Matthew 5:27-32, Adultery and Divorce

[February 5, 2012] Jesus is talking about fulfilling the Law and the Prophets by understanding their true aim, otherwise we annul the commandments. Though we may be believers in Christ, our entering the Kingdom of the Heavens depends upon our righteousness exceeding the exacting righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees who presumably misaim in their interpretation of the Scriptures. For the Jesus whom the Gospel according to Matthew presents to us, the aim of the Torah and the Prophets is none other than Himself. He is the One who pleases the Father, the place where the blessing of the Promised Land comes, the sphere of the Kingdom of the Heavens.

You Shall Not Commit Adultery” (Matthew 5:27-30)

 Of course, this is from the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18). Jesus says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a wife in order to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I presume this would apply in our own day to the woman who looks at a husband in order to desire him for herself.

Notice two points here: First, the word gynē is the word for woman and wife. In the context of adultery, we should take it in the narrower sense of wife. Jesus is simply giving this commandment the weight of the last commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). The Vulgate began interpreting the word in the broad sense of woman (mulier) instead of wife (uxor), where the word must be applied not only to the wives of others, but all women, even to one’s own wife. This was an unfortunate development that, by imposing monastic ascetical standards on everyone, would deprive us of the joy of being human.

Second, the problem is not lusting after any woman but looking at someone’s wife in order to desire her (for oneself). As Ulrich Luz says in his commentary (Augsburg, 1989, page 294), “It deals with intentional looking with the aim of breaking the marriage of another man.” The preposition with the accusative designates an intentional act—looking—with a purpose—adultery. To this extent, Jesus’ demand does not protect the woman, but only the interests of the other husband to whom the woman “belongs.”

There has been a tendency in Christian tradition to interpret the word “lust” (epithumeō) in this context to mean concupiscence as the root of all sin. Some in the early church even used the word hēdonē (pleasure) in its place. Even in the “catholic” tradition this smells of dualism. It says that something is wrong with sexual desire and the pleasure of sexual connection. Behind this one always finds male domination and misogyny, or women who have been hurt or oppressed by men. After the Council of Trent, concupiscence is no longer a “mortal” sin; and Luther agrees. Even here, though, what is natural is still considered an “involuntary” sin.

The word “lust” (epithumeō) means to desire. For example, in Luke 22:15 Jesus desired to eat the Passover with His disciples; in Matthew 13:17 “many prophets and righteous men have desired to perceive the things that you see”; and in Luke 17:22 people will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man (see also 1 Timothy 3:1; Hebrews 6:11; and 1 Peter 1:12). In Luke 15:16 and 16:21 it refers to hunger for food; in Acts 22:33 it refers to silver, gold and fine clothes; and in Revelation 9:6 it refers to death. In Romans 7:7 and 13:9 (and probably James 4:2) it translates coveting and in 1 Corinthians 10:6 it refers to desiring evil things. The word itself is neutral (see Galatians 5:17), and it does not become evil just because it is applied to sexual attraction.

Because most historic cultures in the past practiced arranged marriages and protected the value of their daughters by prohibiting their “use” (sexually) before marriage (this control of women’s sexuality, however, was not the universal practice), it has been easy to interpret Jesus’ words as referring to coveting an object that belongs to someone else—either a husband or the father. The parents can enter into a contract and the property can be transferred. Love is involved only afterwards.

Is lust and love incompatible? In the modern world—at least here in the West—it is hard to imagine becoming attracted to someone with whom one falls in love without there being the element of desire. Indeed, should a couple even consider getting married if they have no desire for each other? An innate sense of sexual desire underlies the normal relationships of the genders and it is what makes them pleasurable, as Freud has shown (correctly, I believe) even in the case of small children and their parents. To look upon one of the opposite gender with sexual feelings (and even desire) is not a sin; it is healthy and natural.

Aside from speaking of coveting another’s wife or husband, and thus coming between a wife and husband—the interest clearly being to protect the rights of the other’s spouse, Jesus is implying something more. The tendency already existed in Jesus’ time to keep women out of public and even religious life, and for wives to be veiled (not only in Jewish Palestine but even in—probably the Jewish community there in—Hellenic Corinth). It is not possible to imagine Jesus going along with this tendency. His own behavior and that of the early church (in which the evangelists recorded the gospels) make this presumption impossible. Jesus made no attempt to avoid women. Indeed, the “little ones” of chapter 18 must include the women (as well as the men). Women are not to be treated any differently than the men within the community of the church. According to Matthew’s Jesus, within the Christian community no hierarchy—not even between men and women—can exist in addition to the Lordship of Christ.

