Commentary On Divorce From Matthew Chapter 5
The gospel for Epiphany 6 is Matthew 5:21-37. In this post I will comment on the section regarding adultery and divorce since I don't cover it in tomorrow's sermon; but is in need of comment.
Jesus says: "You have heard it said "You shall not commit adultery." But I say to you that any man that lays lustful eyes on a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin tear it out and throw it away! For it is better that you should lose one of your members, than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
"And if your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away; for it is better for you that you should lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
"It was also said that should anyone divorce his wife he must give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife except on the grounds of sexual immorality he makes her an adulteress, and whoever should marry a divorced woman commits adultery." (Matthew 5:27-32 Author's Translation)
One thing (of many!) that we learn from this unparalleled Sermon is the impossibility of living up to God's standards. External righteousness is not enough, but the righteousness of faith, the righteousness of the heart is required. Jesus cuts off every avenue of escape for any who thinks he has made it. And so Jesus came to fulfill the Law for us, and to be our Savior who remits our countless transgressions. But good as that news is, it is not the point made here.
I will now assert two things here of equal importance:
1. First the church upholds marriage as it is first revealed in Genesis. The life-long loving union of one man and one woman; all other definitions excluded. This union is a reflection of God's love for Israel which is expressed biblically as a marriage. But a marriage that was prophetic of the eternal marriage that exists between Christ the Royal Bridegroom and his baptismally-washed Bride the church. (Ephesians 5:22-33)
As such all acts of unfaithfulness in thought, word or deed against one's spouse is sin. And not only a sin against the spouse but also an act of unfaithfulness against God because in Scripture idolatry and adultery are the same thing. Further, according to Christian morality any one who as much as looks with unclean eye on another is already guilty of the sin.
Also whereas in the Old Testament divorce was allowed in the case of adultery Jesus closes the loophole. A man who divorces his wife (presumably even if she is innocent of sexual immorality) turns her into an adulterous, and (just for good measure) any man who would marry her, further, commits adultery.
While such behavior is impossible for any human being to attain the church has upheld this teaching unflinchingly, and often more vigorously than it has the others; making this commandment the "dead man's curve" where most of the collisions between faith and life seem to occur.
2. Secondly in her attempt to uphold traditional biblical marriage and morality the church has, I fear, often played the fundamentalist; and there is hardly anything less Christian than fundamentalism (be it the religious or the secular variety).
What is a fundamentalist? I know of no official definition but a fundamentalist is often a person who turns mole hills into mountains. One who has forgotten how to love, how to show mercy, how to be rational, and who has never learned to account for human weakness. The fundamentalist typically assert his issue but is neither able or willing to explain it, or discuss it.
That said one ought not interpret this gospel (Matthew 5:21-48) as fundamentalists do. For to teach that divorce is a perpetual and unforgiveable sin as many do, one must also be willing to pluck out his own eye, and cut off his right hand as often as they lead him to sin. These go together.
Thus, while we must not dismiss this teaching of Jesus, nor should we interpret it fundamentalistically. Is there a middle ground?
Only one of context.
Namely to understand this segment of the sermon in the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount. What the Sermon is and what the Lord accomplishes in his church by it. For this please see tomorrow's sermon in which I touch on these things. I invite your questions and commentary.
Lastly let us say that while divorce is a sin according to Christian teaching it is neither unforgivable, nor perpetual. And so in the Lutheran tradition we allow divorced persons who repent to re-marry with the blessing of the church, and to become full participants in her sacramental life.