For me, the most important thing about a happy marriage is that husbands and wives be best friends — with no serious rival to that friendship. Kris and I have been married for 32 years; we were grade school sweethearts and we started “officially” dating when we were sophomores in high school, and we are best friends and have been our entire marriage. This is the most important reason why we love one another — so I think. Because we do. Because she is my best friend and I am hers. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Those who want to follow Jesus are summoned to remain married. The text in the Sermon on the Mount we are looking at today, Matthew 5:31-32, is loaded with discussions and debates, and there is no reason here to get into all those. I’ll do my best to focus on what is central and how I think the debates fall out. I’ll also make some suggestions about marriage.
First, Jesus is opposing a lax and permissive environment on divorce. There is a well-known debate between two rabbis that illustrates what Jesus is contending against: Rabbi Hillel contended that a man could get a divorce for “whatever” reason he could find, while Rabbi Shammai contended that a man could get a divorce only if he could produce evidence of “something unclean” in his wife. The Hebrew is ervat devar, and it is most often take to refer to “sexual immorality” of some sort. Jesus opposes the view of Hillel. I think he affirms, basically, the view of Shammai.
Second, Jesus opposes permissiveness by affirming the life-long nature of marriage. This is how I see the big picture of these two verses: permissiveness is opposed by permanence. For the moment we will bracket the “except for” clause, and notice the words that emphasize permanence: “anyone who divorces his wife, causes her to to commit adultery.” This is intended to throw into the boldest relief possible that marriage is permanent.
Third, Jesus permits (according to Matthew chp 5 and 19) divorce for “marital unfaithfulness.” Neither Mark nor Luke have this clause, and many think Matthew has added it because he knew Jesus was denying permissiveness but not denying divorce absolutely. Many think Matthew’s words are clearly what Jesus was teaching. Others think Jesus said them and that Mark and Luke omitted them. Either way, there is something here to discuss. I think Matthew added them because he knew Jesus meant that.
Fourth, as we have it, Matt 5:32 affirms what is taught in Deut 24:1-4. Marriage is permanent; divorce is wrong; divorce is sometimes permitted.
Fifth, every permissible divorce leads to a permissible remarriage, in Jewish law. Jesus assumes this in Matt 5:32, when he says that “divorcing” a woman makes her an “adulteress” — the only way she can be an adulteress is if she cohabits with a man who is not her husband. Ergo, she must be remarried. That is, Jesus assumes a permissible divorce is a permissible remarriage.
So, in sum, Jesus affirms the permanence of marriage and opposes permissiveness in divorce laws, but in so affirming marriage he is not merciless. Some marriages fall apart for bad reasons and in those cases, so I read these words, remarriage is permissible.
Followers of Jesus are summoned to commit themselves to the permanence of marriage.
Which means, marriage needs to be worked at; churches need to work at talking more about marriage.
Which means, reconciliation is what churches and couples need to work at when they are struggling in marriage.
Which means, churches need to emphasize what breaks down marriages — like pornography, and work schedules that prohibit husbands and wives and families from being together, and personality issues that are too rough-edged and need to be rubbed down until they are smoother. Where there will be home lives where there is a family room or a kitchen where the family is together for long periods of time to talk and share life together, home lives where adults don’t bring work home so that even if they are home they are not home… I could go on. Make kids part of your lives and make their lives part of your lives. We’re in this thing called life together.
There are so many things to say, but this is enough. Feel free to speak up.