Commentary on Matthew 5:31-32 Regarding Divorce

Matthew 5-31-32Below is a portion of the commentary by Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs I read in my Sunday morning Bible study on February 16 regarding Jesus’ words in His Sermon on the Mount regarding divorce, specifically Matthew 5:31-32.

First, Dr. Gibbs’ translation of Matthew 5:31-32 from the Greek text:  5 31“And it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give to her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I myself am saying to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for a matter of adultery, makes her to have adultery committed [against her], and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Below, a portion of Dr. Gibbs’ commentary on these verses:

Is God’s will for marriage merely that when a divorce is chosen, the divorce should take place according to some legal procedure that grants a measure of protection and future security to the wife who is being put away? With divine authority Jesus reveals the truth that marriage is much more than that! In a stunningly comprehensive revelation, he categorically denies the validity of divorce in general, though he acknowledges that where sexual unfaithfulness (πορνεία) has occurred, then divorce may be regarded as permitted. Divorce is never God’s will or intention. When a man divorces his wife, he separates what God has joined together (see 19:6), and it is the same as him committing adultery and forcing his injured or innocent wife into a remarriage that, likewise, is tantamount to an adulterous union because it destroys the marriage union that God has created (5:32a). Jesus’ words continue to address the same situation in 5:32b. Even a man who marries a woman who was wrongfully divorced—who was divorced for a reason other than sexual unfaithfulness—participates in the violation of the original marriage; he too commits adultery!

Divorce is the same as adultery, because both violate and destroy marriage. However, is divorce the same as adultery in every respect? As with the previous topics (anger versus murder in 5:21–26 and lust versus physical adultery in 5:27–30), so here too, even though the two sins may have different practical consequences, both are equally culpable and damnable in God’s sight. Nevertheless, divorce is not the same as adultery in every way. When two people are involved in literal adultery, both parties are equally guilty. But an unjust divorce, that is, one that occurs for a reason other than literal adultery, involves the wronged spouse in “adultery,” and yet she is not guilty. Practically speaking, divorce inflicts greater harm on children, relatives, and the fabric of society, whereas less harm is done by adultery if the spouses can reconcile and remain married…

Furthermore, should Jesus’ teaching in 5:31–32 be understood as a comprehensive declaration that covers every situation and that brooks no qualifications or exceptions? On the face of it, that seems inherently unlikely…Perhaps it might be helpful to offer just one example of how it seems unjust to take Jesus’ teaching literalistically. Jesus declares that if a wife is wrongfully divorced by her husband, then he makes her participate in adultery. Yet she is the innocent party! What is she to do if her sinning husband then remarries, precluding the chance that she could reconcile with him (cf. 1 Cor 7:11)? The Lord’s words “everyone who divorces his wife … makes her to have adultery committed [against her]” (Mt 5:32) can hardly be understood as saying that the innocent party in a cruel divorce must not remarry, lest she be guilty of permanent adultery with her second husband. Moreover, if a man is permitted to divorce a wife who was guilty of adultery, would that guilty party then be free to remarry? That is what a literalistic reading could conclude, for Jesus’ words, strictly speaking, only forbid unjust divorce and remarriage after an unjust divorce. To the other extreme, a strict, literalistic reading of Jesus’ words might dictate that even an innocent spouse who is wrongly divorced could never remarry. But the Lutheran tradition, at least, has not been willing to read Jesus’ words in that way. The Lutheran Confessions label as unjust “the tradition that prohibits remarriage of an innocent party after divorce.”

I am acutely aware of writing these words in the early twenty-first century in the context of the morally relativistic climate in North America. Divorce is rampant in society at large, and the situation is only somewhat better among the ranks of those who hold membership in a Christian church. I am also acutely aware of the extent to which sinful human beings will abuse the teaching of Jesus in 5:31–32 once they are told that Jesus doesn’t cover every possible situation here. That problem of abuse, however, cannot be solved by pretending that 5:31–32 is something that it is not. There are ways in which divorce or remarriage are not the same as adultery. Jesus’ teaching here does not specifically address every conceivable situation that would allow divorce. Neither does he include circumstances that would allow a divorced spouse to remarry another. If one were to presume that he did, then the inevitable conclusion would be that the apostle Paul contradicts the teaching of his own Lord and Master, since Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 has a more extensive discussion that includes such allowances.

Nevertheless, what Jesus does teach is just what he says. In his day, as in ours, the common presumption in society was that divorce was not that big of a deal, and the important matter was just to carry out the divorce in the right way. Against this, the Lord’s voice of authority thunders! Divorce is sin! Divorcing your spouse is like forcing her or him into an adulterous union! Divorce, like adultery, shatters a sacred union that God intends to be permanent. Even in the case of a spouse’s sexual unfaithfulness, Jesus allows, but does not command divorce. Those who think that the goal is how to divorce and then “still be friends” or have an “amicable divorce” or “realize that neither one of us really was to blame” have strayed far from God’s will in the Torah, which Jesus clarifies and amplifies in his teaching for his disciples. In this brief teaching, Jesus simply says, “Do not divorce.” To do so is, in the sight of God, as terrible a sin as adultery itself. Instead, let your light shine in the presence of other people; be faithful to your marriage vows, and so bring honor to your Father in heaven (5:16).

(Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 1:1–11:1 in Concordia Commentary series (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 294-296.)

About Past-or Present

My name is Greg Michel. I am a baptized, redeemed child of God, the blessed husband of my beloved bride, and the proud father of one son and one daughter. I am also the pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Milan, Illinois, a congregation of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. My blog is simply some present thoughts that either I have or I run across, specifically in my life and calling as a Lutheran pastor.
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