It wasn’t coincidence that, in the course of delivering His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus waited until after establishing His views concerning anger, contempt and sexual lust before taking on the sticky issue of divorce. Chances are if those three destructive factors were kept in check divorce would be a rarity but we know that’s not the case. Most baby boomers (me included) grew up in an era when divorce was the exception. The majority of moms and dads stayed together. The terms “stepmom” or “stepdad” were seldom heard. But stats tell a sad tale. In 1960 even though one out of four marriages eventually ended up on the rocks they did tend to last longer. Since then the divorce percentage has nearly doubled. Even worse, the failure rate for second marriages is around 60%. For one thing, there’s no stigma or shame associated with divorce nowadays so it doesn’t take more than a spouse deciding they just aren’t happy to justify filing for legal dissolution. While the “give up” rate has come down a tad in the 21st century it’s obvious that, without a miraculous nationwide spiritual revival taking place, we’ll never return to that former era when a couple’s vows were a lot more unbreakable.
Yet we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking marriages were a lot more permanent 2,000 years ago. They weren’t. In that male-dominated, chauvinistic culture a husband could divorce his wife just for accidentally burning the flapjacks or for the simple reason he’d spotted a lady he desired more. The wife wouldn’t have any say in the matter. The man would be considered a righteous dude by his peers if he went to the trouble of scribbling out a hand-written (albeit unauthorized) divorce note to take with her out the door! Thus it was important to Jesus that He set everyone straight about how God felt about such deplorable shenanigans. This unjust practice was widespread despite the set-in-stone, centuries-old law of “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.” Jesus recited that decree and added, “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32). As you can guess, that didn’t go over well with the menfolk. Later on when Jesus repeated this for a bunch of offended Pharisees even His disciples sarcastically commented, “If this is the case of a husband with a wife, it is better not to marry!” (Matthew 19:10). Evidently every man in the region was content to ignore Malachi 2:16 that reads, “’I hate divorce,’ says the LORD god of Israel…” Jesus didn’t beat around the bush. He reminded all who’d listen, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) before teaching them the inescapable truth of, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6).
Notice He didn’t say divorce was never warranted. He acknowledged that immorality was a legitimate reason for it but He refrained from labeling it the underlying cause. He pointed out that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts…” (Matthew 19:8). In other words, a man’s resolute, non-negotiable refusal to forgive his wife’s indiscretion was often the real obstacle preventing reconciliation. Remember, Jesus was a pragmatist. He knew, given a particular scenario, divorce was a moral and ethical solution. (I must inject that sometimes the person owning the “hard heart” is the unfaithful one who now wants to “be free.”) Still, as Christ stressed in the verses previously cited, divorce wasn’t what God prefers because it always leaves scars on all parties involved. Some are deep, some are shallow but they’re scars nonetheless. As for what Jesus said in verse 5:32, one must take into consideration that in that age divorce was particularly devastating for the wife. None of her remaining options were good. She could move in with a relative as a handmaiden or maybe marry again (but be considered “damaged goods”) or turn to prostitution to survive. The husband, on the other hand, would suffer no serious consequences. Jesus knew changing the cultural mindset would take more time than He had left on earth. Thus He hoisted the onus onto the man’s shoulders by stating he was, in essence, forcing his former wife to commit the sin of adultery.
We all know making a marriage last is hard work. Perhaps nothing’s more difficult so there are instances when, having exhausted all attempts to reconcile differences, divorce is inevitable. As in everything in life, Jesus urges His followers to approach every setback or disappointment with an attitude of uncompromised graciousness. Dallas Willard wrote, “Divorce, if it were rightly done, would be done as an act of love. It would be dictated by love and done for the honest good of the people involved. Such divorce, though rare, remains nonetheless possible and may be necessary. If it were truly done on this basis, it would be rightly done, in spite of the heartbreak and loss it’s sure to involve.” My first marriage ended in divorce and it hurt. As much as I want to place all the blame on my ex I know my failure to consult God’s Word for guidance played a big part. I was selfish, prideful. What Larry Crabb wrote applied to me: “If you’re looking for a quick boost to your self-esteem, the Bible isn’t a good book to read. You might especially want to skip the first three chapters of Romans. They reveal us as hopelessly arrogant, foolish enough to think that we’re the point of things, that our happiness, our sense of well-being, matters more than anything else. …We want it our own way. In His justice, God lets us have it. As Dorothy Sayers put it, hell is the enjoyment of our own way forever.”
Next our Savior took on the all-too-commonplace practice of swearing. He preached, “Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not take oaths at all – not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37). All one need do these days to become aware of how frequently the average Joe or Jane uses profanity is tune into the average cable TV drama for five minutes. The characters cuss and bark out the words “God” or “Jeeezus” more often than a street evangelist. We all know the third Commandment forbids taking the Lord’s name in vain so Christ took it further to the crux of the matter. He was telling us spewing out curses is no way for a godly person to behave. Period. I’ll refrain from belaboring the wrongness of allowing anything other than courteous, kind language to escape our pie holes but, as a rule, Christians shouldn’t use profanity and should wince when others use it. Alistair Begg wrote, “Flippancy is a cousin of profanity. It’s often a companion to fluency. Proverbs reminds us that when words are many, sin is not absent. The old chestnut hits the mark: ‘An unbridled tongue is the chariot of the devil.’ …Too often in Christian circles we say things just to be heard saying them.”
