This week’s passage (Matthew 5.31-37) covers oaths and divorce which fit together because a divorce signifies a broken oath. Our passage begins,
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of marital unfaithfulness, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32
Jesus speaks again about divorce in Mark 10:1-12:
“And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them. And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh.” What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’”
When Jesus was questioned about the idea of divorce, He referred back to the writings in Genesis. It is evident from the Scriptures that God’s design for marriage was one man and one woman for a lifetime. As with most of God’s commands, people fail and deviate from God’s ideal. Divorce is not the unpardonable sin but the failure of a marriage relationship seldom affects only the couple involved. Children, family, and friends feel the tension from such situations.
In Jesus’ day, exercising divorce proceedings was normally done by the man, possibly for very petty reasons. Jesus was addressing a Jewish audience which contained at least two schools of thought about divorce. The School of Shammai held that “something indecent” meant “marital unfaithfulness or sexual immorality” – the only allowable cause for divorce. The Hillel interpretation refers to an account beginning in Deuteronomy 24:1: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house,....” Hillel emphasized the preceding clause, “who becomes displeasing to him” or “finds no favor in his eyes.” He would allow a man to divorce his wife if she did anything he disliked – even if she burned his food while cooking it. Jesus clearly took the side of Shammai but only after first pointing back to God’s original ideal for marriage in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.
Physical and/or mental abuse in a marriage is unacceptable and there may come a time when the only remedy is a divorce. It takes two to make a marriage, but only one to dissolve it. The causes of divorce may be hidden or obvious but once the step is taken, the sin is treated like all sins – forgivable by a loving Lord to a penitent child.
The phrase, “‘Have you ever considered divorce?’ ‘Divorce never, murder frequently.’” has been attributed to Jack Benny, Jessica Tandy, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and the wife of evangelist Billy Graham, Ruth Bell Graham. The statement was probably made a bit “tongue in cheek” but it does point to the fact that some “ideal” marriages may have a bit of discord. After nearly 50 years, Ann and I have enjoyed a mostly harmonious relationship. We do not espouse to be experts on marriage but as the years march on, perhaps we have more credibility. When our team introduced ourselves in Kenya, we told them we were a husband to one wife. That statement said much in a country where polygamy is common place. When I announced at one village that we had been married nearly fifty years, an older man said that was not possible and that I was lying. I was more cautious about it when I made the statement after that.
Two secrets to longevity in marriage are principles Jesus lived by – put the feelings and desires of others first and be forgiving or your mate when you think they are not. There have been ups and downs but it is amazing how when we stick to God’s ideal, we reflect on the good times and enjoy the companionship of each other.
As with divorce, there are numerous references to oaths in the Bible. For example, our passage:
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” – Matthew 5:33-37
The Wycliffe commentary suggests that Jesus was addressing the Jewish abuse of oath taking, whereby they swore by everything under the sun, literally. In these verses, Jesus indicated that we should not swear an oath at all but if we do swear an oath to the Lord we should keep it. Jesus taught in these verses that we should not be swearing by things that are not ours or over things of which we have no control. As far as Jesus was concerned, all we should have to say is “yes” or “no”.
An additional idea suggests that swearing an oath would indicate someone is not in the habit of telling the truth so the swearing of an oath was necessary to assure the legitimacy of one’s statements. I hardly think that most couples enter into marriage and require an oath of allegiance because they doubt the truthfulness of one another. We do, however, enter into marriages with promises to love, honor, and cherish each other and keep ourselves pure. The fulfillment of those vows may be very difficult.
Looking at the rest of Scripture, in Genesis 14:22-23, Abram swore to the king of Sodom about his honesty “he wouldn’t take a thread or a thong of a sandal from the king.” In Genesis 25:33, Esau swore to Jacob that he would give up his birthright for a bit of stew. In Judges 11:10, the elders of Gilead swore to Jephthah, an outcast of questionable birth, to elevate him to the head of those in Gilead. In Matthew 26:71-74, Peter denied with an oath three times that he had any knowledge of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 1:23, Paul testified, “I call God as my witness” that he was not dealing unjustly, unfairly, or untruthfully about his change of plans to visit the believers again at Corinth. In Galatians 1:20, Paul assured believers before God that his account of his calling by God to preach to the Gentiles was indeed accurate. The account in Hebrews 6:13-18 recalls God’s promise to Abraham to “bless you and give you many descendants.” God swore by Himself, making His Word in itself absolutely trustworthy and doubly dependable.
It would seem from these accounts that the oaths given were for man’s benefit, not God’s. Men often find it necessary to add extra emphasis to statements or proclamations to be more assured of their authenticity. In our country, “lying under oath” results in a greater penalty then just lying. Curious don’t you think?