The Sermon, part 9: Third Antithesis

Read Matthew 5:31-32

“For I hate divorce!” says the LORD, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty, ” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” (Malachi 2:16)

0308_divorce_650x455It is quite often that we will hear that divorce is on the rise in the United States. News outlets, religious leaders, and even television networks have all used the claim that about 50% of all married couples end in divorce. It is the case that, back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s divorce was at an all-time high and that there seemed to be a a marriage crisis on the rise.

The most common stat for divorce in the United States is that 40-50% of married couples end in divorce. While, I am not entirely sure if that stat holds up or not, what seems to be true is that divorce rates among married couples is actually down from the early 1980’s. For instance, the New York Times reports that 70% of couples married in the 1990’s reached their 15th anniversary, which is up from 65% of couples married in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Of those married after 2000, 11% of college-educated couples were divorced by their seventh anniversary, and 17% of couples without college degrees were divorced.

As can be seen by the stats, there isn’t as much of a “marriage crisis” as is often reported. While far too many marriages end up in divorce in this country, without doubt,  some Christian circles often overplay the divorce rate in order to push their theological and, often, political agendas. Even more unfortunately, there are some people who have remained in their marital covenant despite suffering tremendous physical, emotional and/or verbal abuse because they have been taught that Jesus forbade divorce.

Jesus’ words have been used by the Church and by ministers in a way that has been damning to spouses who are suffering under domestic violence and oppression. Rather that being redeemed by the Redeemer, many abused spouses have found themselves shackled under an even more stringent law that what the Torah offered up. This is a real shame because Jesus’ words were intended to liberate, not oppress.

Again, Jesus offers up another antithesis here. The Torah permitted any man who got a certificate from the appropriate authority to divorce his wife. While some Jewish circles called for stricter measures, in practice this could be done for any number of reasons. It could be done for good reasons such as infidelity; however, it could be done because a woman was considered by her husband to be “lazy”, or “infertile”, or not eager enough in having sex.

What’s more, a woman could not get a certificate of divorce, only a man could. While there were provisions in the Torah to protect divorced woman, such as permission to remarry, such provisions worked better on paper than in practice. What man would marry a woman who had already been married and could not please her first husband? Often times these women would become destitute and were shunned by even their families for bringing shame upon their household.

Jesus, in this antithetical form, acknowledges what the law says and then replaces it with what he says: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32 NRSV). Notice, again, Jesus reverses the laws focus from the woman to the man. Jesus states that that any man who divorces his wife CAUSES her to commit adultery. This may sound harsh on the wife, but if you read it carefully, the culpability is really on the HUSBAND.

Again, this was not said by Jesus in order to establish a new marital LAW, but rather to teach the people that God’s ways and standards are higher than ours. Jesus isn’t pushing for a new sort of legalism, nor is Jesus looking for abused spouses to remain in abusive relationships; however, Jesus is showing the people that while the religious leaders teaches the Law as given to Moses by God, Jesus gives the Law with the very authority of God. The Law isn’t presented by Christ to enslave us in some sort of legalistic system; rather, the Law is presented to point us to Christ who is the fulfillment of the Law.

Yes, let us take marriage seriously. With that said, let us also take seriously Christ’s call to grace and humility. Let us recognize that none of us can live up to the Law by our own standards, let alone by God’s. When we overlook Christ for our own theological and/or political agendas, it is we who are divorcing oursleves from the one who God has joined us with: JESUS CHRIST. Let us keep that understanding in our hearts so that we will not find ourselves separated from the one who came to save us.

“If you feel that you can follow a few little rules or some clever gimmicks to make you a mature Christian, then you have fallen into a subtle trap of legalism.” – J. Vernon McGee

Lord, teach me to be open to your heart so that you can fulfill the LAW within me. Amen.

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