Divorce and Grace

Matthew 5:31-32
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’
32But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

As a person who has worked in ministry for over 30 years, I have to say that these two verses have been the cause for a great deal of angst. Numerous people (usually women) have sat in my office destroyed by the fact that their spouse has chosen to leave them. As they search the Scriptures for answers, these verses are always a cause for sorrow and concern. Committed Christians rightfully want to live inside of God’s call upon their lives. But these words seem very harsh for the person who has been left behind by an unhappy spouse.

With that said, let’s launch into this discussion with grace and patience. First of all, we must keep this passage in context. Jesus is reframing the understanding that the people had on several aspects of the Law. He is challenging them to think again about the difference between their actions and the letter of the law. Jesus is really shaking up their conceptions. Each of these teachings begins with “You have heard it said”. Here, Jesus is directly referencing the laws that the Pharisees are living by and placing on the shoulders of the people. Then He goes on to reframe the situation.

In terms of divorce, we must realize that Jesus is not establishing case law, as it were, with His words. This is not an “only” answer for divorce. During Jesus’ time, all a man had to do was hand his wife a divorce decree. The reason for the divorce could be anything from unfaithfulness to burning the dinner. If she was a “nag”, he could divorce her. He simply had to get the required paperwork in order and done – they were divorced and she had to leave. These practices arose out of misinterpreting the Old Testament laws concerning divorce.

Verse 32 is unfortunately translated in the English. A more literal translation would be “everyone who divorces his wife, except for a matter of adultery, makes her to have adultery committed [against her].” This puts a whole new spin on the meaning of this verse. Suddenly, the injured party is not responsible for the sin, but instead is being sinned against. Here, instead of condemnation, we find grace. Jesus is demanding a change in thinking and thus a change in behavior. Once again, what is going on inside of your mind is just as important as what is happening in your actions. Jesus comes to inform and transform who we are – completely.