“Midrash # 2 Adultery and Divorce”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 8, 2017
University Baptist Church
I’ve been doing this preaching thing professionally for 28 years. In all of those years, I have never preached on this portion of scripture. It’s that uncomfortable passage that we like to skip over when looking at the Sermon on the Mount. Dare we imagine Jesus as prudish? Too many have experienced divorce. Is Jesus’ condemnation of it helpful?
But here we are on the weekend that we celebrate National Coming Out Day. Dare we join Jesus in a midrash on this topic? Midrash, you remember is contending with scripture. Taking it seriously enough to argue with it.
Adultery and divorce are both charged topics. Do we use the same definitions of sexual sin and marital infidelity as they did back then? What about marriage of same-sex partners? Does this ethic apply? Is Jesus just talking to men or is he addressing women, too? And rather than use Jesus’ words as modern-day rules, we might want to consider what marriage meant way back then and what it ought to mean now. Hold all those thoughts for a second.
I heard Glenn Stassen give a Bible study way back in 1999 at a Baptist Peace Fellowship conference in Vancouver. He identified a pattern in this chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. He and David Gushee later put those thoughts in a book entitled Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (2003, Intervarsity Press).
Glen Stassen wrote that the fifth chapter of the Sermon on the Mount is unique because of its text, reversal and transforming initiative formula. You can see it throughout the fifth chapter. It starts out with a truism, pushes us deeper and then gives a concrete example—pointing out a vicious cycle and then offers a transforming initiative. Stassen identifies 14 such triads in the Sermon on the Mount.
Take last week’s text for example. We have a traditional teaching, like “You shall not commit murder.” Then you have a vicious cycle: anger, insult and calling names. Then you have a transforming initiative: make amends before you bring your gift to the altar.
If we skip over this, we end up with what Dietrich Bonheoffer called cheap grace. “People congratulate themselves that they are forgiven, without repenting; that God is on their side, without their following the way of God as revealed in Jesus; that they are Christians, without it making much difference in their way of life.” (Cost of discipleship p. 40,45) Stassen says, “And the result plays in to the hands of secular interests that do not want the way of Jesus to interfere with their practices. Morality becomes secularized. Jesus gets marginalized or compartmentalized. The church’s ethic becomes vague and abstract.” (Stassen/Gushee p.133)
Today we are looking at two of those triads—possibly the most sticky: adultery and divorce. The two are related because only a married person can commit adultery.
The traditional teaching is: “You have heard it said, you shall not commit adultery.” It’s as old as the Ten Commandments—that whole thing about coveting your neighbor’s spouse. It borrows from the covenant language of the way God deals with the people. We follow laws, God grants grace. We break laws; we stand in the way of the covenant. Faithfulness to covenant relationships is central to the people. Violation of this faithfulness or faithfulness to something other than God, is known as idolatry. And all sorts of things are blamed on that.
Adultery can mean sexual contact with someone who is not your spouse. Does this go for premarital sex? Is all premarital sex adultery? Then there is the unwanted sexual contact within a marital relationship. It this considered adultery, even we would consider it rape? Or do we just dismiss this as an arcane teaching? It goes to the question of whether sex is for good or for evil. The old adage us that sex is dirty. Save it for someone you love.
Would that it were so easy to talk about one love forever and ever for every person. Are you bound to that person regardless of what they do? What if they violate a part of your covenant? What if they find that they need to come out of the closet themselves?
First of all, we need to know a few things about marriage in the first century. It wasn’t always for love. It was often to keep inheritance flowing in the same family system or caste or tribe. In biblical times men married between 16 and 21. Women married between 12-14. Long before the prefrontal cortex has developed—you know, that part of the brain that regulates things like judgment and ethics. And just as sexual desire becomes more acute. And it was not always for love, but for inheritance and procreation. Some assumed that sexual pleasure would happen outside of marriage (for men anyway). In Roman culture, it was ritualized and worshipped. And that is what Paul rails against in the first chapter of Romans.
“You have heard it said, do not commit adultery.” That’s the traditional teaching. But I say to you, do not even look lustfully. The scripture is saying that there is a slippery slope. Yes, we all want to avoid adultery. But looking on someone lustfully is also a form of mental adultery.
Jimmy Carter once famously said that he lusted after other women in his heart.
Just as we have all been angry, we have all responded to those natural urges—hard-wired as we are to propagate the species.
Hugh Heffner just died this past week. One clergy friend railed at Heffner for making millions off of the making of women into one-dimensional sexual objects.
