“sexual immorality.” The Greek is porneia (#4202 πορνεία). Pornē (#4204 πόρνη) is traditionally a female prostitute, while pornos (#4205) is the masculine and in the Greek culture, especially in the early centuries, referred to a male prostitute. However, in the New Testament, the words were often used in a more general sense and so often referred to sexual immorality of many kinds, even though the Greek words still retained some of the gender overtones. In this context, which is a man divorcing his wife for “sexual immorality,” the obvious assumption would be that she had committed adultery. Although the Old Testament stated that adulterers were to be executed (Leviticus 20:10), by Roman times that was seldom done, in part because the Romans had taken the authority for capital punishment away from the Jews (cp. John 18:31). Generally, husbands who thought their wives had committed adultery just divorced them, as Joseph initially intended to do to Mary (Matthew 1:19).
“makes her look as if she had committed adultery.” To properly and fully understand Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage, we need to closely examine the three different times he addressed the subject in his teaching ministry, which were:
1. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:32).
2. When the Pharisees specifically questioned him about it (Matt. 19:3-9, esp. verse 9; and Mark 10:2-12, esp. verses 11 and 12).
3. When he directly confronted the Pharisees (Luke 16:14-18, esp. verse 18).
Matthew 5:32 seems almost identical to the records in Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; and Luke 16:18, but the three events are actually different in important ways (Matt. 19 and Mark 10 are the same event with different details). In the culture in which Christ lived, the prevailing belief among the people—promoted by the rabbinic school of Hillel and opposed by the rabbinic school of Shammai—was that a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever. Although Jesus addressed the debate among the Jews about “easy divorce” in Matthew 19, that is not what he was doing here in the Sermon on the Mount [for Jesus comments on divorce in the context of the debate about it going on between the Jews, see commentary on Matt. 19:3 and 19:9]. Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was trying to get the people to return to God; he is not promoting any specific rabbinic school of thought over another.
Matthew 5:32 occurs in a teaching context, and we will understand it better if we grasp that context. After teaching the people about anger and the need for reconciliation with others (Matt. 5:21-26), Jesus turned his attention to the foundation of the family, and thus of society itself, which was the marriage of a man and a woman. Marriage was under attack in Jesus’ day just as it is in ours, and it was common for men to have wandering eyes, something perhaps made easier by the nudity, prostitution, and easy divorce that was common at that time (also, any slave was considered the sexual property of the owner and sex with one’s slaves was commonplace). The people had become lax about the fact that God’s original intention for marriage was that it was to be something the husband and wife could both depend on—providing a life partner—and that the marriage “glued” the couple together as “one flesh” until one of them died.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not start talking about divorce and remarriage “out of thin air.” He had been talking about adultery, which usually starts with wandering eyes and lust (Matt. 5:27-30). That also explains why Jesus spoke of the right eye and the right hand causing a man to fall (Matt. 5:29-30). Sexual sin usually starts with a lax mindset, then a wandering eye, and then it moves on to physical touch. Once a man has lusted after another woman and his eyes and hands have become involved and he is physically touching her, leaving his wife for his “new love” can be a small step. So we can see why Jesus, after speaking about adultery, lust, and watching what you see and touch, talked about divorce.
To properly understand Matthew 5:32, we must pay close attention to “who” the verse is speaking about, “what” the verse is actually saying, and also to the Greek verbs, which sadly have not been accurately translated in most English versions. Matthew 5:32 is one of the verses in the Bible that people do not really read accurately. Instead, most people read what they think it says. To rightly understand it, we must read what it actually says.
As we read the verse, we see that it is the man who divorces his wife. That certainly was the most common situation in the biblical culture, but Jesus’ teaching applies in today’s culture to both men and women, because both sexes are victims of unwanted divorce. In the biblical culture, a man divorcing his wife almost always left her in a very difficult situation. The usually mostly-innocent woman had to suffer many things: the disgrace of being rejected by her husband; frequently, the terrible loss of her children; and the hardship of how to provide for herself unless her parents or a sibling would take her into their home. But Jesus seems to make her situation even worse—the way most English versions are translated, Jesus says that the woman is an adulteress! Furthermore, any man who married her, which would almost certainly be a huge help to her, became an adulterer. This just does not seem to make sense.
The way Matthew 5:32 is translated in most English versions, there are many things that should alert us to the fact that something is wrong. For one thing, although it was the husband who broke the original intention of God by divorcing his wife, there is nothing in the verse that says he did wrong or became an adulterer. The verse makes the wife guilty, not the husband, even though he is the guilty party.
Also, the way most English versions are translated, the woman is made to be an adulteress simply because her husband divorced her. For example, the NASB says, “everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery.” But why would being divorced make a woman an adulteress? Just because a man divorces a woman does not make her an adulteress; she could have been faithful to her husband before the divorce and then chosen to remain unmarried after the divorce. So why would her divorce make her an adulteress? It would not.
Most commentators explain away that fact by saying that in that culture, a man’s divorcing his wife basically forced her to remarry to survive in society, and thus commit adultery. But there are two big problems with that interpretation—for one thing, it is not what Jesus actually said, and secondly, it does not fit the facts. Just being divorced does not make a woman an adulteress. There were women who were pure in their marriage and then did not remarry after their divorce. Some were taken back in by their families, and a few others, like Lydia in Acts 16, did well on their own. Thus we can see that Matthew 5:32 has been misunderstood and mistranslated.
