By Pastor Glenn Pease
Jo Fleming in her book His Affair reveals that almost every sinful emotion and action known to man is kindled by lust that is not controlled. Her husband of 26 years went to the apartment of a woman he worked with to return some books. This was an action he could have avoided, but he chose not to. They had an affair, and sometime later she discovered it, and was devastated. She writes of that day she learned of his unfaithfulness. "Nothing will ever be the same again. Inside my head I am screaming, screaming, screaming. Dear God let me die....give me oblivion. Please! Please! I can't stand the pain, I can't live, I want to die, now, this minute."
The book is a diary of her journey through the hell of grief and back. It is a story of the human heart, and its capability of all the evil's Jesus deals with in the Sermon On The Mount, and especially this context of chapter 5. She experienced anger, hatred, thoughts of murder and suicide, revenge, adultery and divorce. Forbidden sex is so glamorized in our culture that people are blind to the terrible consequences, and the tremendous cost involved. Her husband had to go through the pits of guilt as she went through the pits of grief. Both suffered months of depression. But finally healing began to take place, and they were able to talk about the cause of the affair. They discovered true intimacy as they shared their self-fears and doubts, and talked to each other as never before about their marriage.
There was much weeping, but she stopped praying for a fatal disease to remove her from the battle. They made it without a divorce, but many do not. In fact, the number one cause of divorce all through history has been lust. When I think of the people I have counseled with about divorce, the common factor in all of them is lust for another partner, and my reading confirms my experience. This is not the only cause for divorce, but it is the primary cause. It is no accident that Jesus deals with divorce immediately after the subject of lust. They go together like love and marriage, the destructive duo-lust and divorce, and the constructive duo-love and marriage. Which duo becomes the determining factor in your life largely depends on what you do with your sexual energy.
If someone tells you there is a fire in your house, you do not know if this is good or bad news until you know where the fire is. If its in the furnace, the stove, or the fireplace, that is good and comforting news. If it is on the roof, the floor, or the walls, that is bad news. Fire in the right place provides the pleasure of warmth, but in the wrong place it destroys and brings pain. The sex drive is just like fire. Fire is not evil, but it is a power that has potential for good or evil. It can save life or destroy life. Such also is the fire of sex. There is so much love and warmth in the world because of sex, but there is also so much sorrow and heartache because of it. Sex controlled by love is one of life's greatest blessings. Sex controlled by lust is one of life's greatest burdens.
Jesus, as the Creator of sex knows this better than anyone, and that is why the love versus lust issue is so vital to His whole teaching on divorce. The Old Testament law allowed too much freedom to relate to women on the level of lust. The law gave men a feeling that they were doing okay in their relationship to their wives if they treated them legally. That is, if they divorced them, they gave them a certificate of divorce. This was a great blessing to a divorced woman, for it gave her the freedom to go and remarry, and not be labeled as an adulteress. Without that certificate the law demanded, she would become an outcast, and if not stoned, she likely would be forced to become a prostitute for survival.
This was a step up from the level where women were just sent packing when their husbands were tired of them. Treating a wife legally was a higher level of righteousness than giving her no rights at all. However, it was still far short from the ideal of treating her lovingly. Jesus is calling men to a higher level of relating to their wives. It is a level beyond the legal level to the level of love. That is what this passage on divorce is all about, for you will observe that in these two verses Jesus condemns two men. The man who divorces his wife for any cause other than being unfaithful, and the man who marries this innocent woman. Here are two men not treating their women in love, but with lust and legalism.
This is a radical reversal of the Old Testament, and from the world perspective. The focus of all condemnation before Christ came was not on the man, but on the woman. In every nation the unfaithful wife was treated unmercifully, and almost always killed. For men it was a different story. Adultery did not mean the same thing for men. If he took another wife or two, he was not being adulterous. If he went to a prostitute, he was not being adulterous. If he went into a single girl, he was not being adulterous. The only way a man could be guilty was to violate the property rights of another man by laying with his wife. You could not be guilty unless you hurt another man. Violating any number of women was no problem.
Women were property and not persons of equality. Their lives were regulated like property. Cato the Roman wrote, "If you take your wife in adultery you may freely kill her without a trial. But if you commit adultery, or if another commit adultery with you, she has no right to raise a finger against you." The Jews were only slightly ahead of the pagan Gentiles in this respect. Their wives were possessions. They may have had to capture her in battle at the risk of their lives, or pay a large sum to acquire her. She was his most costly possession. Any threat to this prize was a great offense to men. It was like someone throwing rocks at your new car. The result was, the legal system developed almost entirely along the lines of protecting a man's rights and possessions.
