Axioms and Proverbs

“…everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32, ESV).

Several days back, my adult son and I had a conversation about marriage (I’m married; he’s not). We shared a common bond, which was that I never had any interest or inclination to get married or have a family (guess who is married and has 6 children?). He was fairly certain that marriage would not be for him, and even more certain that children were not on his radar. As the conversation progressed, I said, “You never know. If the right person comes along, you’ll change your mind.” He strongly disagreed.

Was I right? I’ll give you my conclusion at the end.

One must remember that the Bible is literature, too. It contains narrative, song, poetry, psalm, proverb, prophecy and epistle, for example. When studying the words of Jesus, one must be familiar with these literary styles that shaped the way the Jewish people thought, spoke and wrote.

As an example, let’s consider this statement Jesus made, recorded in Matthew 5:31-32:

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

It is easy to look at this passage and Matthew 19:1-9 and assume they are parallel. They are academically parallel in the sense that words like “divorce” and “adultery” are used. But they are very different. Matthew 19:1-9 is a direct discussion – in fact, a conversation – about the acts of divorce and adultery. This teaching is what we might call an axiom. An axiom a statement that is true in all cases and for which there are no exceptions.

In Matthew 5:31-32, however, Jesus was preaching, not conversing (this selection is from the Sermon on the Mount). Here, “divorce” and “adultery” served as a framework for something else. Jesus wanted his listeners to consider the ramifications of sinful choices. In this instance, he did not use axiom. Instead, he used a proverb. A proverb is a statement that is true in many or most cases, but for which there may be exceptions.

If we cannot distinguish these two, it may sound like Jesus teaches something that he does not.

On the surface, it sounds like Jesus is saying, “Everyone who puts away their spouse for a reason other than fornication always makes that person an adulterer.” That sounds like a person can become an adulterer through no fault of their own. But that cannot be so.

How do we know? Because there is an apparent conflict in interpreting this passage that way. This would contradict other passages, such as Ezekiel 18:20-22, where it is clear that one person is never inherently responsible for the sinful acts of another.

If someone seemingly contradicted themselves in a personal conversation we would (or we should) extend a certain measure of generosity, to see if there are other, more harmonious methods of understanding the information.

If we only see this saying of Jesus as an axiom, we can only see a contradiction. As the saying goes, to a hammer, everything’s a nail. But, if we see it as a proverb, the problem melts away entirely. This would have been second nature to Jesus’ listeners, as proverbs were a common way of expressing reality in his culture. For some cultures reading Jesus today, this nuance is less obvious.

Jesus was not saying it is always the case (axiom) that people who divorce their spouses automatically turn them into adulterers; Jesus was saying that it is very often the case (proverb) that dismissed spouses turn to the arms of another.

And, at no extra cost to you: he also implies that while the one who has put away the spouse is not responsible for the specific act of adultery, they are also not without fault of any sort. But I digress.

So, was I right?

If I meant it as an axiom (something that is always the case), then of course not. Meeting “the right person” will not always change your mind.

If I meant it as a proverb (something that is very often the case), then I was. Meeting “the right person” can and very often does.

Whether in life or in Bible study, strive for clarity in giving and receiving communication. Be liberal with grace, stingy with criticism.

It’s always — or, almost always — worthwhile.

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