Muslim women make a point of hiding those parts of the body, which might cause temptation. Having a cloth cover not only the hair, but also loosely handing over the neck and bust has an egalitarian feel. It desexualizes and creates more mystery.
Jewish cultural understanding said that certainly all men would be married. But Paul spoke about the joys of singlehood and even lifted it up as better than marriage. There’s a pretty strong chance that Jesus never married. So talking about adultery had a different kind of meaning. This does not address premarital sex, but extramarital sex—meaning that which goes beyond the covenant bond. Already, Jesus is playing with the accepted culture.
Think about this. Men only had the power to decide on marriage. It was a property arrangement. Jesus added love and lust and desire to the equation. This protects the woman. Love is the law. That’s what Jesus was saying throughout the Sermon on the Mount.
Women were considered property and they were often bought and sold into marriage as they began puberty. A virgin got a higher price and could be returned as faulty goods.
Adultery is defined as: voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not their spouse. If neither person is married, it cannot be adultery.
Adultery had to do with a woman being impregnated by another man. Do you see how Jesus’ words against lust actually protect women here?
In the Sermon on the Mount, the only law is love. Therefore, anything that was unkind, not by mutual consent, etc. would be immoral for a Christian, but obviously it would not be immoral to love sexuality before marriage or because of different but natural sexual orientation.
A web of falsehood and deceit often accompanies adultery says Glen Stassen. “It is not the initial spark of attraction that is equivalent to adultery, but instead the downward spiral of behavior resulting from a heart that has turned from covenant fidelity to covenant breaking.” (Stassen/Gushee p. 298). These words are of course directed to men. Biologically and culturally, we are different. Men tend to be more visually aroused and women tend to be more emotionally aroused. Not in all cases, but that’s the generalization. And the Bible was written to men—or at least directed at male behavior. I’m sure women who were ignored as men’s eyes strayed rejoiced at Jesus’ words here.
The transforming initiative here is hyperbolic. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Clearly, many of us would have plucked out eyes and cut off hands. I don’t think this is what Jesus was getting at. But it is the heart, the mind that is the culprit here. Jesus is telling us to pay attention to our heart. Radical sacrifice is often what is needed to be a true follower of Jesus.
Remember, adultery demanded death. No wonder Paul advocates singleness.
People use this scripture to demonize glbt folks. Saying any sex outside of heterosexual marriage is forbidden. But that’s not what the text says. All of a sudden adultery gets defined more broadly than the Biblical witness. It’s a way of keeping people in their place and is used as a tool of social control. Jesus is implying that we can do better than that.
The sermon follows the discourse on adultery with the discourse on divorce.
The logic of Matthew 5 says, “If I divorce you, I cause you to commit adultery. If someone marries you (my ex-wife), he commits adultery.”
Matthew 19 says “If I divorce you and marry someone else, I commit adultery”.
Matthew’s Jesus talks of unchastity. Mark’s Jesus talks of the woman having more power. “If I divorce my wife and marry someone else, I commit adultery against her (the former wife)”. And in Mark alone we have the reciprocal application of the same teaching. “If she divorces me and marries another man, she commits adultery.” Until now, women had never been able to initiate divorce.
The Talmud rabbis argued about this. A man could divorce his wife, said Rabbi Shammai only if she has been unchaste. But Hillel argued that a man could divorce his wife even if she spoiled a dish. Rabbi Akiba said he can divorce her if he finds another fairer than she. The woman, of course, has no right to divorce. It makes your head spin. Jesus frowned on divorce. But remember that marriage meant something different back then. Jesus advocated that our relationships be based on justice and love. That’s a good ethic, don’t you think?
Relationships based on justice means both parties are equal. Both parties enter into the relationship without coercion or obligation. There are few Biblical citations for this kind of relationship. But the ethic of Jesus seems to point us in this direction. Sometimes divorce out of a bad relationship brings us closest to Jesus’ ideal.
Think of this. If our relationships are based upon justice and genuine, mature love, then the temptation of straying from the marriage vows are less of an issue. You are committed to doing the hard work of making the relationship work. You don’t worry about committing adultery because it ceases to be an issue. And if your mind or eye strays, it’s a wake-up call to pay attention not only to your partner, but to your deepest desires.
You have heard it said, “Don’t commit adultery, don’t get divorced.” But I say to you, it starts long before that. Marry for the right reasons. Work hard. Take temptations as a wake-up call and commit yourselves to an ethic of love. That’s a reversal worth celebrating.