The “more” that Jesus is implying, I think, is a question of priority. One cannot look at another—any other—in order to desire them before one meets them as a person. To put use, such as one’s own pleasure, before the appreciation of another’s subjectivity and the personhood that gives rise to that subjectivity, is to treat them as an object, and therefore dehumanizes them and oneself with the same stroke. Here is the sin that is implied by Jesus’ words. Though our Lord’s words protect the rights of the other man (the woman’s husband), and in this way does not differ from the teaching of the rabbis of the ancient world, in the context of His whole ministry and of the community that He speaks of in this same gospel, He means that we may not look upon one another with the intention of use, at least not until we look upon the other first as a whole human being comprising a person, confronting us as an equal subjective “I”, that is, as an “I” facing me as its “you.”

Looking at someone in order to desire them means we have bypassed who they are. Desire is the basis of our pleasure in each other’s company, not the desire to possess, own, control or use, but the feeling for connection. From this connection we look to see each other face-to-face and to empathize with the feelings and perspective of the other. But looking at someone in order to desire them implies something else. That is the look of someone who wants to have, possess and usurp.

Jesus creates these new relations between us by re-creating us as persons by His encounter with us as a Person. When He calls us into relationship to Himself it is through the Holy Spirit. We stand in relationship to Him, and He to us, with the same quality of relationship that exists between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. It is in this relationship that we relate to one another, and therefore the mutual quality of our relationships is of this face-to-face personal nature. To violate this is to violate the Kingdom of the Heavens and to come under its judgment and discipline. The reason the world (as such) is dead is because the relationships it creates between individuals is artificial, existing only in the artificially insular soul as it interacts with and uses others. (That is really all it can do.) The reality of spiritual communion is personal and includes our bodily presence with each other. It does not exclude sexuality but transforms—sublates—it, so that it can be truly natural, and in this holy way spontaneous and free, with or without the intensity that it sometimes involves.

Verses 29-30 speak of being cast or passing away into Gehenna, the valley of Henna (Topheth in the Old Testament), literally a fire that incinerates garbage but used as a metaphor for the decision of God when we appear before His judgment seat. It was used in 5:22 and will be used again in 10:28; 18:9; 23:15 and 33. It refers to the “lake of fire” in Revelation 20:10, 14-15; and 21:8: what we usually call hell. The fire of hell is a metaphor for the searing judgment of the holiness of God’s moral righteousness. While there is a judgment in which this is all a person knows, it is also something that can purge a believer, as in 1 Corinthians 3:13; or whereby we can be “touched” by the “second death” as in Revelation 2:11; or in which we can be “near a curse” as in Hebrews 6:8. Even in this life we can be tormented by turning our backs on the One who is all life and love and light and goodness and beauty and truth. Our torment is the soul’s parchness of spirit (Luke 16:23-24), which becomes only more acute once we have tasted the goodness of the Lord. However, when we appear before Christ, this fire will try us and if our life does not please Him, we will suffer for a time the loss of the inheritance of the Kingdom of the Heavens and the sweetness of fellowship that could have been ours. We will suffer regret with the “gnashing of teeth.”

Using hyperbolic language, Jesus demands that we take this seriously and be willing to act drastically with ourselves, even to the point where we might appear quite odd to our neighbors. What is it that we truly value? We deny our soul in order to gain it. We “pluck out our eye”—that faculty with which we “look in order to …” [use or have]; and we “cut off our hand”—that faculty with which we grasp to take and possess. Jesus will not have our loyalties divided between Him and our own aggrandizement. As always in Matthew, what has become that which defines masculinity—domination and conquest—is inverted. The disciple must take up the cross and follow Jesus. Male sexuality no longer means domination and possession, which are now exposed as sin, but rather it is defined by the strength of respect and love. One-sided self-seeking desire is replaced by the mutual desire that comes out of the love between two persons.

