“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).
Jesus does not believe in “no-fault divorce.” Every divorce is someone’s fault; every divorce is a result of sin. Jesus speaks of unfaithfulness as a legitimate cause of divorce. If one member of a marriage has been unfaithful to the other, the second member may file for divorce without sinning, because the unfaithful member has already broken the marriage. The Church has recognized, at times, that “unfaithfulness” does not always involve a third person. “Unfaithfulness” may include abandonment of family responsibilities, violence in the home, or addiction to alcohol or other chemicals or to other destructive behavior. When a marriage is irreparably harmed by such unfaithfulness, the victim does not sin when he or she seeks a legal end to the marriage. Measuring the harm done and weighing the chances of repair are judgments that must be made carefully. Otherwise, the spirit of this teaching of Jesus is lost.
Jesus says that a marriage broken for poor reasons, or for no reason at all, is not really broken. Those who leave their marriage for no good reason sin against God. They are guilty of adultery, as are their new partners. Jesus’ words seem almost mild as he describes the man who casually ends his marriage. Jesus does not say, “You have sinned”; he says, “You make her commit adultery.” Likewise, to label as second marriage “adultery” seems unfair if the husband broke the marriage; the woman and her second husband ought to be beyond blame, it seems, if that is the case.
Jesus assumes that we are shocked by sin and do not want to cause another person’s guilt. Jesus is not speaking to unbelievers who have no religious reason to respect marriage. He speaks to the believer who regards every marriage as a picture of Christ and his Bride, the Church. Jesus urges us to remain faithful, to regard divorce as “not an option.” Saint Paul later would explain that if an unbeliever should divorce a Christian, “Let it be so; in such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (I Corinthians 7:15). The words of Jesus do not apply to those cases.
In a sinful world, divorce must exist. Divorce comes from sin and carries the burden of sin. Nowhere does Jesus identify divorce as unforgiveable sin. The firm marriage remains a picture of Christ and his love for the Church; the failing marriage is a flawed picture which mocks Christ and his love. God never plans to divorce us and force us into unfaithfulness. If we are unfaithful to him, he still wants to forgive us. If we stubbornly remain unfaithful, though, God might end the relationship and force us to choose our false gods that have taken his place. His strong desire is to keep us faithful to him. He wants to be our first love. He wants to keep us from sinning. Jesus came to forgive sinners, to rescue us from our sins, and to make us his Bride again. J.