Tonight we will be discussing Matthew 5:21-37 of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount concerning murder/anger, adultery/divorce, and blaspheme/oaths.
The Commandment says: Thou shalt not commit adultery. Ex. 20:14. Jesus reinterprets this commandment in two ways. First, Jesus says (and if you remember back to a more innocent time of Jimmy Carter) that, like murder, wanting to commit adultery is sufficient to warrant hell. The completion of the act itself is unnecessary.
Second, Jesus also expands the definition of adultery to remarriage after divorce. Under Mosaic law, a man (not a woman) could divorce his wife for uncleanliness. Deut. 24:1-4. During Jesus’ day, the question was whether “uncleanliness” referred to adultery or whether any uncleanliness under the law (such as eating unclean foods or touching an unclean object) suffices. This is the context of Jesus’ teaching on divorce found in Matt. 19:1-9, Mark 10:1-10 and Luke 16:18 which is (with the exception of the adultery exception) the same teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Based upon these verses, the traditional, biblical, Anglican teaching on divorce is that a divorce, for any reason other than adultery, is an impossibility and that therefore, anyone who “marries” someone who has been “divorced” (other than an innocent party to an adultery) enters into an illicit and adulterous relationship because that first marriage still exists.
This traditional, Biblical, Anglican understanding of marriage and divorce was affirmed in Resolution 67 of the 1920 Lambeth Conference wherein the bishops said that marriage is a “life-long and indissoluble union” but that a national church may allow an exception based on Matthew 5:32. We also see this traditional understanding in the matter of Edward VIII (Elizabeth II’s uncle) and Wallis Simpson whereby the King of the United Kingdom, etc., was forced to abdicate his throne so that he could marry a divorcee. In the Episcopal Church, divorce on grounds other than adultery and the remarriage of a divorced person was only first allowed in 1946. See, HERE. It was not until 2002, that the Church of England allowed remarriage in a church. Even today, remarriage in the Episcopal Church and the ACNA requires the bishop’s permission.
Two interesting issues arise for us. The first is upon what basis does the church disregard a direct teaching of Jesus? Jesus says no remarriage, and yet the church recognizes the reality of divorce and permits the proscribed. Jesus’ teaching that marriage is between a husband and wife (and therefore not a same-sex couple) arises within these same teachings prohibiting divorce and remarriage. Many of the same arguments used a generation ago to permit remarriage are being recycled on the same-sex marriage issue. Therefore, can the church part with only a portion of a traditional biblical understanding of marriage or not?
The second issue that arises is why is this even an issue? Jesus’ own disciples said that this teaching is almost impossible. Matt:19:9 The is no other teaching in the Sermon on the Mount upon which the Church requires strict adherence. The New Testament itself is ambivalent towards marriage – Paul says its best not to get married (1 Cor. 7) and Jesus says that unless you hate your wife, you’re not worthy of being his disciple (Luke 14:26). The historic Creeds don’t address marriage. And the general witness of the early church is that marriage was more a civil issue that the church had very little role in. (A good discussion of the church’s historic relative lack of concern for marriage from David Bentley Hart is HERE.) Why has the issue of (same-sex) marriage split the Anglican Church and why is the issue of divorce threatening to split the Roman Church?
The Commandments say: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” and “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” Ex. 20:7, 16. In the Old Testament, as is today, swearing in the name of God was common (e.g, Gen. 21:24) and the law only required that you not swear falsely (Lev. 19:12). In verses 33-37, however, Jesus puts an end to oath-taking because if we swear by God to tell the truth or to perform a certain act and in anywise fail, then we have taken God’s name in vain and born false witness. During the Reformation, the Anabaptists were the first to take this teaching literally. Today, Mennonites and other Christian sects will not swear to tell the truth in court. This issue was important enough, that during the English Reformation the final article of the XXXIX Articles states that Jesus’s teaching only concerned “vain and rash” swearing but that a Christian is not prohibited from swearing an oath when the court requires.
But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation.James 5:12