One passage of scripture that people struggle to understand is Matthew 5:31-32 where Jesus states: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (NIV). (Note: Women at this time did not have the ability to divorce their husbands, which is why Jesus uses gender as he does; any other use would have only confused his audience.)
Taken on it’s own, Jesus seems to be stating a rule that it is wrong to get a divorce in any case except when a spouse has cheated. However most scholars agree that Jesus isn’t creating a new law here. So what is going on?
As is typically the case, the context helps to enlighten us. In fact, I don’t believe we can understand this passage properly outside of it’s context. Jesus makes this statement in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. In this section, Jesus states a half dozen times “You have heard… but I tell you…”. What Jesus is doing here is explaining his statement in verse 20: “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Pharisees and teachers of the law were the most devout religious people of Jesus time. They attempted to follow the letter of the law as closely as possible.
In this section Jesus is contrasting the current religious understanding of following the law with his understanding of it. For example, the religious would say that they have fulfilled the requirements of law and are therefore righteous if they haven’t murdered or committed adultery. Jesus disagrees with this, saying that you have not fulfilled the requirements of the law and are therefore not righteous if you harbor anger or lust towards others, even if you haven’t murdered or committed adultery. What Jesus says isn’t strictly written into the law, however Jesus obviously believes that holding to the spirit of the law is more important than merely sticking to the letter of it.
In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus states that the greatest commandments are to love God and love others. I believe that loving others is clearly his understanding of the spirit of the law. Paul makes this even clearer in Romans 13: “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10 NIV). (Note: it seems that love is often misunderstood; see my explanation of the kind of love being discussed here.)
With this understanding of context, how do we understand what Jesus says regarding divorce? I believe it could be reinterpreted like this: “Don’t believe you have fulfilled the law simply because you give your wife a certificate when you divorce her. No, you aren’t fulfilling the law when you get a divorce unless you have a really good reason.” The Message also makes the intent of this passage clear: “Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity)*. And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.”
* In the first century, marriage was significantly different than it is today. Women had little status in society. About the only options they had for supporting themselves were either to be a part of a household (by marrying again) or prostitution. In other words, if a man divorced his wife, really the only option she had for survival involved becoming attached to another man or men. So if he divorces her without good reason, he effectively condemns her to commit adultery. This would have almost certainly not been the most loving thing to do. (However if she has been unfaithful, the man does not condemn her by divorce because she has already committed adultery.)