Lent, Day 11 — Are You Certified to Have Sex?

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Are you certified to have sex?

It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate. But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
(Matthew 5:31-32)

  1. “Are you certified to have sex?” Let’s be clear what these verses are about before we talk about divorce. Back in the day, there were no paternity tests. Strict control over women’s sexuality was how men guaranteed their wealth wouldn’t be inherited by another man’s child. This control over women’s sexuality continues to be so important in some cultures (including ours) that it is enforced with laws, physical violence, and so-called “honor killings.” Remember the mob that was ready to stone the woman they dragged before Jesus in John 8:3?
  2. If a man chose to divorce his wife, he had to issue her a certificate of divorce, essentially giving her permission to be with another man. A woman without such a certificate would be branded an adulteress. For her, this certificate was the best guarantee of financial security—provided she could find a man.
  3. Women who were not attached to a man were at a disadvantage. Although some women held positions of power in this patriarchal society, they were usually widows. Chloe and Nympha, who were important leaders in the early church, may have been widows.
  4. Notice that men did not have to have a similar certificate! Nobody had to give them permission to have sex. They could even marry as many women as they wanted.
  5. Jesus does not smash the patriarchy with these verses. He does not apply the same standards to men as women. But he does upset the old order. Men can no longer treat women as chattel.
  6. Yesterday I argued that Jesus’s command to avoid epithumeo may be better translated as covet rather than lust. But the two were definitely connected in the minds of Jesus’s audience. Remember, when David committed adultery, the prophet Nathan confronted him with a story about a rich man stealing a poor man’s sheep (2 Samuel 12). See? The issue is conquest and ownership.
  7. Jesus continues the theme of raising the bar for his audience. He just told them, “It’s not enough to avoid cheating on your spouse; you need to avoid wandering eyes.” Now he tells the men, “And following the technical rules of marriage is not enough. Don’t buy into the system of devaluing women.”
  8. These verses rejecting divorce have been used to do harm. Less than a hundred years ago, Methodist pastors were forbidden to officiate remarriages for divorced persons, unless the divorce was due to adultery. (Likewise today, some pastors are forbidden to officiate LGBTQIA marriages at all). Many people have been told to stay in abusive marriages as long as there was no adultery. Violence was deemed more acceptable.
  9. This is certainly a problematic passage, both because of its historical abuse and its reference to a patriarchal system. But I think it is radical for its time because it moves closer to the idea that people should be held to the same standard regardless of their gender. I think it’s important not to confuse the words of the text for the world it points toward.
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