Now being part way through a sermon series on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, I found myself in Matthew 5:31-32 a few Sundays ago. In that text our Lord teaches on divorce and remarriage. I taught that our Lord allows for divorce under only exceptional circumstances upon which I elaborated, but even so divorce is never good. It is like amputating a leg: sometimes it’s allowed, but it’s never welcome. I also taught that when an individual, whether man or woman, divorces on biblical grounds he or she is permitted to marry again. Developing those points is not what I hope to do here. Instead, I am responding to one specific question I received about the text at hand. Verse 32 says “everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality makes her commit adultery.” I am shining the spotlight on the last four words in that verse: “makes her commit adultery.” What does “makes her commit adultery” mean?
The answer to that question is important. At first glance, we might conclude that the divorced woman is guilty of adultery. In that case, she might even be an adulteress without choosing to be an adulteress. She might be a perfectly virtuous woman who radiates the beauty of a quiet and gentle spirit. Yet, her husband might be a disgraceful mess who, deluded by his own hubris, imagined he deserved better. So, he moved on. He took advantage of no-fault divorce, and in washing his hands of the marriage he sung a swan song as the door closed behind him. Has that unfortunate woman committed adultery? What does the text mean?
The text says, “everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality makes her commit adultery.” I will not say what it means just yet. I will offer my conclusion in the last paragraph. Now, I’m going to tease out the meaning with a few theological observations, followed by an analysis of a few words in the passage.
First, adultery is very serious. It is a violation of the seventh commandment. Under Old Testament Law, adulterers are to be executed. The New Testament tells us adulterers go to hell. Even in the verses previous to the one at hand (Matthew 5:27-30) Christ warns that the desire for adultery is enough for the whole body to be cast into hell. Adultery—even the desire for adultery—is deadly stuff.
Second, we are not considered guilty of sin by virtue of the fact that we are sinned against. In my hypothetical example above, the woman has done nothing wrong. She has been sinned against. She found herself in the circumstance, but that does not make her sinful. Can she be made to commit murder without murdering? Can she be made to be a thief without stealing? Can she be made to be a liar without lying? The answer is “no” thrice-over.
Third, the relationship between a husband and wife is unique. At the very least, because of its uniqueness divorce is exceptionally scandalous. In many ways it is unlike other sins. A husband who divorces his wife without cause is a husband who violates a sacred covenant and a holy union. She, who was the weaker covenant partner, has been cast out by the stronger covenant partner. So, a wife being divorced is not like other offences. It is not like being lied to by a neighbour. It is not like being defrauded by an employee. It is not like being tyrannized by a government. It is unique, and the offence is most intimate and somehow deeply spiritual.
All of that might help us understand the punch of the phrase. In our example above, the woman committed no sin. But the sin of another has violated her in a way that is most intimate. The violation against her does something to her that other sins do not. Yet, I do not believe that gets to the crux of the phrase, “makes her commit adultery.” It helps us get there. It does not get us there totally. To understand better, I will now look at three distinct actions in our text. First, I will look at “anyone who divorces” from the earlier part of verse 32. Second, I will look at “makes her.” Third, I will look at “commit adultery.” All three of these actions are in verse 32.
Earlier in the verse we note “anyone who divorces his wife” is the actor of the entire event. The actor is the subject, and the subject is one “who divorces his wife.” She is made to “commit adultery” by the one “who divorces.” He acts. She doesn’t. He is the divorcer, and she is the divorced. He is active. She is passive.
“Makes her” is a present verb, and the subject of the verb is “everyone who divorces his wife.” So, the man who divorces isn’t just divorcing. He’s making. He’s making his wife into something. He does not just divorce. He makes his wife “commit adultery.” She is the recipient of the action. She is not committing adultery on her own terms, but more specifically she is being made to commit adultery. Her husband is making her to commit adultery by divorcing her. She is the receiver of the action. She is made to. He makes her to. The husband is the one who does the action, and he “makes her commit adultery.”
