11 February 2019

Matthew 5:31-32

But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (v. 32)

Psalm: Psalm 18:1-15


For the rest of this week, we are faced with the challenge of what happens when the letter of the law collides with the requirements of God’s grace. The following passages demonstrate the ways in which God is interested in obedience and loyalty, rather than legalism and division. In typically Matthean directness, Jesus offers what appear to be bullet points towards holiness; each couple of sentences providing an expose on the ways in which being a Jesus follower is about relationship rather than rule.

Here, in Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus takes the hypothetical scenario of Deuteronomy 24, and challenges the basis on which the law is made. No longer is the law of relationships a one-sided, male dominated affair – but Jesus offers social equity for the wronged partner. In Jesus’ redefinition of the law, it is no longer good enough to leave one partner publicly destitute. It is important to remember that in context women could be publicly humiliated and divorced for as little as burning breakfast!

For the contemporary reader, this is still one of those ‘sticky’ passages which we have to wrestle with – in light of our own experience and understanding of marriage contracts, divorce law and the complexity of relationships today. Jesus’ point here is more pastorally put when marriage between two consenting people is exclusive and intentionally lifelong.

The ancient theologian Chrysostom provides a further layer to our contemporary response to this passage, locating it within the context of the Beatitudes proclaimed a few verses prior. "For he that be meek, a peacemaker, and poor in Spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out their wide? He who are used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that he owns?" Despite the gendered language, the point is sharply made: the follower of Jesus first needs to develop character, rather than to be confined to the permissions of the law. Such character promotes the other, rather than divorces them.                 

In Matthew’s literary genius, we already have an example of such humble character wrestling with the letter of the law in the face of grace. In Matthew 2 we see Joseph try to reconcile himself to the private protection of Mary in the face of the expectation of his need to divorce her.

Characterfulness anointed with the Spirit brings with it the possibility of holiness and wholeness which legal precedence has little capacity for.


To Ponder:

  • How do we understand this passage today?
  • What principles do we need to remember when we are reading sticky passages such as these?
  • How are we engaging in the current conversations about marriage and relationships in our local contexts?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Joanne Cox-Darling

Joanne Cox-Darling is a minister in South Staffordshire; a county proud of its creativity and regeneration opportunities. Joanne is chair of the Christian Enquiries Agency – a charity of Churches Together which seeks to enable people to discover faith and faithfulness through the website Joanne is the author of the forthcoming book 'Finding God in a Culture of Fear' due for publication in late Spring this year.

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