“When they were in the house again, the disciples questioned him about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. Also, if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery against him.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Sometimes truth is hard. That’s something our culture today doesn’t much like to acknowledge. We want truth to be whatever we make of it. That’s certainly a more convenient approach. If we run up against a particular wall of reality that doesn’t fit with the narrative we are currently crafting for our lives, we simply turn in another direction, declaring that “our truth” means we can ignore that wall and keep doing what we want. Yet truth simply is. When Jesus was asked about marriage by some Pharisees looking for a bit of wiggle room to keep living how they pleased, He responded with truth. When the disciples later asked Him about it again, He stuck to His guns. What He had to say wasn’t comfortable; in fact, it was hard. Let’s talk about it just a bit more this morning.
Jesus’ words on marriage were a bit of a shock to the sensibilities of most of the crowd gathered around Him when the Pharisees ambushed Him with the question. It was just assumed then that marriage was a temporary state of affairs. Most of the culture leaned in the direction of Rabbi Hillel’s more permissive attitudes about divorce and that was that. Getting married was good, but if it didn’t work out, well, at least you tried. Now you could just try again with someone else.
I say all of that because of what we see in these verses right here. When Jesus and the gang got back to wherever they were staying in the region, the disciples asked Him about it again. What Jesus said had gotten under their skin. It had turned their normal way of thinking on its head. They wanted Him to explain it all again in hopes of being able to get their minds (not to mention their hearts) around it. Perhaps when given another chance to unpack His thoughts, Jesus would back down a bit and make things a tad easier.
If I’m right in that being their hope, they were sorely disappointed. Instead of letting up a bit to give them some breathing room, Jesus doubled and tripled down on His earlier comments. If someone – man or woman – divorces their spouse and marries another person, they are committing adultery against their first spouse. No exceptions. No wiggle room. No going back. It’s just adultery…which was a crime then punishable by death. Yikes.
Well, this immediately raises some major questions if not just outright objections for us. We have a marriage culture today that is, if anything, even weaker than it was then. Divorce is easy and relatively cheap. It is also incredibly common. In fact, the trend today is to give up on marriage altogether. Young people are much more likely to opt for simply living together in a cohabitating relationship than they are to officially tie the knot. Of course, a growing body of sociological research holds with increasing certainty (another instance of science finally catching up to Scripture) that this is actually a terrible state of affairs that does far more harm to individuals and the society as a whole, not to mention almost incalculable damage to the next generation often being raised in such an environment, but cutting edge research tends to take a while to trickle down to any kind of a broad-based application, especially when it deviates so sharply from the current cultural narrative.
Still, though, if you are someone who is at all inclined to take Jesus’ words seriously, what are we supposed to do with this? This question becomes all the more pressing when you consider the sheer number of divorces and remarriages happening within the church today. On that score, we really don’t look all that different from the culture around us. Is this one of those places where we need to mostly ignore what Jesus said in one place because it’s simply too difficult to reconcile with our current practices?
Well, that would certainly be convenient. But it would also be disobedient, not to mention reflecting a badly flawed view of Jesus’ position and authority in our lives. If He is only Lord over those places where it’s least inconvenient for us, He’s not really Lord at all. He’s more or less a middle manager operating under our authority. Yet if Jesus is the Lord of all creation except for us, He can’t bring the salvation and life we so desperately need. So, let’s wrestle a bit with taking Him seriously.
The real struggle with what Jesus says here about divorce is that He doesn’t allow for any exceptions. He simply says that to divorce and remarry is adultery. Then He stops. Now, He makes things equitable in a way His culture wouldn’t have done. He was progressive on at least that point. But this isn’t really a helpful progressivism for our grappling with what He says. The trouble is, when Matthew records this conversation, Jesus includes a caveat for infidelity. Essentially, divorce and remarriage is adultery except when the divorce is the result of infidelity on the part of one spouse. Paul includes a similar caveat in his letters. Okay, so, which is it? Is divorce and remarriage wrong, period, or is it wrong except in cases of sexual immorality?
Can I be honest with you? I don’t know a precise answer to that question. Biblical scholars who are sincerely committed to honoring the text and getting Jesus’ commands right debate the matter back and forth and make compelling arguments as to why one approach or the other is right. I would encourage you to do some reading on the matter for yourself. Here is a great resource if you are interested.