“Commit adultery” looks, as a phrase, to make the woman the doer of the action. However, the action is actually a passive infinitive in Greek. That means she is not necessarily made to commit adultery, even though that is what it appears to be at first glance, especially at first glance in most English translations. Unlike most translations, the NIV translates it as “makes her the victim of adultery,” which probably leans the emphasis in a suitable direction. She is not committing adultery, per se. We might say in one sense that the violation against her is so severe that she is being adulterated. With the NIV, I might add he “makes her become adulterated.” If that is too strong, the NIV’s translation might be too weak. She herself has not chosen this specific status, but yet the status is exceedingly harmful to her. She did not make the choice, but the choice is a serious indignity against her. She is the passive recipient of being made to become adulterated and/or being the victim of adultery.1
In all three places the woman is acted upon. First, she is the divorced, not the divorcer. Second, the husband “makes her.” Third, she is made to “commit adultery” by her husband’s choice. Not once does the woman act in the passage. Nowhere does it indicate she is the willful participant in sin. She is not. He acts. She is acted upon.
Matthew 5:32 says “everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality makes her commit adultery.” What does that mean? We have established that when a man divorces an innocent woman he exposes her to an intimate violation because she has been severally trespassed against by the divorcer. That is the theological nature of the sin. The woman did not act in the sin, but the husband, by his act, does burn and blister her with the blazing hot-iron of his sinful breach against her. The text makes the woman the passive recipient of at least three noxious actions. First she is the “divorced,” not the divorcer. Second, the husband “makes her” commit. Third, she is made to passively “commit adultery” by her husband’s choice, not her choice. She does not act at all in Matthew 5:32. As for her actions, she has not sinned. She has been sinned against egregiously by several actions committed against her. William Hendrickson comments on the word “adultery” as it is in the phrase at hand:
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. He does wrong.2
Hendrickson captures the issue conceptually. But I think Calvin captures the severity:
As the bill of divorcement bore, that the woman had been loosed from her former husband, and might enter into a new marriage, the man who, unjustly and unlawfully, abandons the wife whom God had given him, is justly condemned for having prostituted his wife to others.3
In conclusion, what does “makes her commit adultery” mean? The husband is quite literally casting his wife upon the mercy of another man. A good man would be stricken by the adultery of his wife. But this man is so deranged that he acts to transform his wife into an adulteress. He is sending her to the arms of another’s embrace. She might not move onto another man specifically, but in most cases she will be forced towards dependency on another, whether the other be a man, the state, her parents, or the church. By the delinquency of his action, he communicates that he is peachy keen with his wife having sex with another man. He has emasculated his honour. He removes his own glory. In one sense, he is no man at all. And the woman he casts off has suffered immeasurable harm by his disgrace, but she is not guilty. No she’s not guilty, and she would not incur guilt by marrying another; by divorcing her, her ex-husband has abandoned her. She lives in the shadow of his disgrace, and that disgrace touches her without making her share in the actual guilt. She is without guilt, but her relationship to her husband is so unique that he, by his unlawful divorce, has made her to be the adulterated and/or the victim of adultery.
- Some might wonder if the passive is used to describe the female role in the act of adultery as the recipient of the sex act. That is simply not the case. In a similar passage, Mark 10:11-12, we see that a woman can be active in adultery just like a man can. Highlighted to make a comparison, Mark 10:11-12 reads, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” In this case, the one who does the divorcing commits adultery. The man who divorces his wife commits adultery, and the man is the active committer. The woman who divorces her husband commits adultery, and the woman is the active committer. The English brings out the Greek clearly, at least in demonstrating that the verbs are each active. So, unlike the divorced woman of Matthew who is passive in the adultery, this woman in Mark is just like the man who does the exact same action: the one who divorces, whether man or woman, commits adultery against the divorced. I only highlight the Mark passage to demonstrate that a woman is to be viewed as morally culpable as a man in the sense that both men and woman can be active participants in adultery by unlawful divorce. The Matthew passage, unlike the one in Mark, makes the woman the passive recipient of adultery.
- William Hendrickson, New Testament Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1973), 306.
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XVI (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 293.