May We Divorce? (5:31-32)

“Everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries her who has been divorced commits adultery.” This would be a rather selective and peculiar way to phrase a piece of casuistry. Probably we should not interpret these words apart from 19:3-12, particularly verse 9. Those words are about the Christian household as the base of the church, and Jesus’ words there are about taking the way of the cross in all the aspects of our life. “Whoever divorces his wife, except for fornication, and married another, commits adultery, and he who marries her who has been divorced commits adultery.” If a man divorces his wife, he causes her to commit adultery, presumably because her circumstances would compel her to marry another; and if he marries another, he commits adultery. And if any man marries a divorced woman—presumably while her husband is still alive—he and she commit adultery (against her former husband). In other words, a divorce does not terminate a marriage; it merely separates the couple. Since their marriage is not terminated, if either of them marries another he or she would be married to two people.

If “fornication” means adultery—though one must ask why Jesus did not use the word “adultery” since it is the matter at issue here—then the logic of the passage would mean that the only thing that can terminate a marriage is an affair. That however would mean that once one partner had an affair (or married another), the other one was free of the marriage and therefore could legitimately marry another. If this were the case, then Jesus’ words no longer make sense, for if the woman’s former marriage has been terminated by adultery, I should not be committing adultery if I marry her.

Perhaps what Jesus means by porneia (“fornication”) is incest as defined by Leviticus 18:6-18 (though the word “fornication” is not used there). This might have been important when it came to helping Gentile couples when one of them joined the church. In Jewish practice, proselytes were considered newborns; since their Gentile relatives were no longer considered as such, their marriage to relatives was usually not considered as such. However, in the church Gentiles were not proselytes (not having been circumcised and taking upon themselves the Halakah).

In other words, except in the case of an incestuous marriage, a marriage cannot be terminated, although the couple can separate—if the separation does not force the woman to remarry. They can “divorce” as long as it is understood that their marriage has not thereby been terminated.

The early church (after the New Testament) universally forbad second marriages until the fourth century. (After that, the Eastern Church permitted it; they felt that adultery terminated the marriage, making remarriage possible. The Reformation followed the Eastern Church on this.)

If I marry another (assuming that neither of us has taken away the spouse of another or has been divorced) when my first marriage is still valid, how would this differ from polygamy, except that the first spouse is no longer involved in my marriage? Is polygamy a sin? The Essene community, based on Genesis 1:27, did not allow a man to have two wives in his lifetime. Jesus would not have come from the same legal perspective, and some who joined the Christian community must have been in their second (or third) marriage, and some must even have had polygamous marriages. Would they all have been required to end any “marriage” that came after the first, that is, to divorce their “wives”? We do not see this hardship being imposed on the churches in the New Testament, which if it actually was imposed would certainly have created a stir that would at least have been reflected in the epistles.

Instead, the second marriage that Jesus forbids as adulterous always follows a divorce (see Malachi 2:14-16). In other words, if I or my spouse marries someone after we divorce, that is adultery; but if we do not divorce, a second marriage is not in itself adulterous; it may simply be polygamous, even if sequential. (In other words, the fact of a divorce is what makes any new marriages adulterous; otherwise, they do not have to be.) If a divorce has not taken place, what makes a second relationship adulterous (besides taking another person’s spouse) is probably the lack of consent on the part of the spouse—if polygamy is acceptable Biblically or legally. Paul prefers that elders of the church not be in polygamous relationships (or second marriages?), and in his first letter to the Corinthians he suggests that one spouse is already enough of a burden. Paul has many things of a theological and pastoral nature to say about marriage, but we leave that aside for now.

Does the legal issue of the exact meaning of Jesus’ words have anything to do with our Lord’s intention? It is hard to see how the condition of either the man, the woman, the church, or the glory of God is improved by this tangle except ideally. He seems to be opposed to the divorced getting married on the grounds that the divorce gives the illusion that the marriage has thereby been terminated. The result of this discussion shows however that pursuing the interpretation of these verses in this legalistic manner is—at least in part—a dead end.

Jesus is interested in God’s will as shown in the creation story (see chapter 19) and how this takes priority to and must interpret any later Mosaic permissions.

Of course, the Biblical (Old Testament) concept of marriage is between a man and a woman. Homosexual relationships, no matter how covenanted or sacred or blessed, are not marriages in the Biblical (Old Testament) sense. Solomon’s wives were not married to each other even if they had sexual relations with one another. I think the civil government should not marry people at all and not attempt to define marriage. Instead, it should be concerned with the rights belonging to different kinds of domestic unions and leave questions of religion, tradition and culture aside for other institutions to determine. Karl Barth argued that the New Testament redefined the purpose of marriage. Marriage is no longer for the purpose of procreation. This might put same-sex unions in a different light.

