Matthew 5:21-37 – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
The Divorce Passage
Although there is another passage on divorce in Matthew (19:3-12), when “some Pharisees come to test him,” this is the only passage we get in the lectionary Year A. I would love to just be able to say, “this is not the most important verse in this section” and allow us all move onto something we’d rather preach on. But that wouldn’t be possible or advisable for many of us and it wouldn’t negate the visceral reaction that some of our members will have to hearing these words. I have served 3 congregations in my 8 years of ministry and in all of them there has been someone who experienced unwelcome or dismissal from the church after they and their spouse got divorced. And so, some of us we may need to address this portion of the text explicitly. And that may require straying from the text a little to be more pastoral and to meet your people where they are. But, I hope to offer a few insights here as well to help in that effort.
Be Careful about Wide Generalization
This is the type of text that sometimes leads our sermons to get “holier than thou” (especially when we compare ourselves to other denominations). But we also need to be careful about leaning into antisemitic tropes. I have heard plenty of sermons that use these passages to talk about how society back then (as a whole) treated women terribly. But that is a gross overstatement, and the truth is that this topic was a societal discussion for a long time throughout the Jewish community. There were different traditions among different teachings (just like denominational differences in the church today). Some more strict and some less strict. And interpretations and opinions depended on preference of who is protected and what warranted divorce. Here Jesus is participating in a longstanding and active debate within the Jewish community. Here is a famous passage of some of the debate of the time:
“The school of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything [Deut 24:1]. And the School of Hillel say: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. R. Akiba says: Even if he found another fairer than she, for it is written, And it shall be if she finds no favour in his eyes… [Deut 24:1]. (Mishnah Giṭṭin 9:10)”
It appears that Jesus is siding with the stricter interpretation of the law. Most commentators agree that the stricter interpretation would protect more women who might be left destitute without this protection. In theory, the certificate of divorce was already a step in that direction because it moved the matter into the public, required witnesses, and would allow the woman to remarry. However, without the certificate of divorce, she would be without support and be destitute. In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus takes this strict interpretation (Mark 10:2-11, Luke 16:18) and it is also seen in Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians (7:10-11). And so, what we are not hearing in the debate (but what seems to be coming through in the overall theme and tone of this section of the Sermon) is how divorce impacts the community.
This may be reading too far into the text, but with chapter 19 included, this is the third reference to divorce in Matthew. And it all started with Joseph in the first chapter, when he had made up his mind to dismiss Mary quietly (1:19). I wonder if Matthew has an intimate relationship with divorce in some way, maybe being a child of divorce himself. Maybe even having been divorced. Perhaps that helps us to see this more pastorally. Maybe it helps us to hear that Jesus was a child of “near divorce” and may have a stricter interpretation because his mother was almost left unfairly?
Read it pastorally
To read this section as strict and literal would be a mistake. Jesus is not being tongue in cheek or sarcastic, but it appears that he is exaggerating to make a greater point (as I will describe further with “anger” below). The goal should not be divorce. Jesus argues that the goal should be reconciliation. If divorce is necessary for the protection of an individual or for the betterment of the two individuals (especially in cases of abuse or harm), then of course it is necessary. But here Jesus argues that it shouldn’t be the escape clause for any mishap. And if divorce is necessary, it should not leave one member destitute. Ultimately, as far as it is possible, Jesus desires the community to be as reconciled as possible in the aftermath of conflict.
Centered around Anger
Another avenue to preaching this text could be found in the section of anger (5:21-26). Jesus is comparing murder with the anger that we can have for one another or for a community. This is why we can’t read it literally but instead with a lens of how Jesus is calling us into tighter-knit community.
If, in our anger, we insult, harm, or condemn a community member, then we are at fault of murder (see Luther’s explanation of the commandments). Although we are not literally murdering someone, when we act in anger towards another person, we may be killing a relationship. When we act with anger in our hearts we may destroy and damage a relationship. We are killing off connections and communication. We are killing off the possibility for dialogue, love, and friendship. We are breaking community and in breaking that community, we are severing a relationship with God.
Matthew’s community make-up is up for debate in most commentaries. Whether it was primarily Jewish or mixed with Jews and Gentiles, there is no way to know for certain. But what is clear is that there has been some fracturing and contention outside and inside the community. We hear it in Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth (13:54-58). We hear that in Peter’s line in 19:27, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” We hear it in the “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees…” section in chapter 23:3-39. There is conflict within the community that Matthew is writing for, and he is tiptoeing the line of finding possibility of reconciliation even in the most tense and difficult settings.
If preaching about the divorce section, I encourage you not to apologize for the text but instead to lean into the tradition. Interpret it and wrestle with it. Jesus is not giving a new law here but interpreting the existing law that has been in the tradition for generations. And now he is interpreting it for this community around him.
This section is still important for us today because divorce is still a challenging topic for us today. It has a profound impact on us as individuals, as families, and as a community. No one gets married thinking that it’s going to end. Maybe one possibility of preaching this section is to acknowledge that Jesus is not treating this as a thought experiment. It comes out of a place of deep concern for individuals, families, and the community and hoping for the possibility of reconciliation.
Have you heard the phrase “win the argument but lose the relationship”? I think that could be a possibility here for preaching. Anger can certainly be justified, and I am not arguing that we should never show anger. But there comes time for a decision: do we lean into anger and sever the relationship? Or do we release the anger in order to maintain the relationship and leave the possibility to talk again another day?
As a society, we are very much in the “cut our losses” season of dialogue. We lean into insults and try to cut people with our words. We try to win the argument with the best line. Maybe some of that is needed. There are some relationships that just aren’t worth fighting for. But we seem to be doing that more quickly with more people and that seems to be fracturing our communities even more. We are moving farther and farther apart from being able to speak to one another (let alone love one another). Maybe this text is calling us to evaluate that pattern we are in.
 R. Alan Culpepper, Matthew: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 112.
 Culpepper, 113.
 Culpepper, 112.