That being said, let’s talk about what I do know. Some of this will be hard. Some of this will be uncomfortable. Some of this will be encouraging. First, divorce is always the result of sin. Without exception, when divorce happens the reason is that sin has won a battle. It has been given place to grow and thrive in one partner or the other or, as is more often the case, the relationship generally, and has accomplished its always destructive aims. I don’t say that as a way of placing guilt on folks who have walked that path, I say that simply as an observation on reality. It may be that one partner’s more thorough embrace of sin is what really brought the marriage to the point of no return, but without trying to sort out which side carries more of the blame, when divorce has occurred, sin is the ultimate cause.
There are two implications of this truth. The first is that we should always make preserving a marriage relationship our primary goal. Almost never is divorce a foregone conclusion. Many couples have endured incredibly trying circumstances and grievous sin on one or both sides, remained committed to preserving their marriage, did the sometimes excruciatingly hard work of repairing and restoring the relationship, and came out on the other side not only with their marriage in tact, but stronger than it had been before. Now, that’s not always a possible outcome, but it’s neither my place nor job to sort out when it is and when it isn’t. My job is simply to speak the truth: In nearly all cases, preserving a broken marriage is possible if both sides are willing to commit to the long and often painful process of healing and restoration. That’s not a task for the faint of heart, but those who commit to undertaking it are always glad they did.
The second implication, though, is that when a divorce has occurred, before even the slightest glimmer of a thought comes into play about pursuing a path of remarriage, the issues of sin that lead to the divorce need to be confronted, addressed, and resolved in their entirety. Even if your part of the sin was so small that you almost can’t see it, you need to deal with it. And if, by chance, you really were totally guiltless in the whole affair, before you can move on to another relationship, you need to let the wounds the divorce has dealt you be healed. That means you need to completely forgive your ex-spouse for their sins against you. If, on the other hand, you were the one committing the more painful sin (i.e. you cheated), you need to repent fully of your sin and commit to walking a path away from that sin with a firm and loving accountability structure, before you even consider getting into another relationship. And, before you even process the thought of moving into a relationship with a person coming out of a situation of divorce, you need to make sure they have done these other two things before moving forward a single step.
Okay, but all of this simply assumes divorce and remarriage is okay (and, spoiler alert: I think it is). But how do we reconcile that with what Jesus says here? Here are a couple of thoughts. First, Jesus is right in what He says here (and not just because He’s Jesus either). Marriage is intended to be a permanent bond. Think back to the unity candle ritual we talked about yesterday. If you take that new flame created as one from the original two, the flame of the original two will always be a part of it. Even if you were to divide it back out to two separate candles, there’s no way to separate back out one part from the other. All subsequent flames, no matter how many other flames you add to it, will bear some of those original two. The same thing goes with marriage. Once that bond has been made, and one flesh from the two has been created, there’s no way to fully and permanently separate them back out from each other. You can end the relationship and enter into a new one, but part of you will be shaped by and carry that original union. You will be, in a sense, violating that original covenant every time you act on a new one. There’s just no way to avoid that.
That’s not the end of the story, though. Second, and of more pastoral importance, Jesus doesn’t say remarriage is impermissible here. He says it is an act of adultery. That’s different. Adultery is a sin. No question on that. But it is not an unforgivable sin. If you have walked down this path already, the wonder of the Gospel is that there’s grace for that. God can still use your life – and your marriage – in powerful ways if you will submit it to Him in trust and obedience. There is no brokenness so great that He cannot redeem and restore it to righteousness if we will entrust ourselves more fully into His hands. Anyone who preaches or even simply behaves otherwise doesn’t grasp the full measure of the power of the Gospel to transform our brokenness into wholeness.
Bringing all of this down to a single point, I think this is the truth that beats at the heart of this conversation: Sin doesn’t make us incapable of being right with God. Where sin exists, grace shines all the brighter when we embrace it. But we have to embrace it. We have to repent and seek His forgiveness before we can successfully move forward. If we will, though, there’s no end to the good God can accomplish with a life that is submitted fully to Him no matter the circumstances of its past. That is a truth on which you can stake your very life.