What does Jesus say about oaths & divorce?
What is a lie? Altered truth, deceit, a loophole? Loopholes are so common in every area, including laws, taxes, and religion. Jesus had a very specific response when He met religious people trying to find loopholes in what God said. He got angry. Especially when people were using those loopholes to harm others. Jesus didn’t just get mad. He also plugged the holes. In this passage, we see Jesus do that in the areas of oaths and divorce.
Matthew 5:33-36 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.”
He begins by summarizing the Old Testament teaching on oaths, then goes further to elaborate on one of the ten commandments: do not take the Lord’s name in vain. For context, the people at the time took this rule so seriously that they never even said the name of the Lord. When it came to making promises, they couldn’t say, “I swear on the Lord,” so they found a loophole. Israel began swearing and promising on things related to the name of God. They would say things like, “I swear on the temple” or “I swear on Jerusalem.”
It began to get complicated as some Rabbis taught that certain oaths were binding while others were not. For example, a Rabbi may teach that swearing by Jerusalem was binding, but swearing towards Jerusalem was not. So it got elaborate and messy.
People used the games around oaths to deceive one another, and that made Jesus mad. He goes on to say not to swear oaths at all because everything belongs to God. God sees your oaths the same way, regardless of the wording.
Matthew 5:37 “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one”
Jesus’s interest is in full truthfulness. He presses further by saying anything beyond a yes or no is evil. So far, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been taking behaviors and digging deeper into the root issue. What is the root issue of swearing oaths? When we swear on our mothers’ graves or to the temple or whatever it may be, we are using exaggeration to prop up what we say and give it weight.
Why? To manipulate others. We want to control how others see us and/or respond to us. We do this all the time! We exaggerate, embellish, make empty promises, or even fully lie. Jesus says that is all evil. His followers are to be marked by utter truth.
You can rest in the deep love of God. Our fear of others’ perceptions and reactions leads us to lie, but we can be fully secure in the reality that we are deeply loved by God. We don’t need to control the narrative.
Last week, we talked about sex outside of marriage, and this week we are talking about oaths.
Between these sections, Jesus addresses divorce.
Matthew 5:31-32 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
This is heavy. Divorce is a difficult subject to talk about, especially in the context of the church. Jesus offers wisdom and compassion here.
Many people misapply what He says because they don’t understand the context. In Jesus’ time, a big debate was happening among the interpreters of the law. This debate was centered around the legal grounds for a man to divorce his wife and was regarding Deuteronomy 24:1 ”If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house.” Moses is addressing a specific situation of a man finding “indecency” in his wife and being allowed to divorce her. In that context, “indecency” almost certainly means sexual infidelity. Some rabbis interpreted it that way, but many others took “indecency” to be much broader. Rather than only adultery, they said that it could mean anything from burning your husband’s food to not being thought to be as beautiful as another woman. This one out-of-context verse set the standard of the time: as long as you give her a certificate of divorce, you’re good.
Jesus plugs this loophole. Matthew 5:32 “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
First, Jesus is elevating the value of women in a society that considers them property. Jesus is radically, counter-culturally saying that women cannot be treated as property and discarded for any reason. Second, Jesus is elevating the seriousness of divorce. He gives one legitimate reason for divorce: sexual immorality. Jesus doesn’t forbid divorce or remarriage. He clarifies the effects of divorce by showing that it has devastating consequences no matter what happens.
Does this mean infidelity is the only reason for divorce? Matthew 19:8-9 “Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” According to Jesus, sexual immorality is a sign of something much deeper: a hardened heart.
Jesus acknowledges and permits divorce, but it is not God’s intention in marriage. Divorce is not the unforgivable sin. You are deeply loved by Jesus, and God can bring beauty out of brokenness.