The Code of Hammurabi in ancient Babylon decreed that a wife accused by her husband of being unfaithful had to take the water test. She was thrown into the river, and if she drowned it proved she was guilty. If she survived, she was innocent. In reality all it proved was whether she could swim or not, but the point is, only a wife had to endure such a test. The Old Testament has a test for accused wives as well. In Num. 5 we read of how the priest was to mix dust from the floor of the sanctuary with water, and the accused woman was to drink it. If she was innocent nothing would happen, but if she was guilty, her body would swell and give her away. This test was based on well known psychosomatic facts that show that the guilty can produce the very effect that is feared. Again, the test is only for wives. There is no such test for men. The double standard has been a part of both sacred and secular history.
Now Jesus comes along in this great sermon, and He says the good old days are over, for they were bad old days for women. The double standard is done, and is no longer a level of righteousness acceptable in the kingdom of God. Women are to be treated equally, and from now on they are to be treated lovingly. Legalism is only a support for male lust, and that is what Jesus is attacking. A husband may feel he is being a nice guy by giving his wife a certificate of divorce. Jesus says, that may be the legal thing to do, but it is not the loving thing to do. He says to this husband who is putting his wife away, that he is forcing her into adultery, if she has not already committed it. He says the man is the cause of his wife committing adultery. This was a shocking approach. You are not suppose to blame the man. But Jesus says that idea is obsolete, and now we go to the source of the problem, and stop dealing only with symptoms. The real issue in adultery and divorce is the way a man treats his wife. In our day, of course, it can also be how a wife treats her husband.
Jesus knew that the only reason a man usually wanted to divorce his wife, if she had not been unfaithful, was because he has lust for another woman. He wanted to get rid of her so he could remarry another. He knew this because that is the way it was, and the way it is, and the way it will be. Lust for another is the key cause for divorce. No Jewish man remains single after a divorce. They soon remarried. This was all fine and dandy for him, for he could legally put his wife away, and legally be nice enough to give her a chance to remarry. In fact, the whole thing could already be legally arranged as he would marry his friend's wife, and his friend would take his wife. The husbands could feel that all is legal, and their lust was perfectly compatible with being a nice guy according to the law.
Jesus says, yes, that is the way it use to be. You could be righteous and legal if you did not murder, even if you were full of hatred. You could be righteous and legal if you did not commit adultery, even if you were full of lust. You could be righteous and legal if you did not send your wife away without a certificate of divorce, even if you were full of lust for another, and were very unloving toward your mate, and you were putting her away just to take another partner.
Jesus will no longer tolerate this level of righteousness in the kingdom of God. You deal with the problem in the inner man, and prevent all of these person destroying actions. You deal with anger and hostility, and prevent murder. You deal with lust, and prevent adultery. You deal with your unloving perverted value system that makes a woman a piece of property, and you prevent divorce. Divorce starts in the heart right along with all other human follies. It starts in a heart that refuses to treat a mate as a person equal in all that really matters. In Jesus' day the problem was to get men to see women as equals made in the image of God. Today the female has the same responsibility to love her husband as a person, and not just a paycheck provider, and fix it man.
In this passage Jesus is condemning the man, for this has been the main problem all through history. Men did as they pleased, and what did not please was the woman's fault. Jesus says this is not so. The men are the culprits. They unlovingly cast their wives aside for another. They rush to marry another who is then cast aside. The women are just pawns in their hands, but Jesus says these men are the ones who are guilty. Today, the wives who cast aside their husbands to go off with another on a new fling are in the same category. Whoever lets lust determine their relationship to their mate is the source of the problem that destroys marriage.
Where lust is in power divorce will rise. Where lust is controlled by love divorce will subside. There is a direct connection between lust control and divorce. Japan had no divorce problem until they become westernized in the last several decades. The western promotion for lust in male-female relationships has caused divorce to skyrocket in that land. Christian divorces are on a rise everywhere because of the influence of lust. Wherever there is a promotion of lust there is a loss of respect of the sexes. They each treat the other as objects of gratification. Personhood is lost, and all that matters is the pleasure of the moment. Marriage cannot build on such a foundation, for marriage demands commitment. Marriage cannot survive on lust. It has to have love that says, for better or for worse. Lust wants to bail out. It says, only for better, and when it is not better it says goodbye.
Today, the need for love is equal for both sexes. In the day of Christ He is dealing with a male dominated society. He started the process that led to females gaining equality as persons, but that victory only raises them to a higher level of responsibility. They are now equally responsible when it comes to lust that leads to divorce. The important thing according to Jesus is to get to the cause. If your right hand causes you to sin, or your right eye, deal with those causes directly, and cut off their power to produce the negative effect. So here He says of the husband who divorces his wife: He causes her to commit adultery. He is the cause of this evil, and he not only causes her to be adulterous, but the man who marries her is also guilty of adultery.
