The Sermon on the Mount -Adultery and Divorce
What did Jesus say about adultery and divorce?
Discussing relationship breakdown can be very emotive especially when unfaithfulness is involved. When Jesus tackled the issue of being unfaithful in marriage and marriage breakdown it’s important to have some understanding of the culture to which he was speaking.
In the Old Testament if a man chose to divorce his wife Moses allowed him to issue divorce papers and send her away. A woman could not seek a divorce from her husband. Read more in Matthew 19:8. In fact women were in a difficult position as they had no real power in society. Women needed to be in a family for their own social security, if they were outside the protection of a family they were vulnerable and could easily become destitute.
The options for destitute women were begging, prostitution or death. This was the stark reality facing a woman who was separated from her husband and husbands could seek to divorce their wives for any reason so making her position precarious. In the original Hebrew text, it says that God hates “putting away” or kicking the wife into the streets, in English this gets interpreted as divorce.
Adultery means a married person having sexual intercourse with someone who is not their husband or wife but Jesus goes beyond this and says that unfaithfulness begins in what a person is thinking or feeling inside.
Jesus says that sin (doing wrong) isn’t just an action but also the wrong thoughts and desires that we have. The wrong thoughts can lead to the wrong actions but Jesus is suggesting that unfaithfulness starts in the heart and mind. When Jesus uses the example of “if your eye causes you to sin take it out” he isn’t meaning this literally, he’s trying to make a point that we need to avoid developing the thoughts and feelings that are going to lead to unfaithfulness. Lust has a selfish motive as it is about using someone for self gratification, therefore it is different from love. Jesus may also have been speaking tongue -in- cheek to his audience as many may have cast a lustful look at someone before.
Christians believe that marriage is a covenant relationship, that means one that is based on trust and it reflects the relationship God offers to people with himself. God is faithful and he wants people to be faithful to him and that extends to human relationships too. Therefore marriage mirrors the covenant relationship with God and unfaithfulness in a relationship breaks trust.
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In John 8:1-11 Jesus shows compassion to a woman who is brought to him who has been caught committing adultery. For a woman the sentence for committing adultery was death by stoning. It is only the woman who is brought to Jesus not the man involved. Jesus tells the men assembled that “those without sin should cast the first stone” but of course no-one can throw the first stone because none of them are perfect. Jesus doesn’t condone the woman’s adultery in fact he tells the woman to “go and sin no more” but he does challenge those assembled as to how they are choosing to live. Read more here. In Matthew 19 Jesus expands on this as he talks with his disciples. He says that God created a man and woman to live together in a faithful and trusting relationship.
You can read more about a Christian response to divorce here or watch an interview with a Christian couple who had to go through previous divorces
It’s important to remember that Jesus both challenged people in his teachings while showing compassion for people’s circumstances.