Marriage, Divorce, and Commitment (Matt. 5:31-37)
The Pharisees thought they had discovered loopholes in several laws of the Old Testament. They won’t murder, but they’ll hate. They won’t commit adultery, but they’ll lust. In this section, Jesus calls them out on their attempts to justify adultery and lying.
Followers of Jesus should be truthful in their speech and faithful to their commitments.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 stated that if a man found some indecency in his wife and chose to divorce her, and if she then married another man who also divorced her, the first man could not then remarry her. The law was meant to prevent an easy divorce culture in which Israel’s women would be traded like property.
But what exactly constituted “indecency”? In Jesus’ day, there were two schools of thought. The conservative school said that it referred to something serious such as adultery. The liberal school broadened the definition of “indecency” to include any trivial thing the husband might dislike about his wife, be it her cooking or even her looks.
It’s not hard to see which of these was popular among the Pharisees. As men who would never dream of breaking the law (as far as they understood “breaking” it) and yet entertained lustful thoughts, the liberal view gave them a legalized way to commit adultery. Under this view, a man could see a woman he deemed more attractive than his wife, get divorced, marry the other woman, and divorce her once their affair was over and go back to his first wife. In this way, a “law that was clearly intended to safeguard the women in Israel was turned into an escape clause for self-indulgent men”
But Jesus doesn’t tolerate the Pharisees’ tendency to look for loopholes in the law. Divorce and remarriage for any reason other than sexual unfaithfulness constitutes the very sin (adultery) the Pharisees were trying to avoid. Yet even then, Jesus isn’t commanding divorce but allowing it. As an institution created by God to be exclusive and permanent, reconciliation should be the goal when sin has been committed.
This leads into a broader issue: being faithful to one’s oaths. Here too was an area in which the Pharisees had constructed elaborate loopholes. The Old Testament allowed people to take oaths, and in the New Testament we see Paul and even Jesus take oaths. By Jesus’ day though, the Pharisees had constructed elaborate rules about oath-taking. Essentially, if you took God’s name in oath, you were bound to keep it. If you swore by something else (say Jerusalem, or the hairs on your head), it was less binding. In this way, one could make an oath and break it without penalty.
But according to Jesus, this logic doesn’t hold up. Since God created and owns everything, swearing by anything is the same thing as swearing by the God who made it (Matt. 5:34-36). Every oath then is made in God’s name and is thus absolutely binding (Num. 30:2), making a broken oath a serious offense. Jesus isn’t forbidding believers from making oaths. Rather, he’s saying that we shouldn’t need oaths in order for others to believe what we say. Citizens of the kingdom of heaven should be trustworthy, honest, and faithful to their commitments.
- Read Ephesians 5:22-33. What is the purpose of marriage, according to Paul? In light of this, what makes divorce so tragic?
- In what ways do Jesus’ words about oaths convict you? Are there commitments you’ve made that you failed to follow through on? If so, is there anyone whose forgiveness you need to seek?
- Do you ever find yourself doing what the Pharisees did – trying to find creative ways to disobey the Bible’s commands? How so?
Matthew 5:37 – “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”