The Sermon on the Mount—Preventing Adultery and Divorce
AFTER discussing the deadliness of prolonged anger, Jesus turned his attention to the seventh of the Ten Commandments, saying: “You heard that it was said, ‘You must not commit adultery.’”—Matt. 5:27; Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18.
Under God’s law the penalty for adultery was severe—death for both guilty parties. This applied even to a betrothed woman who had relations with a man other than the one to whom she was engaged.—Deut. 22:22-24.
Jesus’ comments, however, went farther than forbidding the act of adultery. “I say to you,” he declared, “that everyone [that is, every married man] that keeps on looking at a woman so as to have a passion for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:28) On another occasion, too, Jesus related adultery to immoral desires in a person’s heart: “From inside, out of the heart of men,” he said, “injurious reasonings issue forth: . . . adulteries.” (Mark 7:21, 22) This can be seen from the experience of David who looked at and became aroused by another man’s wife, leading to adultery.—2 Sam. 11:2-4.
Jesus is not here speaking about an occasional immoral thought that a person quickly dispels. Rather, he is discussing the situation where the man “keeps on looking” at a woman, cultivating lustful desire for her. God, who “sees what the heart is,” knows that a married man who fully desires to commit adultery will do so if the opportunity presents itself. (1 Sam. 16:7) God views the act as already committed “in his heart,” the seat of affections, desires and motivation.
How can an individual avoid committing adultery? Using illustrative language, Jesus stated: “If, now, that right eye of yours is making you stumble, tear it out and throw it away from you. For it is more beneficial to you for one of your members to be lost to you than for your whole body to be pitched into Gehenna.” Also, if your right hand is making you stumble, cut it off and throw it away from you. For it is more beneficial for one of your members to be lost to you than for your whole body to land in Gehenna.”—Matt. 5:29, 30.
The Scriptures describe a righteous course of action as ‘walking with God.’ (Gen. 5:22; 6:9) What if the “right eye” (here representing one’s power of visual concentration) or the “right hand” (meaning what one does, as with one’s hands) were to cause a person to “stumble,” that is, to fall from the path of obedience to God? In such a case, one must take action similar to tearing the eye out or cutting off the hand. How so?
Since the eye is an important channel of communication to the mind, strongly influencing emotions and actions, a person must restrain his eyes from concentrating on improper sights. (Prov. 4:25; Luke 11:34) Job expressed the proper viewpoint when he stated: “A covenant I have concluded with my eyes. So how could I show myself attentive to a virgin?”—Job 31:1.
Similarly, there is need to beware that what one does with the hands or other body members does not violate Biblical standards of morality. In this regard, the apostle Paul writes: “Deaden, therefore, your body members that are upon the earth as respects fornication, uncleanness, sexual appetite, hurtful desire, and covetousness.”—Col. 3:5.
It is common for people to be willing to lose a limb literally in order to preserve their lives. Even more vital, according to Jesus, is the figurative ‘throwing away’ of eyes and hands so as to avoid immoral thinking and actions, for only in this way can persons escape the eternal destruction symbolized by the fiery Gehenna, “the rubbish-heap” near Jerusalem that burned day and night to consume its foul contents.—Matt. 5:29, 30, J. B. Phillips.
“Moreover it was said,” continued Jesus, “‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” (Matt. 5:31) God’s law through Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife “if she should find no favor in his eyes because he has found something indecent on her part.” (Deut. 24:1-4) “Something indecent” evidently meant something other than adultery, for, as noted above, that crime incurred the death penalty under the Mosaic law. However, since God “hated a divorcing,” it is reasonable that valid grounds for it must have been serious, such as a wife’s showing gross disrespect for her husband or bringing shame on the household.—Mal. 2:16.
Yet even in such serious cases the Scriptures neither commanded nor encouraged divorce. As a deterrent to hasty breakup of marriages, God decreed that a husband divorcing his wife must give her a “certificate of divorce.” This required time for preparation and legal implementation. And it may have involved consultation with duly authorized individuals who might first try to effect a reconciliation.
As time went on, however, Jewish husbands began ‘dealing treacherously’ with their wives by divorcing them on all sorts of trivial grounds. (Mal. 2:13-16) In Jesus’ day a prevailing rabbinical opinion held that a man could divorce his wife “even if she spoiled a dish for him.” According to the German-language Bible commentary by Strack and Billerbeck, many statements in ancient Jewish writings show “that among the Jewish people in the Mishnaic period [which included Jesus’ day] there was no marriage that a man could not summarily, in a completely legal manner, dissolve by handing out a certificate of divorce.” It should not be surprising, then, that the Pharisees asked Jesus whether divorce was lawful “on every sort of ground.”—Matt. 19:3.
What was Jesus’ view of divorce? “I say to you,” he continued, “that everyone divorcing his wife, except on account of fornication, makes her a subject for adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt. 5:32) With full authority as the Messiah and Son of God, Jesus showed that his Father was not pleased with men divorcing their wives even for the Scripturally stated “something indecent.” (Compare Matthew 19:8.) Rather, a man who would divorce his wife for reasons other than her sexual immorality would expose her to adultery if she had sexual connection with another man, since in God’s eyes the marriage would remain intact. Jesus added that “whoever marries a divorced woman,” that is, one divorced on grounds other than sexual immorality, “commits adultery.”
These words of Jesus are beneficial indeed. His establishing of sexual immorality as the only basis for divorce restrains couples who wish to please God from splitting up for numerous other reasons. And his condemning of the immoral thinking that leads up to adultery serves to reduce even further the instances of marital breakup. For those who heed its admonition, the Sermon on the Mount is a powerful aid in preventing adultery and divorce.