I grew up in a small town in South Dakota called Lemmon. The high school that I attended wasn’t real big, but one thing that was really nice about Lemmon High was that it had a wood shop that was fully furnished with power tools and hand tools, and the high school offered classes in woodworking.
One of the things that I learned in wood shop was the strength of wood glue. Our teacher showed us that when two pieces of wood are glued together properly, the glue is stronger than the wood itself. If you break the two pieces of wood that have been glued together, apart, the break may happen along the glue, but it isn’t the glue that breaks. Pieces from either side are torn off leaving a rough, damages edge on both pieces of wood.
Marriage is like wood glue. When two people are joined together by God, that bond is strong. And when those two people are broken apart by divorce, there’s never a clean break. People joined together in marriage are never the same after they’ve been torn apart.
Divorce is hard. I don’t’ know from experience. I’ve never been divorced. And I’ve never been right in the middle of a divorce. My parents didn’t get divorced. I haven’t experienced it in my own family. So, I can’t tell you what it’s like first hand.
I’ve heard people talk about it though. One woman described divorce as being like a slow motion car accident where you see it coming, but you can’t stop it. You don’t know how many people are going to get hurt or how badly, but you know that they are.
Another woman described divorce. She said that it would have been easier if her husband had died. She wasn’t being malicious either. She explains. When she got married his family accepted her and loved her, became her family. His friends became her friends. And when the divorce happened, nobody knew how to treat them anymore. So she ended up losing her family and her friends.
If he had died they all would have rallied around her to support. But not in divorce. They didn’t know what to do.
The Sermon on the Mount is not about divorce, but in it Jesus talks about divorce. In past weeks we’ve emphasized that one of the things Jesus was doing in the Sermon on the Mount was correcting the shallow understanding of God’s word that the Pharisees and Scribes had been teaching the people.
Jesus has already corrected the Pharisees false interpretation of the fifth and sixth commandments (you shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery) and now Jesus moves on to a related topic. Divorce.
Before we read Jesus’ words about divorce, we need to understand a little about the Jewish culture of His time.
The Jewish culture of Jesus’ day was a male dominated culture. Jewish women were not allowed to testify in a court of law. Jewish women were not allowed to initiate a divorce. Only the men were allowed to do that. In other places women may have had these rights. But not in Israel.
To make things worse, false interpretations of the Bible had made divorce very easy for a man to obtain. The thing considered most important in a divorce, at that time, was that a man give his wife a proper certificate stating that he had officially sent her away. As long as she got the “receipt”, this transaction was considered OK, and that man could then move on to whatever new relationship he was looking forward to.
Obviously, I’m not saying this was right, just this was the way it was.
The Jews tried to justify this treatment of women by pointing to an obscure passage in Deuteronomy 24. You can turn there if you like. Deuteronomy 24, verse 1. This is the passage that Jewish men used to justify the practice of divorcing a woman by giving her a certificate of divorce.
“1If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,” (Deuteronomy 24:1 NIV).
I’ve cut the verse off here because it goes on to talk about other things that we’re aren’t central to our study. But this is the passing comment that is found in the Bible, that they then used to justify the practice of giving a woman a certificate of divorce and sending her away from the family.
The passage says that when a woman becomes displeasing to her husband because he found something “INDECENT” about her, and he decides to divorce her, he would give her a legal document that made this official.
Now you might ask, what exactly does that mean, “Indecent”. Couldn’t that be understood in a variety of ways? And that’s where the problem started. The Jews argued about when divorce was alright. And somewhere along the way that little phrase, “something indecent”, began to be used as a loop-hole.
By the time Jesus came into the scene, history records that at least one Jewish Rabbi interpreted “something indecent” so broadly that he said it was permissible for a man to divorce his current wife whenever he found another woman who was more beautiful.
You can hear how Jesus responded to this idea later in his ministry. Turn to Matthew 19, verse 3. Later on in Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees questioned Jesus about divorce. This is the record of Jesus’ response.
3Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
4“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ ? 6So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
7“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:3-9 NIV).
The ancient nation of Israel was made up of all sorts of people. Believers and unbelievers. Generally nice folks, and down right wicked people. By saying that this law was made for those who were “hard hearted”, Jesus is pointing out the fact that this Law was a exception that had been made for the unbelieving.
When a wicked man grew tired of his wife, but couldn’t divorce her, he might seek some other way to sever that bond other than divorce. No doubt, that way would be more damaging than divorce.
This exception was not to be used to abuse of marriage. This exception was meant to safeguard women from wicked husbands.
As we’ve said already, the Pharisees taught a shallow keeping of God’s Law. Because they had kept God’s Law according to their interpretation of it, they actually believed they were righteous before God.
They didn’t actually take a persons life with their own hands. They didn’t murder in that way. They hired someone else to do it. They didn’t physically commit adultery, they just divorced their wives for no good reason and moved on to the next. Oh, but they made sure to give them a certificate of divorce. Because that’s what the Bible says to do.
Jesus responds to this sinful interpretation of God’s Word and this abuse of women and marriage in the Sermon on the Mount. I’m at Matthew 5, verse 31.
“31“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32 NIV).
Now I can’t explain everything about what Jesus says here. It’s hard for me to understand all of it. Not because what Jesus says is unclear, but because I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it.
For your information, “marital unfaithfulness” is a bit of a loop-hole English translation. The Greek word that is used here actually means, “fornication”. That is, sexual activity with someone besides your spouse.
