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Matthew 5:31 32 - Divorce And Remarriage


In context, divorce and remarriage as seen in Matthew 5:31 and 32 is part of  the Sermon On The Mount.  It's not an exhaustive teaching on the subject.  So again, what we learn here is not the end of the matter.  It is however, the crucial point when thinking about marriage after divorce.  Jesus said,  "It has been said, anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.  But I tell you that if anyone divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery".


Earlier I wrote about the Jewish culture of men stigmatizing their divorced wives as being adulteresses.  I also wrote about the passive voice in New Testament Greek.  In this passage Greek grammar and Jewish culture come together with significant implications.     


The first thing we note is that Jesus confirmed Deuteronomy 24:1 4 by saying a man must give his wife a certificate of divorce when he divorced her. 


Once Jesus confirmed the legalities of the divorce certificate, He got to the heart of the matter.  He addressed the cultural accepted practice of legalized wife swapping, that is, free and easy divorces for any and every reason.  We know this because of what is called the "exception clause".  Jesus said, "anyone who divorces his wife 'except for marital unfaithfulness' causes her to become an adulteress".  The clause "except for marital unfaithfulness" tells us that the men Jesus was speaking about were those who divorced their wives for reasons other than adultery.  He was not addressing those who lawfully divorced their wives on the grounds of adultery. 


You might note that Luke 16:18 does not include this "exception clause".  We therefore learn something from Matthew that we didn't learn from Luke, and that is adultery is grounds for divorce.  That's no big revelation.  Deuteronomy 24:1 4 already told us that.    


How you understand the clause "causes her to become an adulteress" will form the basis of your thinking on marriage after divorce.  Again, without any grammatical and cultural knowledge concerning these words, you'll misunderstand Jesus. 


My understanding based on New Testament Greek scholars is that the words  "causes her to become an adulteress" is in the passive Greek voice.  The passive voice means that the subject of the sentence is having an action done to it.  It's not doing any action.  In this case, the subject is the wife who has been divorced even though she didn't commit adultery.  She is not doing any action.  She is the recipient of an action.  Here's where Jewish culture is important.  When a man divorced his wife, the general consensus in the male dominated world was that she was an adulteress.  In other words, the action done to her by her husband was the stigmatization of her being an adulteress.  She was seen as being an adulteress even if she wasn't.  Because this clause is in the passive voice, the wife is not doing any action of committing adultery by remarrying.   


Our English text says that the man who marries such a divorced woman commits adultery.  This too is the passive voice.  So, as the divorced wife was stigmatized unfairly as an adulteress, the man who marries her was stigmatized as being an adulterer, albeit in the male dominated culture, that was no big deal.  


One of my favourite Bible commentators, R. C. Lenski, comments on the passive voice in this matter by saying, "Jesus deals with the sin that the man commits against his wife and against the man who may later marry that wife".  He also says, "The subjects of the verbs are the persons injured by the husband, namely, his wife and the man whom she may later marry". (Lenski's commentary on Mark, pages 419 and 420) 


We now know that the clause "causes her to become an adulteress", and, "the man who marries her commits adultery", is in the passive voice.  This tells us that the man who divorces his innocent wife is acting sinfully against her and the man who might later marry her.  His unlawful divorce and the subsequent stigmatization of two innocent people makes him the guilty adulterer, not his wife or the man who later marries his divorced wife.  So, if you've been divorced for any reason other than adultery, you are free to remarry with no fear of committing adultery.  Context, grammar, and history, things sadly neglected in today's post modern church, tell us this to be true.




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