"Jesus, Adultery, Divorce, Grace"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching
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On the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the CHBC Divorce Support Recovery Ministry
On this day when we celebrate the hope and help our divorce recovery support ministry has brought to thousands, why would we listen to a biblical text that seems to be so hard on divorced persons?
David Fleer says of this text: it “doesn’t travel well alone, doesn’t dress up nicely as refrigerator art, is not a top ten favorite in any church poll, and no one’s composed a contemporary Christian song about it.”1 So why are hearing it today?
Well, as a congregation we are making our way through the Sermon on the Mount this winter and spring, and so we can’t ignore this text.
It is also the lectionary gospel that we often follow and that churches all over the world are following today - and so we join with other Christians in hearing this text.
But I have decided to take on this text today primarily because it has been extricated from the Bible as a cruel law and used against divorced persons for so long, and I think we should place it back in its biblical context and see if there is something here and in the larger gospel that can be good news for divorced persons and for all of us.
1. Nobody is perfect.
Before we go any further I think we need to acknowledge the larger gospel truth that no one is perfect. (If you think you just might be the exception, ask those who live with you!) To varying degrees our relationship with God and others is broken and fragmented. And so that leaves none of us free to judge others. In fact, Jesus will warn us later in this Sermon on the Mount against judging by saying, Do not try to get the speck of dust out of someone else’s eye when there is a log in your own.
Lust, adultery, and divorce may not be the form of your brokenness, but not one person stands with perfect relationships and pure hearts. When we are honest, our hearts will tell us that we are all broken men and women. And it’s an even larger gospel truth that when our hearts condemn us God’s grace is greater than our hearts.
2. Sinful lust and natural sexual desire
The Sermon on the Mount is concerned about our behavior, but it also moves deeper to address the condition of our hearts from which our behavior springs.
Jesus says, referring to the Ten Commandments, “You have heard it said, You shall not commit adultery.” Clear enough. We are not to have sex with another person’s spouse. But, Jesus says, I say to you, Whoever looks upon a woman with lust has already committed sin with her in his heart.
In Jesus’ day, adultery was applied almost exclusively to women. Usually the woman was blamed when men developed lustful relationships. That’s why, in the biblical story of the woman caught in adultery, only she is brought to Jesus. Here in Matthew Jesus is speaking directly to men, addressing the sexism of his world, and puts responsibility squarely on the man for his actions, habits, and practices.
We can also make this text more inclusive without violating its words. We know that women can lust just like their male counterparts. So this is a text for us all.
In his infamous 1976 Playboy interview, then presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, quoting these words of Jesus humbly confessed he had committed adultery in his heart. Maybe he had, but let’s take a close look at the words of Jesus to try and understand exactly what Jesus meant.
This text does not say that sexual thoughts constitute the sin of lust and therefore make adulterers of all who have them. If that were the case, Jesus would be setting an impossible standard, and that is not what he is trying to do.
Emotions like anger and lust are bodily passions. We simply are not capable of willing ourselves free of anger or lust. Jesus does not imply that we are to be free of either anger or lust. He assumes we are bodily beings.
We don’t talk about this much in church. James Bryan Smith has written: The church has been so silent on the subject of lust and sex you would think that Christians come up from the waters of baptism having been made eunuchs for the kingdom.2 But we are all of us sexual beings.
The word used for lust is epithumia. It does not refer to ordinary sexual attraction, but to intentionally objectifying another person for one’s own gratification. Jesus is not talking about flashes of fantasy, but looking with an aim to possess another person. We need to make a distinction between attraction and objectification. Love and attraction value the other as a person; epithumia degrades the other.
Jesus speaks of an adultery of the heart. And the heart is not the easily-broken, sentimental, Valentine’s Day heart. The heart of which Jesus speaks is the will, the center of our decision-making. Lust, adultery of the heart, is a desire that turns into a demand, looking at another person trying to make them an object for your consumption. Lust is looking with the intention to act, focusing solely on one’s own desires with no thought of the other’s well-being.
Sexual restraint is so important Jesus makes a memorable exaggeration of gouging out an eye and cutting off a hand if it means the whole body can escape the kind of hell we experience when covenants are broken and relationships are shattered and people are damaged. But even such self-mutilation would not fix the problem. Because this greater righteousness to which Jesus calls us is about a transformation of the heart, a heart that is not dominated by self-gratifying desire.