Sometimes people get this idea that “marital unfaithfulness” means breaking one of the promises that you made on your marriage day. And maybe you wrote your own vows. Made a lot of promises. And if you spouse then breaks any of those promises it must be okay to get a divorce because they’re being “unfaithful” to their marriage promises. You might understand things that way from this translation where it says, “marital unfaithfulness”. But it’s being very specific in the Greek, “sexual unfaithfulness”.
Read verse 32 again. There are two main ways that this verse is understood.
Some understand this to mean that when a man divorces his wife, and no sexual misconduct has been done, they are still married before God. Even though there’s a certificate of divorce, they’re still married before God. And when the wife then gets married to her next husband, she is caused to commit adultery with that man because she’s still married to her first husband in the eyes of God.
Some understand this to mean that when a man divorces his wife and no sexual misconduct has been done, he is causing others to assume that she has committed adultery when in fact she hasn’t! All they know is Deuteronomy 24. So, they assume that the husband must have found something “indecent” about her. Hmm. Wonder what that indecent thing could be? And when that wrongly divorced woman marries another man, they assume that he’s the one that she committed adultery with in the first place.
Regardless of which was you understand this, of this much we can be certain: Jesus is saying, “You fellas out there who think that you’re alright with God because you handed your poor wife a piece of paper, you’re wrong. You’ve sinned against your wife, her next husband, against marriage and against God. You might be able to twist scripture to justify your outrageous behavior, but before God this is nothing but pure sin.”
So what do we take home from Jesus’ lesson? First of all, Jesus was reprimanding the Jews for their abusive treatment of God’s Word. They wanted divorce and so they found a passage that they could use to justify their desire. We don’t want to do that.
In Seminary I was taught to write a type of paper called an “Exegesis”. That means you take the original language of part of the Bible and study it’s structure and vocabulary to derive the original, Holy Spirit intended meaning. The meaning that “comes out” from the Word itself.
What the Jews were doing wasn’t exegesis, it was “Eisegesis”. Taking their own ideas and preconceived notions and finding a way to fit them into the Bible. We don’t want to do that. We want to pay attention to what God is actually saying in our study, not just disregard what doesn’t seem to match up with our own preconceived, personal thesis. We want to let God speak for Himself, instead of us telling Him what His word means.
Secondly, we can look at Jesus’ words here in a positive way. He spoke about divorce, so we can look at our own marriages and safeguard them from divorce. We do this when we build our up our relationship with our spouse with time and love.
When we don’t care for our spouses needs, troubles, worries, then we aren’t just being inconsiderate, we’re actually hurting ourselves. God said that the two shall become one flesh. We want to actively love our wives. Putting their needs before our own. We want to actively respect our husbands. Putting their needs before our own. We want to put Christ’s instructions for relationships into our hearts and minds, and then into action as we interact with our spouses.
Thirdly, we want to remember people that we know who have experienced divorce, or are experiencing divorce. We want to remember married people we know who are struggling. And we want to pray for these people. We’re going to do that in just a second, but one more thing.
The full name of our church is, “Redemption Evangelical Lutheran Church”. We purposefully call ourselves, “Evangelical”. I don’t know what everything thinks when they hear that word, but here’s what it means: the Good News of sins forgiven through Jesus is our bread and butter. No matter what topic we meditate on, the Good News of Jesus has an important connection to it.
If we’re talking about sin and hell, “evangelical“ means we’re gonna also talk about how Jesus took away our sin by dying in our place on the cross. With His perfect record credited to our account, the path to hell is barred to us and the way to heaven is open.
If we’re talking about Christian living, then evangelical means we’re also going to talk about how forgiveness that flows from Jesus is what powers us to live holy lives.
Whatever, the topic, Christ’s Cross has an important role in that conversation. That’s what “evangelical” means. Forgiveness in Christ is our bread and butter.
So, what sins have you committed against your spouse? Against God’s gift of marriage? Perhaps you’ve never been married. Perhaps your greatest sin in connection with divorce has been unfairly judging those who have been through a divorce.
Whatever sins you’ve committed that land somewhere near the topic of divorce, Jesus suffered cross time for those sins. He was tortured, body and soul, for our sins against marriage. And because he was, our sins against marriage have been paid for. In Christ Jesus we find forgiveness.
I said earlier that I’d like to pray for married people and people going through divorces. I’d like to do this in a different way today. I’m going to give you a topic to pray about. Then we’ll have a few moments of silence where you can pray quietly to yourself. Then I’ll direct your prayers to a new topic.
Think of someone you know, that has been through a divorce, and is still dealing with the fallout of that separation. Pray for them now.
Think of someone you know, who is struggling in a divorce right now. Pray for them now.
Think of someone you know, who’s marriage seems to be in trouble. Pray for them now.
Think of someone who is married that you care for. Pray for their marriage now.
Prayer: Father in heaven, thank you for blessing the human race with the gift of marriage. Give our younger generations wisdom to see that divorces and marriage problems don’t exist because marriage is flawed, but because we are. Help us to teach our youth rightly what the responsibilities and roles of husband and wife are, so that they can have strong marriages built on your principles.
Give those who are currently married: patience, active love, perseverance, selflessness, joy and fulfillment. Move our hearts to repent of our sins against our spouses, and to seek their forgiveness openly.
Move our hearts also to come to you Christ Jesus, with a humble and repentant heart concerning all our sins against you. You are our great Husband, the Husband of the Church for whom you died. Forgive us. Love us. And thank you for loving us even when we were faithless to you. Amen.
The Peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.