One thing to keep in mind about the Sermon on the Mount is this: Jesus was laying out a new way of living wherein we possess what can rightly be called a “kingdom heart.” It’s a radical departure from the “normal” way of living. For instance, He said we’re not to retaliate for harm done. According to the Mosaic Law, it’s okay to inflict the same amount of damage on the offender that he/she caused us. But that rarely ends the hostilities. Instead it usually instigates an ongoing “tit for tat” exchange that only gets worse. Therefore Jesus invites us to rise above our natural, animalistic instincts and see things from God’s perspective. This lets us view our injurer through His eyes, allowing us to see them as the troubled human being they are. We’ll then have pity on them just as Jesus, dying on the cross, looked down on His tormentors and said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24). We should ask ourselves: Are we to do less if somebody dares step on our delicate feelings? The answer should be obvious.
Jesus instructed His followers about how we’re to respond to personal affronts, injuries and disrespect with a “kingdom heart.” He says we’re to remain vulnerable and “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). In other words, don’t run away like a coward yet don’t vengefully strike back. Next He said to “let them have your shirt” (5:40). By doing this we show them their needs are more important than our own. He then suggested if they coerce us to walk one mile, “go with him two” (5:41). To do so is to display one’s inner strength in a non-violent manner. And finally Jesus tells us “Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you” (5:42). We’re to surrender what’s requested of us without demanding qualification.
Okay, let’s get real for a moment. There aren’t four other statements in the Sermon that could’ve made us or those in the crowd more uncomfortable. If the stuff regarding murder and adultery didn’t run a sizeable number of them off, these bold statements surely did. Jesus was telling them and us to go far beyond what the Ten Commandments required. Now, He didn’t say we’re not to dodge bullets. He didn’t advise letting ourselves be taken absurd advantage of by evil-minded jerks. He didn’t label legitimate self-defense sinful. He didn’t say not to use common sense or not to do what’s rationally appropriate in each situation. What He was presenting is a kind of behavior that characterizes a man or woman who harbors a Spiritualized “kingdom heart.” One who displays (via positive acts) the countenance of the new creature the purifying blood of Christ has transformed them into. It boils down to always returning good for evil, doing much more than the minimum in order to serve others, and giving what’s asked for without hesitation solely because we want to emulate our Savior. Willard opined, “…We aren’t talking about things one must do to ‘be Christian’ or ‘go to heaven when we die,’ we’re looking at how people live who stand in the flow of God’s life now. We see the interior rightness of those who are living – as a matter of course, not just in exceptional moments – beyond the rightness of the scribe and Pharisee.” In other words, if I’m full of the Holy Spirit there’s no occasion where “getting even” enters my mind.
What’s most surprising is what happens when we actually do “turn the other cheek.” It’s not what we expect. Nor is it what our attacker planned on. It usually disarms them and makes them reevaluate what kind of dysfunctional creeps they really are. Suddenly they’re not in control and anyone witnessing the encounter will invariably brand them a despicable bully. However, if their physical assault continues unabated then prudence should kick in and goad us into taking evasive action. But, as ambassadors of God’s kingdom, we must always seek to reveal to aggressors patience and the same unconditional love Christ showed us on Calvary.
It’s predictable that, if we live long enough, we’ll accumulate a list of acquaintances who wouldn’t bat an eye if we got hit by a bus. Not only that but simply by being born in a certain country we can become targeted for destruction by other nations/organizations that’ve designated us subhuman “infidels” worthy of genocide. Our knee-jerk reaction is to hate them back. But Jesus preached, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:43-46). Loving only folks we share common interests with is something radical Islamic terrorists, Mafia hitmen and drug cartel thugs find easy to do, right? So how can showing love only to those we deem loveable distinguish us as followers of Christ? Heck, even atheists find somebody to love! Jesus challenges us to raise our standards as high as His. He said, “So, then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). Is the Lord asking a lot of us? Um, does the pope wear cool hats?
The infamous secularist Bertrand Russell once stated, “The Christian principle, ‘Love your enemies’ is good… There’s nothing to be said against it except that it’s too difficult for most of us to practice sincerely.” And, as concerns those who’ve not been born again, he was right as rain. Willard wrote, “It’s very hard indeed if you’ve not been substantially transformed in the depths of your being, in the intricacies of your thoughts, feelings, assurances, and dispositions, in such a way that you’re permeated with love. Once that happens, then it’s not hard. What would be hard is to act the way you acted before.”
It’s significant to note these Sermonized teachings came from the Son of God, not some ancient philosopher who couldn’t have lived in full compliance with these lofty admonitions if their family’s life had depended on it. Mankind learns the hard way (and then quickly forgets) the only way peace can be a palpable reality is through everyone imitating Jesus Christ, the unrivaled master of human life. Only by surrendering to Him alone can we become the loving, generous, charitable, forgiving, merciful souls God Almighty had in mind when He created us. Did Jesus give His disciples goals that are unattainable? No way. Philip Yancey confessed: “For years I’d thought of the Sermon on the Mount as a blueprint for human behavior that no one could possibly follow. Reading it again, I found that Jesus gave these words not to cumber us, but to tell us what God is like.” To alter Yancey’s book title a bit, Christ revealed to us the God we never knew and implied believers should aspire to be like Him.