So Jesus offers us membership in a community in which hearts and bodies are formed in service to God and to one another so that desires are transformed, rather than acted upon in ways that bring others and ourselves harm.3 Jesus is calling forth a new community where relationships are not defined by sex, but by self-control, mature love, and mutual respect.
3. Divorce in the ancient world
Jesus then moves the conversation to divorce. He tells the crowd, “You have heard it said, Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” He is quoting scripture, referring to the law of Moses in Deuteronomy 24.
In the day of Moses, some 3000 years ago, the wife was considered a man’s property. She could be turned out of the house for anything into a barbaric world with no protection, no dignity, no rights, no way to provide for themselves. Such women almost always ended up in prostitution to support themselves.
Moses, in order to provide some protection for the woman, tells husbands they must give their wives a certificate of divorce. She could still be kicked out of the house for anything, but this official legally recognized document was a way of restoring her honor, dignity and virtue. To our ears it is still barbaric but for that time it was a giant step forward.
Jesus actually makes the law of Moses look preferable to his own words: But I say to you, Anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual infidelity, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
That just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me. It doesn’t sound just or fair. I think what we’re hearing from Jesus is that no matter how wide his forgiveness, compassion, and love, he takes the marriage covenant very seriously. He doesn’t allow us to casually dismiss our marriage vows.
In Jesus’ day, a married man could find someone else and in order to avoid technical adultery he could give his wife a certificate of divorce then marry someone else and consider himself free of adultery. Jesus says, not so fast.
I think what we see here is Jesus standing on the side of women who were discarded by their husbands, abandoned and left without resources. These words of Jesus are directed at men because men were the only ones in the ancient world with the power to bring about divorce. A woman had no power to do so. Jesus is speaking here against male privilege.
He’s not demonizing divorce for people who have been destroyed by their marriage, who struggled for years to make it work, and finally decided to separate.
4. The heartbreak and complexity of divorce
These words are against treating marriage and divorce casually, which was common in the ancient world and sometimes happens in our world. However, I have found it to be rare among divorced persons that they treat marriage casually. In fact, I have found divorced persons to have some of the highest marriage standards. That’s why it is so painful. Divorce is never painless. There is great cost and deep woundedness.
For thousands of years people have been dealing with the heartache and complexities and tensions of divorce. Divorce has never been simple. And we do people a great disservice when we make it a clear black and white issue.
What happens when trust has been shattered through emotional or physical abuse? Are you just supposed to separate forever but not divorce?
What about people who create themselves as totally different people in order to lure a spouse?
Christian ethicist David Gushee reminds us there are other ways than adultery to violate the marriage covenant: physical and emotional abuse of a spouse or one’s children, withholding yourself from your spouse, the refusal to contribute to shared family labors (paid or unpaid), creating an environment of unremitting hostility or hatred - all these violate the covenant promises made on the wedding day.4
Sometimes divorce is the only deliverance from vicious cycles of harmful behavior.
There are couples who are miserable but stay together for years for the sake of the children. What about when staying together is not best for the children?
Of course children are crushed by a parent’s divorce. No one - friends, family, community - goes unscathed when a couple divorces.
But then there are those cases when parents divorce and the children say “Finally there is peace in the house. I can go to bed and not hear fighting.”
And how many of us have known people whose first marriage was just a bad idea, but who remarried into a healthy relationship.
Gushee says: Jesus did not intend to forbid all remarriage or classify all remarried persons as adulterers. He did intend to stop his hearers from finding false comfort in legal procedures that end a marriage.5 Jesus is deeply concerned about covenant relationships and the vicious cycles that harm them.
5. You can find the scriptures wrestling with divorce
You can even find the scriptures wrestling with divorce. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that if your different faith causes the other to walk away, then divorce is allowed.
And in doing so, he puts in place a larger operative principle, which is: God has called us to live in peace and in wholeness. So the question becomes: Is there hope for shalom, wholeness, peace, well-being in this relationship?
There are marriages that die because there is too much stuff that just can’t be fixed and can’t be lived with.
6. The purpose of marriage
Marriage is intended to a place of safety, nurture, and honor for persons. The idea behind marriage is that in a dark world that at times appears dead there would be two people who were so devoted to each other with honesty and devotion that there would be a little light and life. That’s why you love weddings, and why tough guys have even been known to get a tear in their eyes at weddings.