We have a tendency to get all caught up in the effects, and neglect the cause. Jesus is not condemning the woman at all. Yes, He says, if she is not already an adulteress, she becomes one by her remarriage, but He does not say she should not remarry. In fact He assumes that she will remarry, or go live with someone, like the woman at the well did, for if she did not, she could hardly become guilty of adultery. If she stayed single, she would be totally innocent, but Jesus says she is forced to commit adultery, because He knows a woman has no choice but to remarry, for the only other way to survive is to become a prostitute. He assumes that she will remarry, and thereby commit adultery.
The cause, however, is the focus of condemnation. The husband who forces his wife into this is the culprit, and that is where prevention has to take place. No mate is to force another into immoral behavior, for each is responsible for what they make the other do. Under the law you can get by with such unloving conduct, but not in His kingdom. Legal won't cut it any longer, for only love will.
Now the second man that Jesus condemns may not be quite as unloving as the first husband, but he is still primarily guided by lust rather than love. This has to be seen in the light of what the law permitted. The law allowed a man to put away his wife, and give her a certificate of divorce. She was then a free woman, and so she was available. Another man could take her to be his wife, and when he got tired of her he could send her off with another certificate. She could be tossed from one to another by as many men who would have her. The Hollywood system is not new, for the woman at the well had 5 husbands. Deut. 24 makes it clear, however, that she could not go back to her previous husband. This prevented men from using the law for legal wife swapping. Nevertheless, the woman was the pawn in the chess game of lust.
Jesus says this is no longer acceptable. This going from one man to another is to stop. The man who gets in on this game of serial polygamy is also guilty of adultery. Jesus slams two doors shut on men's freedom to abuse women, and treat them as objects of lust rather than persons to love. It was all a matter of self-centered lust with no thought about God's plan for marriage. One of the reasons Jesus was not harsh in condemning the prostitutes of His day was because He knew that many were forced to this choice by the lusts of men. They were victims of a system that treated them like property, and they were helpless things. But it was all legal, for legalism only cared about the right paper work, and not the person. As long as men gave their abused wives the proper papers, that is all mattered.
Jesus says, no more is a piece of paper primary. The personhood of a woman is to be primary. Both men are condemned, for both treat women as objects of lust. Jesus condemns the first husband, for he has permitted lust and not love to determine his course of action, and it destroyed his marriage. This is not acceptable in the kingdom of God. It might be legal to let lust guide you to divorce and take another, but it is not loving, and what is not loving is not Christian, and not acceptable to God.
Divorcees are prime targets of lust. Talk to any divorcee and you will discover they become objects of lust to most every man who knows them. She is depersonalized as few others ever experience. She is such a threat to other women that she is rejected, and such a temptation to men that she is tempted to believe their attention is love. She is in a terrible bind, and often gets on a marriage-go-round of lust that she hopes will lead to love.
There is one bad lady we need to consider in this passage, and that is the wife who is guilty of being unfaithful. The husband who divorces her is not being unjust, or for that matter, even unloving, for the more he loved her, the more deeply he would be hurt, and the more he may feel the need to escape. He is not commanded to divorce her, but he is not condemned if he does, for he is not the cause of her becoming an adulteress, like the other man. She has chosen on her own to be guilty, and the blame cannot fall on the husband who puts her away. He is like a man who chooses surgery, not because he wants it, or enjoys it, but because he has to have something cut out of him that does not work right in order to survive.
Keep in mind, Jesus is adding something new to the regulation of marriage and divorce. In the Old Testament there was no provision for divorce because of adultery. Adultery was punished by stoning, which left the innocent mate free to remarry. Jesus is making divorce the way to deal with unfaithfulness, and there is no death penalty. He knew that much unfaithfulness is caused by the supposed innocent party. That means the unfaithful mate is now left in the land of the living, and can carry on a new life, and possibility get their act together, and make something of themselves. Jesus offers the guilty a second chance. This complicates life somewhat, however, for many who try to figure out how to deal with every conceivable situation.
What if this guilty wife remarries? Is she, or the man she marries, committing adultery. Jesus does not say. He only deals with the innocent wife who is faithful, but who is put away by her husband. Jesus is not giving a law that covers all possible cases. He is dealing with the abuse of women. This woman is being forced into adultery by her second marriage, and so is the man who marries her. But the guilty one is already guilty, and so rightly divorced. How can her second marriage be adultery if she is divorced, and rightly so. She is a single now, and free to remarry. What about the husband who puts her away for her unfaithfulness? Is he free to remarry? Why not, if he is no longer married, and so truly single again?
