A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5:31-37. A Christian’s righteousness: fidelity in marriage and honesty in speech.

The third antithesis (about divorce) follows the second (about adultery) as a natural sequence. For in certain circumstances, Jesus now says, remarriage by or to a divorced person is tantamount to adultery. This third antithesis is essentially a call to fidelity in marriage.

I confess to a basic reluctance to attempt an exposition of these verses. This is partly because divorce is a controversial and complex subject, but even more because it is a subject which touches people’s emotions at a deep level. There is almost no unhappiness so poignant as the unhappiness of an unhappy marriage, and almost no tragedy so great as the degeneration of what God meant for love and fulfilment into a non-relationship of bitterness, discord and despair. Although I believe that God’s way in most cases is not divorce, I hope I shall write with sensitivity, for I know the pain that many suffer, and I have no wish to add to their distress. Yet it is because I am convinced that the teaching of Jesus on this and every subject is good intrinsically good, good for individuals, good for society – that I take my courage in both hands and write on.

1). Fidelity in marriage (31, 32).

These two verses can hardly be thought to represent the sum total of our Lord’s instruction on the mountain about divorce. They seem to give an abbreviated summary of his teaching, of which indeed Matthew records a fuller version in chapter 19. We shall be wise to take the two passages together and to interpret the shorter in the light of the longer. This is how His later debate with the Pharisees went. (Read Matthew 19:3-9).

We know that a current controversy about divorce was being conducted between the rival rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai. Rabbi Shammai took a rigorist line, and taught from Deuteronomy 24:1 that the sole ground of divorce was some grave matrimonial offence, something evidently ‘unseemly’ or ‘indecent’. Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, held a very lax view. If we can trust the Jewish historian Josephus, this was the common attitude, for he applied the Mosaic provisions to a man who ‘desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever’. Similarly Hillel, arguing that the ground for divorce was something ‘unseemly’, interpreted this term in the widest possible way to include a wife’s most trivial offences. If she proved to be an incompetent cook and burnt her husband’s food, or if he lost interest in her because of her plain looks and because he became enamoured of some other more beautiful woman, these things were ‘unseemly’ and justified him in divorcing her. The Pharisees seem to have been attracted by Rabbi Hillel’s laxity, which will explain the form their question took: ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife *for any cause?* (19:3). In other words they wanted to know whose side Jesus was on in the contemporary debate, and whether he belonged to the school of rigorism or of laxity.

Our Lord’s reply to their question was in three parts. It is revealing to consider these separately and in the order in which he spoke them. In each he dissented from the Pharisees.

Tomorrow: Matthew 5:31-37. A Christian’s righteousness: fidelity in marriage and honesty in speech (continued).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.