Jewish law said that a man could have more than one wife, but sharing a woman was considered adultery. Women did not have the same rights as men. A woman without a man or supportive family was without aid. Jewish men were required to give a woman a certificate of divorce when they no longer wished to have them as a wife. A man could think he was perfectly legal and therefore innocent as long as he followed correct procedure in divorcing a wife.
Jesus addresses the inequity and self-righteousness of their accepted standard.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
On the heels of saying lustful thoughts in your heart are equal to adultery, Jesus now proceeds to say that divorcing someone is one more way of demonstrating unfaithfulness. It’s not just lust that leads to adultery; divorce papers set people up to be further torn apart and polluted. Jesus presumes that the divorced person will marry another and that to do so is messy.
In the etymology of the word, Adultery means, "to pollute." [i] When you have been with a partner and betray their love by sleeping with another, there is always a pollution that happens. Physically, the pollution sometimes takes the form of sexually transmitted diseases. Jesus is addressing what happens inside a person and this is where the greatest pollution takes place. Betrayal, deception and rejection mess with a person’s mind, will and emotions. It darkens one’s spirit.
Take a sheet of red construction paper and glue it face to face with a sheet of black. Let the glue dry until the two sheets are joined as one. You can still see the two, but they are joined as one. The new page is stronger.
Now, try to pull the two apart and what happens? There is no clean way to separate the two. Both end up damaged. Bits of one are torn away and stuck to the other. Divorcing a person is much like that. This desecration and pollution is always damaging and so God asks His people to have a different law in their hearts.
What about you? Have you felt the damage that comes from divorce or adultery? If Jesus is pointing out that damage reaches further than we presume, what is the answer? How are we to respond to our own hypocrisy and guilt as lawbreakers? The Law of God only intensifies an awareness that we are messed up.