July 20th Sermon on the Mount: Adultery and Divorce

Warning: since Matthew 5:27-32 is adultery and divorce, you might not want to share this with people whom might be disturbed by violent imagery or issues relating to sexuality.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The next few verses in the Sermon on the Mount continue the pattern of “you have heard it said, but I tell you…”  Each of these commands by Jesus takes the various laws of God and reworks them to make them both harsher and more loving.

Imagine a preschool that has a playground rule of “no hitting,” but you see that some children are squeezing or wrestling other children to the ground.  It would be right to expand the rule to “no mean touching.” The rule is expanded to control bullying and encourage kindness.  So, the rule is both stricter and more loving.

Matthew 5:27-30

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

A majority of men think of lust as the sin they can’t shake and a chief reason for despair.  Although vast numbers of married men have enough self-control and love for their wife that they would never commit adultery, this message from Jesus seems like bad news.  This situation applies to women as well, but it is usually spoken of in different ways.  The general assumption in our lives is that biological urges are very hard to control.  Sexual desire (or the desire to reproduce) can easily be compared to other strong impulses like hunger, thirst, or the desire for sleep.  The same sexual desire that can lead a couple together can also lead them in other directions. 

So the people who were patting themselves on the back for avoiding the sin of adultery are now miserable because they are told that they are sinning when they feel attracted to someone else.

No matter your opinion of what Jesus thought and felt personally, you can be sure that he knew that people’s sexual desire was a very strong impulse.  One of the biggest killers of women in the first century was death in childbirth.  The number of stillborn children was also a huge issue.    After that, the death rates of infants were so huge that many other cultures didn’t count babies as human beings until they were near one year of age.

The age that was thought appropriate for marriage would seem shockingly young to us.  Jesus’ mother, Mary, was probably about 13 or 14 when he was born.  You would think that the likelihood of death from the whole reproductive ordeal would be enough to make massive numbers of people celibate, but that was not the case.

An additional fact is that male-centered polygamy was still accepted in those days, and it was not considered adultery for a man to have sexual relations with more than one “wife.” King Solomon was famous for having 700 wives and three hundred concubines (1st Kings 11:3).  Women, on the other hand were limited to one husband.

The purpose of this statement by Jesus might be to eliminate adultery (“to nip it in the bud”) by warning people to resist the temptation to ponder adulterous acts.  A person might be tempted, but the sin begins when they ponder and become fixated on the possibilities of extramarital encounters. 

To support loving families and maintain the health of communities, it is necessary to fight the impulses that lead to infidelity.  The guidance Jesus gives is that adultery is best avoided by fighting the impulse to ponder it in the first place.

The harsh imagery Jesus uses of plucking out your own eyes and chopping off your right hand is shocking and not to be taken literally.  The parts of ourselves that we try to cut away are the sinful thoughts we cling to, feed, and grow.   Many people harbor grudges or contemplate scenes of depravity, violence or revenge again and again.  Having the thoughts are not sinful, but willfully contemplating doing harm to another person leads people away from heaven.  A person who lives for a moment of revenge will avoid salvation if they can.

The imagery of the right hand in particular is significant because the right hand was used for touching food and clean things while the left hand was reserved for touching dirty things.  A person without a right hand could be symbolic of the loss of the good things in life.

One Christian writer said, if we followed this advice literally, there would be nothing of us left to enter heaven.  There is no part of us that does not harbor signs of God’s goodness as well as elements of evil.

Matthew 5:31-32

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Again, the rules for men and women were very different.  In the older traditions a Hebrew man could simply divorce his wife, by making a public statement that she was no longer his wife.   Later on, the law was that a man could divorce his wife by simply writing it down and posting it for all to see.  Women had no right to divorce; even in cases of abuse and neglect.

Jesus makes this weak law a bit harsher by saying that the man can only divorce his wife if she is guilty of adultery.  But the process was still the same.  The posted statement of divorce would have to include a believable accusation of infidelity.   We can assume that men didn’t usually site their own adultery to justify a divorce.  The statement “anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” also seems extreme because it is also particularly hard on women.

We naturally think of our own society when we think about these passages.  Adultery and divorce are still part of modern life, but we need to consider the culture that Jesus spoke to in first century Palestine.

It was a culture that was dominated by men.  Women could live with their parents or be married.  The only women allowed a life outside of those two options were widows (who were not compelled to remarry and might be seen as head of a family).  There is very little written about sexual and physical abuse in those days because a father or husband was thought to be in his rights to treat his family as he pleased.  There were no police, no child-protection laws, and no sanctuary for abused women or children.   The best situation for a woman was often to navigate these situations with the help of a good father or loyal brothers.  Then, as now, many women were pushed into prostitution by men and many women were put to blame for being victims of rape.

There are many stories of sexual infidelity and abuse in the Bible.  Abraham and David are notorious for their failures of morality, and Genesis 19 gives us a strange story of incest.  In 2nd Samuel 13, we have the story of two sons and a daughter of King David: Amnon rapes his sister, Tamar, and is then later killed for it by the servants of his brother, Absalom.

So, these two statements by Jesus about adultery and divorce can be seen as an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.  By trying to decrease adulterous behavior and by making divorce harder, Jesus is doing something positive to keep women protected from betrayal and to keep them from being forced into the streets at the whims of their husbands.  Still, the first-century remained a dangerous time to live for women and men.

Infidelity and divorce are still problems because human beings haven’t changed much in the last twenty centuries.  We have the added pressure that sexual temptations are now the daily content of all kinds of advertising.  As it is easy to sell food to hungry people, you can sell everything from toothpaste to diamonds by suggesting a product may win you the object of your desire: Buy this car and you will have an attractive companion, by this perfume and you will be a beautiful, etc..

Of course, adultery and divorce can be forgiven.  On occasion, divorce is just loss and tragedy with nobody requiring severe blame.  But our ethical path is to encourage couples to develop and maintain loving relationships. 

Question to Ponder:  If anyone close to you has ever been divorced, were you able to support them regarding their loss? 


Pastor Rick