Marriage is never a perfect arrangement of blissful happiness. In fact, someone has suggested that the primary purpose of marriage is not to make us happy but holy - to shape us into people of character and unselfishness.
We all fall short in our marriages and partnerships. We forget to practice mutual respect, mercy, and forgiveness. We often fail to speak in ways that build up rather than tear down. We often lack the humility and willingness to repent and learn, to take the first step in initiating peace, to practice mercy and forgiveness.
And there are times when marriage does not make us holy, but turns us into persons we do not want to be.
7. We are always for:
To allow for divorce is not to live without principles. The Christian community always stands:
for fidelity - not cheating on your spouse
for reconciliation - this is always the goal; what we aim for
for endurance - sticking it out as best we can, as long as we can
and peace - as far as it is possible
The reality is sometimes a marriage dies and we have to call it what it is.
8. No position to judge
No matter what, we are never in a position to judge. We can call one another to accountable behavior, but we can never judge a marriage because we can never know the full story.
There are generally two stories. If you have a brother and a sister and coworker you have nine stories.
So we are wise to refrain from the quick judgment and rapid condemnation of a relationship. You may be best friends with someone and there may be way more to their marriage - a world of things going on - that you may never know.
We may condemn a woman for leaving and not know the dark stuff he was involved in. She may have decided not to go public with his sins.
Divorce is painful enough without the critique and condemnation of others often made in ignorance of the whole story.
9. Jesus calls us all to love and compassion
Instead of judgment, Jesus calls us all to the same love and compassion he embodied so well.
If you’ve been divorced, that is a wound. Dallas Willard said that marriage is a mingling of souls. If that is true, then divorce is a tearing apart of souls.
Divorce is a death that needs to be grieved.
If you have been divorced, or if you are a child of divorce, I invite you to enter that pain with the Savior of the world who meets you with grace and helps heal you.
Jesus was scandalously known for extended grace to sexual sinners. I’m not exactly sure why that was. Perhaps its because Jesus knows that sometimes our sexual behavior is a misguided attempt at love and intimacy, which all of our hearts long for.
The forgiveness and compassion of Christ does not give us sexual license. Damage can be done by unbridled sexual behavior that forgiveness cannot undo. But God’s forgiveness is still there for us.
And as persons made in the image of God, as those who seek to walk in the way of Jesus and desire to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, we are called to the hard and healing work of forgiveness toward those who have harmed us and those we love.
10. Commit to pray for each other
We begin the road to compassion and forgiveness, Jesus says, by praying for those who have harmed us.
We pray to forgive ex-spouses, not to free them from the responsibility of their harmful behavior, but to free us from bitterness and hatred, the hatred that can feel so good but does long-term damage to our souls.
We pray today for those who are divorced.
We pray for those who are thinking about divorce. We ask for a renewed mingling of souls.
We pray for those struggling with lust, those who are perhaps just a step away from physical adultery.
We pray God’s grace for us all.
Conclusion: The Grace of God
No matter what we’ve done, the overarching message of Jesus is that the restoring embrace of God awaits any and all of us. The good news of the gospel says we can come home. Everyone of us.
Frederick Buechner says if the gospel is true after all, we will find beyond any feelings of joy or regret, a profound and undergirding peace, a sense that in some unfathomable way all is well. For we have survived. Through all of our years we have made it to this year, this day. There were times we never thought we would and nearly didn’t. There were times we almost hoped we wouldn’t, we were ready to give the whole thing up. But we didn’t. And what does that tell us? It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through at least this far, at least to this day. And a wisdom beyond our wisdom has flickered up just often enough to light us if not to the right path through the forest, at least to a path that leads forward, that is bearable. Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond our power to love has kept our hearts alive.6
There is a Love that will not us go. A love that heals wounded hearts and offers us all new beginnings. I invite you to trust your heart to that great Love, to the grace that keeps this world, including your life and mine. Thanks be to God.
1. David Fleer, “On the Road With Jesus,” in Fleer and Bland, ed., Preaching the Sermon on the Mount, Chalice, 2007, 116
2. James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life, Intervarsity Press, 2009, 88
3. Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos, 2007, 69
4. David Gushee, as quoted in Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, Jossey Bass, 2006, 79
5. Stassen, 79
6. Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember, Harper Collins, 1984, 7-8