Adultery, Divorce, and Promises

Matthew 5:27-37

This morning as we continue through our discussion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we are going to hear to some verses that may get some us in areas where we feel sensitive. They might remind us of harsh things we’ve heard in church in the past, or times when God has not been presented as loving. But the fact that other people have used these texts poorly is not a reason for us to ignore them. This is our sacred text, and we are not afraid of what’s in here. When the Bible gets difficult, it is tempting to pull out all the reasons that it might not speak to our culture. For example, the Bible doesn’t account for the range of gender roles, sexual identity and expression that we now understand exists in the world. Our topics for this morning—adultery, marriage, divorce and making promises—were different in the ancient world. And this is important for us to realize, especially because it can keep us from using the Bible against other people. We should also consider things like what the words mean in the original language, what is the genre of the book (is it poetry, or mythic stories, or prophecy). But these methods of study don’t tell us what in the Bible we should keep and what we should dismiss. I suggest to you that we keep all of it. What these methods of study do tell us HOW to keep what we find in the Bible. It doesn’t help us decide what we toss and what we embrace. It helps us decide how we embrace what’s here in the text. Because we trust that the Word of God has life in it for us and we can find that sometimes by digging a little bit deeper. So with that in mind, let’s look again at some challenging stuff. “Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book

Scripture: Matthew 5:27-37 (New International Version)

Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” 

This is the Word of God for All People. Thanks be to God.


Where are my fellow rule-followers in the room? Come on, those of you who like to know exactly where the lines are so that you can stay inside of them? That’s me. I like that kind of clarity. I want to know where I stand.

One of the reason these verses are so frustrating is because they sound like rules but they don’t really work like rules. And here’s how we know that. Have you ever actually read any legislation, like a bill that’s being debated? It’s long. If something is going to be a law, lawmakers take the effort to try to cover all the contingencies. We don’t just have a law that everyone stops at a 4-way stop. We have a law that says everyone stops, and also further clarification of the rules about how we decide who goes when. Laws and rules try to cover all the little weird situations that may come up. But principles, principles are different. Principles are broader and they leave room for the Holy Spirit to guide each of us in specific situations. And believe it or not, what we have here in these texts this morning, are not black-and-white laws, but principles to guide us. These are principles for how to be fully human and fully alive in God’s Kingdom.

Each one of these follows a pattern that Jesus set in the section right before this, where he talks about murder and anger. “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t murder,’ but I tell you don’t even get angry.” Jesus is saying there’s a principle at work here. To be fully human and fully alive, we don’t just avoid killing the people who annoy us, although that’s a very good rule. We need to realize that our desire to wound others comes from allowing anger to fester in our spirits. So he gives the principle behind the rule. And he keeps that pattern going in the verses we read this morning.

“You have heard it said, ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ but I tell you don’t even lust.” Adultery as we understand it in the ancient context was a serious offense. The Old Testament Hebrew law specifically states that adultery disrupted the people’s ability to live long in the land God had given them. Adultery was such a serious offense that penalty for it was death, although we don’t have any stories from the OT where anyone is actually put to death for adultery. So when Jesus brings up adultery and lust, he is reminding people of the power of death in the world, which is the ultimate opposite of being fully alive. Why would death have been the penalty for adultery? Because it shows physically what will happen to us spiritually when we engage in relationships that are not focused on being fully alive. 

Let’s be clear: lust is not the same attraction or even arousal. Our bodies are designed to notice and respond to one another. That’s healthy. But lust is about intention. The King James translates this section very specifically by saying that “if you look at someone IN ORDER TO lust after them …” Lust is the deliberate act that happens after the initial appreciation. It’s the second look, and everything that happens in our minds after that. 

So in these verses, Jesus is insisting that this destructive force of adultery doesn’t suddenly spring forth at the moment the act is committed. It begins to take hold the very moment we stop treating other people like they are fully alive, the moment we start objectifying them and treating them like someTHING we can use instead of someONE. When we objectify, lust, and commit adultery, we make ourselves less human, less fully alive. And we treat the object of our lust as if they are less than human, because in our fantasies, they do what we want them to; they are a shell and not their actual human selves. And we treat our committed partners as though they are not full alive, as though they aren’t people with minds and hearts that will be deeply hurt by what we are doing. 