According to Jesus, marriage is meant for life and one should remain faithful to the spouse of one’s youth. However, I do not get the impression that Jesus was a legalist like Shammai or the Essenes. He would, like Hillel, have us “choose life” and do what is best for the children. In practice, Jesus knows that our domestic relationships are difficult and our hearts are often hardened by all the hurt we endure—and inflict on others. Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of our hearts. Did Jesus forbid it? He does not; He forbade second marriages after divorce (and the second marriage into which the circumstances of the estranged wife may force her). We have to find solutions that are fair and good for everyone involved, which the Mosaic legislations were a (small) step towards. Today’s women can support themselves as well as men without a husband or father. This fact changes the significance of some of Jesus’ words. Most Western families do not (and cannot) arrange the marriages of their children. This means that today’s Western marriages begin on a different basis than in Jesus’ time. The couple usually marries on the basis of their emotional connection to one another. So the situation in which we find ourselves is far different than the world that Jesus knew and addressed in Palestine. (But then, we no longer offer gifts upon the altar either.)

It seems as if marriage is indissoluble, but it is possible for adultery, divorce, and adultery after divorce to take place. The first marriage does not thereby end. The two are “one flesh” forever. According to Paul, this is the case even when one sleeps with a prostitute (does he mean that one is unwittingly married to the prostitute?)! The problem, according to the words of Jesus, has to do with the succeeding marriage(s). But what if it is the first marriage for one person and not for the other? Does this mean that only one of them is really married to the other? This gets absurd. At least we can say that a person should certainly not stay with an abusive partner. She or he should divorce even if the abuser has not committed fornication. What that bond is with the first partner, I do not pretend to know. I would imagine, however, that it is not simply a legal obligation (no matter how we dress this up with “covenant” language). Perhaps it is something imprinted in the two of us, or God never joined the two together in the first place. Or, what I think is more probable, it might be eschatological.

This verse is far more confusing for us than it was for our ancestors, probably because we do not share the same one-sided patriarchal assumptions. I fear that if we handle it as legalists, we may miss the point. Jesus is talking about what it is like to be in relationship to Him, to come under the government of the Kingdom of the Heavens because we are in a personal relationship of fealty to Him. Already, before we came to this place, we were under the judgment of God along with the rest of the world. We still are, but the judgment of God becomes the government and discipline of the Father, which means that the Father deals with us with the love that He has for the Son but also as if we should be like His Son. (In that case, how can a marriage be terminated? Maybe this is the key that would unlock Jesus’ meaning!) In addition, however, through the Holy Spirit, the Father deals with us with all the grace that is in the Son. We stand in our present relationships in this place—of judgment, of discipline, of love and of grace—and move forward, as we are, in the church. When we can bring about reconciliation, when we can right a wrong, when we can pay a debt, when we can forgive, when we can be forgiven, we ought to do so with a good measure added. It is only by the grace of our Lord Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able.

Let us not be legalists but instead withhold our judgment, and practice the compassion of Jesus and encourage personal love toward the others in our homes, in the church, and in our lives—and also toward ourselves (and not using each other as objects for our use, but fully appreciating each other’s personhood).

Perhaps, when all things are fulfilled and Jesus hands the Kingdom over to the Father (if not sooner), we who are saved will all be married to each other, as male and female (whatever that might mean in the resurrection—might we even be androgynous?), without adultery, without divorce, without bypassing the other as a person, but by participation in the divine perichoresis. In that case, no marriage can ever be terminated, for the first is only the beginning for us of something that will be universal and wonderful. Each other’s sinfulness obscures this from our eyes. We cannot yet live in that fullness, not only because of our blindness but, because of our propensity to sin and because we live in a world that is under God’s judgment. Our concern is to know the constraints that our condition imposes (just as in the church there can be no hierarchy even though hierarchy is natural to the created order, and we renounce wealth even though in the Old Testament it was a type of what is to come). We should be guided not by our own attempts at casuistry but by our love for one another as we live in fealty to our Lord and under the government of the Holy Spirit as She speaks to us in our spirit through the revelation of Christ in the Scriptures.

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