Moses allowed a divorced woman to remarry and not be an adulteress and so did Paul (1 Cor. 7:27-28). Nevertheless, there are commentators who say Jesus contradicted Moses and set new standards of sexual behavior, allowing for divorce only where there has been sexual sin. However, that does not make sense. For one thing, the words of Moses, Jesus, and Paul came from God, and it does not make sense that it would be okay with God for a divorced woman to remarry throughout the 4,000 years of the Old Testament, and then again as soon as the Church started after Jesus’ ascension, but for the short time of Jesus’ public ministry, if she remarried it would be adultery. Furthermore, Moses allowed divorce if the husband would not feed, clothe, or provide for his wife’s future and protection by having sex with her so she could have children who would care for her (Exod. 21:10-11). It does not make sense or represent the love of God that in the Old Testament, God allowed a woman to remarry after divorcing a man who refused to feed, clothe, or to care for her, but somehow now that Jesus was on the scene she could only leave if the man was sexually unfaithful, no matter how badly he treated her.
Actually, Jesus did not contradict Moses, and the woman did not become an adulteress if her husband divorced her, even if she remarried. Furthermore, her new husband did not become an adulterer by marrying her. The key to understanding Matthew 5:32 is that the two Greek verbs for “adultery” in this verse are in the passive voice. They are passive verbs, not active verbs, despite the fact that most English versions translate them as if they were active verbs. William Hendriksen writes: “The Greek, by using the passive voice of the verb, states not what the woman becomes or what she does, but what she undergoes, suffers, is exposed to. She suffers wrong” (New Testament Commentary: Matthew). R. C. H. Lenski agrees, and writes:
A further complication is due to our helplessness in translating this passive infinitive (also the passive moichatai) into English. We have no passive corresponding to the active “to commit adultery.” But this is no justification for translating these two passives like the two actives in [Matt. 5:27-28]. Since our English fails us, we must express the two passive forms as best we can to bring out the passive sense of the Greek forms. We attempt this by translating the [passive] infinitive, “he brings about that she is stigmatized as adulterous” and the finite verb as “he is stigmatized as adulterous” (The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel).
What Hendriksen and Lenski are saying is profound. Because English has no passive voice for verbs like “commit adultery,” it is very challenging to translate the passive Greek verb into English. But, as Lenski points out, that is no reason to twist what Jesus said and distort the meaning of the verse.
The passive voice of a verb describes what happens to someone, not what they do. In the phrase, “She hit the ball,” the verb “hit” is active; the woman acted and hit the ball. To make the sentence passive we have to say, “She was hit by the ball.” The passive describes what happened to the woman, not what she did. But how can you “passively” commit adultery? You cannot. So the passive verb describes what happens to the woman, what she suffers, just as Hendriksen said. The woman “looks as if she committed adultery” and suffers because of it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was talking about divorce and showing the harm that it does. If a man divorced his wife, what would people think? They would think she must have committed adultery. She did not commit adultery, but that is what people would think and accuse her of.
The passive verb in Matthew 5:32 shows us that the woman is made to seem like she and the man she later married had committed adultery even though they had not. Thus, one way of translating Matthew 5:32 is: “…everyone who puts away his wife, except for the cause of sexual immorality, makes it seem like she is an adulteress, and whoever marries her when she is put away seems like he is committing adultery.” In that culture, the man was the provider and protector, so Jesus says if a man divorces his wife everyone will think it is due to sexual sin.
Now we see why, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about divorce. He was trying to call the people back to God and convince them to live godly lives, and so he emphasized how God never intended for married couples to divorce, and he strengthened his point by speaking about the terrible consequences of divorce: if a man divorced his wife, unless it really was because she committed adultery, he stigmatized her in society because people branded her as an adulteress, and furthermore, any man who married her was branded as an adulterer.
Jesus did not contradict Moses (or Paul) in his Sermon on the Mount. He did not forbid a divorced person from marrying again. He pointed out to the people God’s original intention in the marriage, and also pointed out that anyone who divorced his wife caused her great hardship, including the burden of being thought of as an adulteress. The English version, God’s Word to the Nations, gets the sense of Matthew 5:32: “But I can guarantee that any man who divorces his wife for any reason other than unfaithfulness makes her look as though she has committed adultery. Whoever marries a woman divorced in this way makes himself look as though he has committed adultery.”
Now that we have seen that there are cases in which a divorced woman (or man) is not an adulterer and can remarry with God’s blessings, we need to honestly remember that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:32 is different from his teaching in Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, and Luke 16:18. Not all divorcees are “mostly innocent victims.” Some people force a divorce upon their spouse for reasons that are unacceptable to God, such as unbridled lust, and God refers to that behavior as adultery.
From God’s standpoint there is little difference between staying married but committing adultery, and getting legally divorced just so you can be with someone you like better than your spouse. Both behaviors destroy the marriage and harm society. God’s advice to people who divorce due to wandering eyes or just to better their financial or social position is given in 1 Corinthians 7:11, which is spoken in the context of women but also applies to men: stay unmarried or be reconciled to your former spouse.
[For more on Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce, see commentaries on Matt. 19:3; 19:9; Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18; and for more information on divorce and remarriage, see commentary on 1 Cor. 7:27].