“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” -Jesus in Matthew 7:6, NKJV
And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick….” Matthew 9:11-12, NKJV
Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” – Matthew 15:12, NKJV
One of the themes in the sermon today at church was mercy. It got me thinking about this subject in connection with adultery and divorce. And I started to think about how Jesus approached people very differently in Scripture.
With some, He approached with incredible gentleness and mercy.
With others, He came with public rebukes and offensive labeling.
My contention in this post is that the difference between these two groups is vitally important in deciding how we ought to approach adulterous spouses as faithful Christians. Is it a time for gentle mercy or a time for blunt rebukes?
This brings us to the main question:
What’s the difference between the groups?
We have the “tax collectors and sinners” on one hand, and we have the “Pharisees” on the other hand. The “tax collectors and sinners” are the ones who know they are in need of mercy or are sick in need a physician as Jesus puts it. The Pharisees are the type who are unaware of their spiritually terminal sickness and arrogantly believe they do not need the Great Physician. That’s the difference. It is a difference rooted in the heart.
Once group approaches Jesus with humble need and receives mercy. The other group approaches Jesus with pride and receives rebukes. Thus, we see in Jesus’ example:
Pride warrants rebuke.
Humility warrants mercy.
One of my problems with the “forgive and reconcile the marriage at all costs” approach to adultery is that it ignores this very important difference between the groups. Faithful spouses are exhorted and pressured spiritually to extend mercy to the arrogant, adulterous spouse in not divorcing him or her. Adulterous spouses often do not fully own the adultery as a sickness of their own hearts and like the Pharisees, treat acts of mercy with contempt. And that’s a major problem.
To extend mercy by not divorcing a cheater stuck in arrogance is to caste pearls before pigs. Mercy is precious to those who are humble enough to recognize it as a gift. It is trash or a sign of weakness to the arrogant.
So, before Christian leaders exhort faithful spouses to reconcile following adultery, I encourage them to ask this question:
“Does the adulterer/adulteress see the continuation of their marriage as a right or as a mercy?”
If they think it is a right, they are like the Pharisees and need rebuking.
If they think it is a mercy, they are like the tax collectors and sinners and are in a position to receive mercy.*
*I would add that choosing restoration or divorce remains freely in the hands of the faithful spouse. A demonstration of humility on the part of the adulterous spouse does not change this reality. The faithful spouse is permitted to divorce an unfaithful spouse (e.g. Mt 19:19 and Deut 22:22). Permission is permission. The only difference is that humility in the cheater indicates potential for real restoration in the marriage, and it may be wise to try it. However, the choice remains in the hands of the faithful spouse without shame either way.