READ MATTHEW 5:27–32 (NIV)
OK, enough said. Let’s go home!
The fact is, we can’t go home yet; there are too many questions! You see, we traditionally have read this text in search of either judgment or absolution. Depending on which side of a messy family circumstance we may find ourselves. We either look for God to give us relief. Or, we hope God will set those other people in their place!
We’ve used enormous effort seeking to define the Greek terms used by Jesus—or least Matthew—in this text. What exactly does the word “lust” mean? What is this “exception” that seems to permit divorce in some cases? Why is this so-called “exception clause” found here in chapter 5. Again with slightly different wording in Matthew 19. But there is no such clause in Mark 10 or Luke 16?
Let’s get to the heart of the issue. Many of us go to this text asking these questions. When is divorce OK? When is divorce a sin?
Once we answer these pivotal questions, that just opens up Pandora’s box that holds thousands of other questions. “OK, you make her commit adultery, or you commit adultery by marrying a divorced woman. Now what?” Do we stone these adulterers? Do we kick them out of church? Do we install brain-wave detectors so that every lustful thought gets the same punishment? Sometimes I leave this text with more questions than when I arrived!
But guess what. We are not the first people to ask questions about texts like this one. You see, the Old Law had a problematic passage as well. In Deuteronomy 24, Moses mentions divorce without either condoning it or condemning it. He just assumes it:
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, and after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her as well and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her out of his house, or if he dies, then the first husband who divorced her to begin with, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. (Deuteronomy 24:1–4a)Now, listen, you think we have a lot of questions about these few words of Jesus in Matthew. The Jewish people (especially the leaders) had a field day with this text! Do you understand what Moses said here? He doesn’t condemn divorce. He doesn’t even condemn marriage after divorce. He just assumes those things will happen!
But, it’s important to understand why Moses allowed divorce. Believe it or not, this allowance by Moses (and God) was a graceful act to women in the ancient world. I know some people say the God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath. Grace didn’t come until the New Age, right? Wrong! The graceful God of the first century also offered grace to ancient Israel!
In the ancient world, women had no rights. They were property, plain and simple. A man could do whatever he wanted to a woman. He could marry her and abandon her at will. He could have many women at once, it was his prerogative.
Now, what do you think would happen when a man decided he no longer wanted his wife? She would be all alone. No rights. No means to buy even food. Many were forced to turn to prostitution or starve.
In this setting, God allowed divorce. God allowed a divorced woman to marry again. Divorce granted her the freedom to find another means of support. Divorce during that time assumed the right to remarry. So, when Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife, he was also allowing this woman freedom; from prostitution, from starvation, even from death. Church, Deuteronomy 24 tells the story of a graceful God!
But when the ancient Jewish leaders went to this text, all they found were more questions. Specifically, the Jewish people divided into two camps over what the phrase “something indecent” meant. Moses permitted divorce if the man found “something indecent” in his wife. Well, what does that mean?
During the time of Jesus, this debate was still raging and there were two schools of thought. Some (more conservative Pharisees) thought “something indecent” meant adultery. Other (more liberal Pharisees) thought “something indecent” meant anything and everything. If your wife burns the toast, you can divorce her. The people wanted to know where Jesus stood. Do you see the problem here? These folks completely ignored God’s grace in Deuteronomy. They just wanted to win their debate. They brought their own agendas to the text and wanted God to sort it all out.
I’m so glad that we are beyond that, church, aren’t you? I think we approach God’s Word with these same blinders sometimes. We have taken this text from the Sermon on the Mount that is full of the grace of Jesus. We have squeezed it so tightly that when we are finished all that is left is a hard, cold law!
I am preaching these two texts (27–30 & 31–32) together this morning, because I think the message is so similar. If we stop getting bogged down with our own questions about verses 31 and 32. Jesus’ message in both passages is the same: In order to preserve and protect your human relationships, work with all your might to remove the obstacles.
At the start of the twenty-first century, our world is full of perverse images related to human sexuality. Images on magazine covers and TV commercials. Not many decades ago, many of those images would have been considered pornography by the American public. But they’ve become common today. And what’s worse, we’ve grown to accept it.
I think this is one of those issues in the Sermon on the Mount that many of us are ready to just chock up to “high ideals.” Especially the men among us. “God just made us that way.” “I guess I’m just always going to struggle with this one.”
I think I shared with you one other time about an incredible experience I had a few years ago in Tulsa. But it is worth repeating, and you may have been sleeping when I told you before! I was listening to the final keynote speaker of the Tulsa Workshop. He was talking about confession and repentance. He asked a woman to stand up who would be leading a class the following day with her husband. Amy was at one time in her life an exotic dancer. She spent years of her life dancing nude for money. At some point in her life, she found Jesus. She got out of the industry. She turned her life around. She met her husband and started a family. She was asked to come forward that day in Tulsa. As she stood there before roughly 10,000 Christians; ministers, elders, fathers.
The speaker asked the audience to apologize to Amy for supporting the industry that nearly destroyed her life. He asked for anyone who had contributed in any way to that industry to stand up. People who looked at internet pornography. People who went to strip clubs. People who watched exotic movies. People who had purchased the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Anyone who had in any way supported the industry that makes billions of dollars every year through their exploitation of men and women. Would you be standing? In that room of about 10,000 people, I would guess that around half of the people stood up. As a group, they asked for Amy’s forgiveness.
I wish we could bring Amy here. She has started a program for women recovering from this lifestyle. She tells the real story of what sexual sin is capable of. The movies and media glorify it. She talked about the realities. The broken people she saw. The searching people she saw. The darkness she saw. You know what? Many people in this world feel trapped. Many people like Amy feel trapped inside this industry. Many people outside the industry are trapped by the sexual addictions this industry promotes. This industry is destroying marriages. This industry is destroying lives. Let’s be honest, this industry is destroying marriages in this room. This industry is destroying lives in this room.
If statistics hold true, about 100 people in this room are either presently or will be at some time addicted to sexual sin. If statistics hold true, 20–40 people in this room will have an extra-marital affair during their lifetime. You might say, “Those numbers are indicative of our society, not Christians.” Sadly enough, the statistics are roughly the same. Maybe you are looking for a way out of this vicious cycle.
Well, in this Sermon, Jesus had some ideas for you. If you struggle with sexual sin, get rid of those influences! Listen, do you struggle with movies that portray women in a certain way or men in a certain way? Don’t watch them! No one is forcing you to watch. Do you find yourself tempted by watching television? Don’t watch those shows. You say, “Every show is a struggle for me.” I’ll tell you what Jeff Walling once said, “The weather channel is 100 percent safe!”
If you have problems when you see a certain person who is not your spouse, then don’t see that person. If that means ending a friendship, so be it! If that means quitting your job, then do it. Your marriage is more important than any friendship or job. Let me try to be even more plain. If anything is jeopardizing your marriage or relationship with God:
- A person
- A computer
- A television
- A magazine
What are you struggling with? I don’t mean to belittle the difficulty here. If you find yourself dedicated to conforming your life to Kingdom life, but just can’t seem to win, find help. Get in an accountability group. Get in a prayer group. Get on your knees with your brothers or your sisters.
Because Jesus’ message in this Sermon is: There is a way out of this cycle.
If God can:
- Part the Red Sea
- Turn water to wine
- Raise His own Son from the dead
Make it your mission this morning to let God transform your life, to help you find deliverance from this vicious cycle into the peace found only in the Kingdom of God.