Many Christians get all bent out of shape over the remarriage of divorced people, as if that is the thing Jesus is trying to prevent. That is not the problem at all. Jesus and the Old Testament agree on this principle: Anyone who is rightly divorced is single again, and free to remarry. What Jesus is trying to prevent is illegitimate divorce, and the remarriage of people who have no valid divorce. He is trying to prevent divorce and remarriages of convenience for the sake of fulfilling lust. You do this the same way you prevent all the other evils Jesus is dealing with in this context. You get back into the heart, and deal with the causes of conduct. Deal with anger to prevent murder. Deal with lust to prevent adultery. Deal with disrespect of your mate as a person to prevent divorce.
Prevention of all this unloving behavior is the purpose of Jesus. But if you read a lot of Christian literature on the issue of divorce and remarriage, you would think the purpose of Jesus was to prevent people from ever being happy again if they make a mistake. If you applied all the rest of what Jesus says like you do their view on divorce, no one who has ever been angry with his brother, or lusted after a woman, should have any right to ever be happy again. Christian legalism is often more unloving than the legalism of the Pharisees. Jesus has been anti-legalism all along, but now many feel He has shifted gears, and chooses to come down hard and strong on the divorced who seek to remarry. This Christian legalism becomes a contradiction to the whole spirit of Christ.
For example, some Christians feel that even the man who puts His unfaithful wife away is not permitted to remarry. Jesus says nothing about it, but they make it a law. The guilty wife is free to become a swinging single, or remarry, or do as she pleases. He, however, is never to remarry. If he does, he is either excommunicated, or made a second class citizen of the kingdom. He is condemned to suffer the rest of his life for the lust of his mate. He must struggle with his own lust now for the rest of his life with no legitimate outlet. This kind of hard nosed legalism is so contrary to the spirit of Christ, and of Paul, and is so anti-loving in its dealing with people that I fear for Christians on the day of judgment who impose such laws on some of God's children.
If you are going to make a mistake, err on the side of being too loving and forgiving, and not on the side of being too legalistic. Jesus did not condemn the woman taken in adultery. He said to her, "Go and sin no more." We know that many people ignored Jesus, and did not obey Him, and she could have gone on in her sin, but He chose to give her the benefit of the doubt, and go the way of love rather than legalism. This has to be our attitude toward the divorced. Many, including Christians, are divorced for reasons that may or may not be legitimate. They have not prevented this tragic result of loss of love. It is tragic, but it is part of reality we have to live with. God Himself could not prevent His bride Israel from going after other gods, and damaging their exclusive relationship. God finally divorced Israel, and took a new bride, which was the church. The point is, not even God can prevent all the tragedies of man's fallen nature. Men cannot do it either, and so they end up in situations which are bad.
We can only assume from the context where Jesus goes on to say, deal with your enemies even in the spirit of love, and not a spirit of revenge, that this certainly applies to brothers and sisters in the family of God who blow it. If you are to go out of your way to be like God, who causes the sun to rise on the evil as well as the good, how much more is this the case with those who are good, but who allow evil to gain a victory in some area of their life? Jesus treated the woman at the well who was divorced five times with a spirit of love. You will look in vain in the Sermon On The Mount for any basis for a hard-nosed, legalistic spirit of rejection of the divorced person.
Those who treat the divorced harshly reveal hypocrisy when they do not treat themselves equally harshly by gouging out their eyes and cutting off their hand for their own lust. They choose to be harsh on sins they do not commit, and go easy on those they often commit. Where Jesus does advise severe action, they ignore it. Here, where Jesus has no action recommended, they want to write a book on all that should be done to show how strongly they stand for righteousness. They have all kinds of laws and regulations for the divorced and remarried. It is such a conspicuous evasion of their own guilt to judge others. It is like the picture of the man with a log in his eye trying to help another with a speck in his eye.
If you are going to be a stubborn legalist demanding justice be done, and not mercy, you will be dragged into court on the basis of your own lust, and you will be treated on the same legalistic basis, and you will made to pay the last penny for your hardness of heart. Many Christians get hard hearted because they develop the elder brother syndrome. Why should that louse of a little brother get to go off and indulge in wine, women, and song, and still be able to come home and be treated with love? It is just not fair to me. So many who have never known the heart ache of divorce say, why should they be able to break God's ideal, and indulge in more than one sex partner, and still be accepted on the level of equality with myself, who has been faithful all along? It is just not fair. This leads to Christian legalism that prevents grace from having its way.
God is always into prevention so that at some point you block Satan's victory. If Christians do not prevent lust, at least they are to prevent actions that lead to adultery. If they do not prevent adultery, at least they are to prevent its dissolving of marriage in divorce. If they do not prevent divorce, at least they are to prevent the divorce from being treated as an unforgivable sin that makes them feel rejected. This final prevention can still redeem the total life, and make it possible for love to win. Unless love steps in to stop the erosion at some point, lust will be ultimate victor. The cause of divorce is always some sinful behavior, and the cure is always to deal with the sinners with a spirit of love.