widowed," of course-provided one consistently translates "seeking to be widowed" in this passage, which rather improbably suggests some lethal activity such as adding arsenic or cyanide to a spouse's tea. But most likely Paul addresses especially divorce and remarriage in this passage.
Paul's and Matthew's exceptions (Mt 5:32; 19:9; 1 Cor 7:15, 27-28) constitute two-thirds of the New Testament references to divorce, and both point to the same kind of exception: the person whose marriage is ended against his or her will. As Craig Blomberg reasons, other exceptions probably exist, but they must be governed by the principles that unite the two biblical exceptions: (1) both infidelity and abandonment destroy one of the basic components of marriage; (2) "both leave one party without any other options if attempts at reconciliation are spurned"; (3) both use divorce "as a last resort." That some will abuse this freedom (as Blomberg also warns) cannot make us insensitive to the innocent party who genuinely needs that freedom (Blomberg 1992:293). In other words, Jesus' exceptions do not constitute an excuse to escape a difficult marriage (compare 1 Cor 7:10-14); they exonerate those who genuinely wished to save their marriage but were unable to do so because their spouse's unrepentant adultery, abandonment or abuse de facto destroyed the marriage bonds.
Admitting the exceptional cases does not excuse us from taking Jesus' actual point seriously. Palestinian Jewish husbands could divorce for virtually any reason (Jos. Ant. 4.253), explicitly including their wives' disobedience (ARN 1A; Jos. Life 426), even burning the toast (m. Gittin 9:10; Sipre Deut. 269.1.1). In broader Greco-Roman culture (which Paul addresses in 1 Cor 7:10-16) either husband or wife could unilaterally divorce the other spouse without obtaining consent (Cary and Haarhoff 1946:144; O'Rourke 1971:181). By removing the right of divorce, Jesus is protecting a person from being betrayed by her or his spouse and demanding that we respect one another enough to do our own utmost to make our marriage work rather than abandoning the partner with whom we entered into covenant for life.
Although the thrust of this passage is faithfulness to one's marriage, Matthew's exception clause does not allow his readers to apply his rhetorical overstatement legalistically. Indeed, to read the Sermon on the Mount "legalistically as a set of rules is to miss the point; it represents a demand more radical than any legislator could conceive" (France 1985:106), still less enforce. Jesus' real point, which the hyperbolic image is meant to evoke, is the sanctity of marriage (see also 19:4-6; Efird 1985:57-59). Addressing the hardness of legal interpreters' hearts (19:8), Jesus opposed divorce to protect marriage and family, thereby seeking to prevent the betrayal of innocent spouses.
I believe that churches who punish innocent parties in divorces today interpret Jesus legalistically with hearts as hard as those of Jesus' opponents. They understand neither the point of Jesus' teaching nor the heart of God that motivated him (compare 9:11-13; 12:2-14; 23:23-24). But we do the same when we condone inappropriate divorce or the hardness of heart in marriage (19:8) that can lead to divorce or in other ways ruin the intimacy of one flesh that God commanded.
Starting your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus is easy. You’re already logged in with your Bible Gateway account. The next step is to enter your payment information. Your credit card won’t be charged until the trial period is over. You can cancel anytime during the trial period.
Click the button below to continue.
You’ve already claimed your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus. To subscribe at our regular subscription rate of $3.99/month, click the button below.
It looks like you’re already subscribed to Bible Gateway Plus! To manage your subscription, visit your Bible Gateway account settings.
For the best Bible Gateway experience, upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus. For less than the cost of a latte each month, you'll gain access to a vast digital Bible study library and reduced banner ads to minimize distractions from God's Word. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.