To drive his point home, Jesus uses some wild exaggeration here saying that it’s better to lose one important part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. Let’s talk about this for a second. The Greek word that we translate “hell” is “Gehenna,” which refers to an actual valley outside the walls of the Jerusalem, where people dumped trash and sewage. This pile of refuse was constantly burning, and so Jesus uses this literal place as a symbol of destruction. So what Jesus is saying is that avoiding total destruction is worth some sacrifices. It’s better to be uncomfortable or inconvenienced, or even lose something valuable to us than for our whole self to be destroyed. Even this hard word is actually an encouragement from Jesus, because he clearly believes that we are capable of these kinds of strong and life-giving choices.

The next principle is, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

A couple important things here. The rule about getting a certificate of divorce is a law from the Old Testament and it was very good for its time and place. It ensured that men couldn’t just throw their wives out penniless. The certificate gave them honor, and perhaps even returned some of the property they brought into the marriage. So although it seems barbaric to us, it was progress in its context.

Another important thing: the word translated here as “sexual immorality” is the Greek word “porneia” which is the root of our word pornography. It’s used in lots of different ways in the New Testament, so we don’t know exactly what kind of act was being referred to here, but we can assume it was something serious. 

At first pass, this principle can still sound harsh. But what is this verse telling us about how to be fully alive? To be fully alive we must strive for faithfulness. What do I mean by faithfulness? Fidelity to your partner and a willingness to work hard on the relationship. It is impossible to sustain feelings without actions, so when we stop being loyal and supportive and when we become unwilling to work on our relationship, the relationship dies. Again, this comparison to divorce is a comparison to death. 

What we can all agree is that the deliberate end of a committed partnership is serious. Committed partnerships are designed to bring life, through healthy companionship and sharing resources and often through raising the next generation. When they begin, they are full of hope. And it is incredibly painful when they end, which is why Jesus equates it to death. 

This death doesn’t only affect us; it affects the people around us. We make our marriage vows before a community. We live our lives in community. Divorce doesn’t just affect one or two people. Like adultery, it affects the community. If you are divorced or you are close to someone who is, you know it feels like something died, even when divorce was the best thing for the situation. A recognition that something is as serious as death would likely encourage us to do everything we can to avoid that thing. 

Is this a hard word? Yes! The warnings are harsh because there are real ramifications for following the way of death. Do we wish Jesus would stay out of our business? Yes! Can any of us use this verse to decide what someone else should do? No! Because this is not a rule; this is a principle. 

The one thing this cannot be is a way to separate ourselves from other people through judgment. We are tempted to turn this principle back into a law so we can justify ourselves, blame our partners, and judge the people around us. That’s what laws help us do: decide who is to blame. But principles and ideals and goals open up other possibilities and call us to a higher standard. This principle gives us the freedom to personally wrestle with what we learn in the Word of God and to make a choice for ourselves, and with God’s help, to live fully in whatever the consequences are. 

The final principle on how how to be fully alive is to embody truthfulness. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, Let your word be simply ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Jesus is making a larger point than just “People shouldn’t lie.” This is about having an integrity that is so deep that we don’t need to prop up our promises. Jesus calls us to live such a truthful life that everyone who interacts with us knows that the smallest word from us will be the truth, whether it’s “Yes” or “No.” Any further need to embellish reveals the insecurity we feel because we are not always truthful. 

Imagine how alive we would feel if we trusted our friends and family to always be truthful with us. Imagine how alive you would feel if you knew that you could trust yourself to be always truthful. This kind of truthfulness changes us and the people around us. In our culture we have to be big and loud and work hard to convince people. A simple yes or no with no additional need to justify ourselves or reassure the other person would be a powerful witness in a world that thrives on exaggerations, half-truths, and sometimes all out lies. A life of integrity is also a life without fear. It demonstrates that we are not afraid of the truth, and that we really believe that the truth will make us free. 

When Moses gave the people the Law in the Old Testament, he ended by telling them to “Choose life.” And that’s what Jesus is telling people here. This is an invitation for us to choose life. To be fully human, to follow the example of Jesus, means refusing to objectify other people, no matter how attractive we find them. It means being as faithful as we can to our partners for as long as we possibly can. And it means embodying truthfulness in all our words and actions. This is how we show the world what our loving God is like. It’s how we live differently together in a culture dominated by self-interest. It’s not going to always be easy. But it is deeply meaningful, and life-giving, and it is freedom. The freedom we have in Christ. Amen.

One Reply to “Adultery, Divorce, and Promises”

  1. Laurie Laporta

    Dear Sweet Beth….
    I miss your face and the tone of your voice and your enthusiasm and your true wisdom. Today I thank you for the clarity.
    Love always,
    Laurie Laporta

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