Matthew 5:27-32 – Adultery and Divorce

The best example yet of Jesus the Feminist.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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.

I love Jesus’ passages on anything marital because it throws people through a loop.  It sounds like he’s saying one thing, but in reality, he’s saying another.  He’s so freaking subversive, in a lot of things, but especially talking about marital relations.  Remember, he’s up against an establishment.  Actually, several establishments, but particularly the Pharisees.  Here, Jesus is not speaking directly to the Pharisees (he will speak to them directly in chapter 19 on the subject of marriage), but you can bet that every idea conveyed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount made it back to them.  The very fact that many of Jesus’ teachings can be taken two ways must have been maddening to the Pharisees.  They were smart guys, if misled, and they wouldn’t have missed this.

But let’s back up a little bit, before we get into subliminal messages, let’s talk about hyperbole again really quick.  A few posts ago I mentioned that Jesus loved to use hyperbole to make his point.  This is a classic, perhaps the classic example of that.  Jesus is NOT advocating self-mutilation, but using the cutting off of body parts as a visceral metaphor for removing yourself from sin and temptation.  (As an aside, I’ve written about what I think “sin” is. You can read more about it in that post, but in a nutshell: the greatest commandment is to love one another. The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.) There are whole programs that help people overcome their shortcomings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that center around this idea of avoidance.  Even if you aren’t actually plucking out your eye, it can feel like you’re losing part of yourself: the friends you had when using might disappear if you don’t sever ties yourself; your personality might change-hopefully for the better, but it can still be disconcerting to realize you’re not the person you thought you were; even your daily routines may change to avoid temptation.  No one thinks that cutting off the hands of an unrepentant alcoholic is going to keep them from drinking.  Believe me, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  But if you are dedicated to sobriety, you will learn how to avoid your triggers for using.  The same is true for sin, for which “lust” is a stand-in here – if you’re dedicated to the teachings of Jesus, you’ll search for ways to avoid sinning.  And I very much doubt it means plucking out your eye, but rather changing your behavior to better reflect your values.

Alright, with that rather lengthy note about hyperbole aside, let’s talk about Jesus’ sly little speech here.  Surface reading:  Get married so you can look at your wife without sinning, squirrel your wife away so she doesn’t unintentionally cause a man to sin by looking at her, and divorce is bad but here’s this broad loophole for “sexual immorality,” which history has interpreted as anything from a full-out affair to wearing the wrong dress, so don’t worry too much about it, you can interpret that at your will.  It’s advice for a “godly man” trying to build a “virtuous” world that best suits him.  And that is how, for the majority of Western history, it has been interpreted: by the patriarchy subjecting women to their rule.

But Jesus was way more egalitarian than that.  I just finished reading an article about how radical it was that Jesus ate with women at the same table.  Apparently, the only women at a co-ed table were the ones there as sexual objects.  So the fact that he elevated women to an equal status at the table, eating and exchanging ideas with men, was like, super crazy radical.  There’s no way this same guy would be saying “here’s a way to dominate women through marriage and policing how and when they appear in society.”

Let’s revisit that lust and adultery thing of vv. 27-30.  Jesus is saying if a woman is causing lustful thoughts in a man’s mind, it is the MAN’S responsibility to remove himself from that situation, NOT the woman’s responsibility to modify her clothing or behavior.  “Pluck out your eye,” (aka stop looking at her) Jesus says.  Police your own actions, not the woman’s.  I. Cannot. Make. That. Clear. Enough.  It is the responsibility of the person who lusts (or sins in any other way) to remove themselves from the sinful situation.  No one else’s.  Through this verse, Jesus is fully recognizing a woman’s right to move through society unmolested, and reminding men that their actions are their own responsibility.

This bit about divorce and adultery that follows all this talk about lust is mostly about protecting women’s rights as well.  The part of Deuteronomy that Jesus quotes, “anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce,” is a law that was trying to codify a modicum of protection for women, who were, at the time, not much more than their husband’s property.  The full verse reads “If 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,” (Deut. 24:1) Subsequent verses then goes on to describe who that woman can and can’t marry.  To make that very clear, a man could divorce a woman simply because she is displeasing to him.  Yes, it has that vague bit about being indecent, but we have seen through history how that has been manipulated to mean any sort of thing:  an infertile woman was often thought to be “cursed” because of some immoral transgression, and therefore expendable; a woman who suffered an illness and therefore displeased her husband could be seen as similarly “cursed;” a woman who boldly spoke her mind was displeasing to her husband as he found her indecent in her speech.

A divorced woman had little agency in society.  Her financial support had been taken away, and there were not a lot of jobs for single mothers out there.  She had limited options for remarriage and the financial support that came with it.  Oftentimes her family wouldn’t or couldn’t take her back in.  Remember, even with this “certificate of divorce” she has been declared “indecent,” and what upstanding citizen would want to be associated with that?  So, the divorced woman, often through no fault of her own, faced social ostracization and poverty.  So when Jesus basically negates divorce (except for true charges of infidelity), he gave blanket coverage to any and all wives of the men who chose to follow him.  As for those who do marry divorced women, in Jesus’ society, that made them complicit to the system.  By including those second marriages in his condemnation, I think Jesus was underscoring just how important a societal change of attitude towards women’s rights was.

All that said, I do believe that Jesus really means that divorce is bad, in any circumstance.  Before you get all huffy and stop reading on me, let me just say, as much as Jesus speaks out against divorce, I don’t think he condemns anyone for it.  In an ideal world, everyone would have the time, money, emotional capacity, and levelheadedness to sit down with their intended and make sure that yes, this is a good decision.  And once married, again, everyone would have the time, money, emotional capacity and levelheadedness to do the hard work of keeping a good marriage strong.  But the truth is, that’s just not the case.  So, if you made a mistake in your first marriage (hell, even in your second or third), I do hope you learned from it, but rest assured that God knows you are human, and that mistakes are pretty much what we do.  The glorious thing about God is that there is no sin too great to be forgiven, if we come to Xyr with a repentant heart. For one more silver lining: I do think we are headed in the right direction (even if it is slowly) when it comes to marriage and divorce.  The most in-depth study I could find was from the UK, but I bet it’s similar in the US: Couples are waiting until their early 30’s to get married, are dating almost 5 years before marriage, and the divorce rate is the lowest it’s been (and still falling) since 1971.

The main takeaway, folks, is that Jesus recognized how women in his society were underserved.  He couched it in language that wouldn’t immediately get him thrown into prison: on the surface it looks like a support of the patriarchy, but those that have the ears to hear would hear his true message:  one of recognition, of equality, of love.  Let’s help spread that message of love and equality to all women, to all people, everywhere.