In 1948, at the First International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Bob gave his last major talk. He related for those in attendance his recollections of the beginnings of A.A. He recalled that in the early days they were groping in the dark. The Steps and the Traditions didn’t exist; the A.A. Big Book hadn’t been written yet. But they were convinced the answer to their problems was in the Good Book. And one of the absolutely essential parts of the Bible for them, according to Dr. Bob, was the Sermon on the Mount. But there are two verses in there whose application to 12 Step recovery may seem to be a bit strained.
Matthew 5:31-32, which expresses Jesus’ thoughts on divorce, follows right after he addressed how his followers should understand and apply biblical teaching on adultery and lust. As is typical of his teachings in other areas of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns the Jews understanding of what the Law said about divorce upside down. The passage says:
“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.”
Jesus began by referring to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 from the Law of Moses, where if a man wanted to divorce his wife, he was required to give her a formal certificate declaring he was divorcing her. At that time, a man was permitted to divorce his wife, but a wife was not allowed to divorce her husband. She could petition the court, and if her plea was accepted, the court would direct the husband to divorce her. Culturally, to moderns this appears to be an unfair, patriarchal practice. But there was a loose interpretation of that section of the Mosaic Law that made it even more one-sided.
Deuteronomy 24:1 said a man could write his wife a certificate of divorce if she fell out of favor in his eyes “because he found some indecency in her.” The word for “indecency” in Hebrew can have a sexual connotation, but here it referred vaguely to some failing or sin. By the time period in which Jesus lived, the grounds for divorce could be a failing as trivial as a wife burning the food she cooked for her husband. We could almost say this was an ancient sense of a husband-centered “no fault divorce.” This was the interpretation of the followers of Hillel, a rabbi and teacher during the time of Herod the Great. The school of Shammai, a conservative Pharisee from around the same time period, limited the sense of the Hebrew word for “indecency” to its sexual sense and only permitted divorce for adultery.
Regardless of how an individual understood divorce, it was an accepted practice in Judaism for a man to divorce his wife. However, her husband could not put her outside of his home on a whim; he had to formally release her from her marriage vows. The certificate of divorce was a protection for the woman, indicating she could legally marry someone else. Remarriage for a widowed or divorced woman provided security in the culture of her time. Leon Morris observed: “In first-century Jewish society how else could she live?”
But, Jesus said divorce should not be granted at the whim of the husband; it’s not simply the right or privilege of a man to dispose of his wife whenever he tires of her. Such capriciousness was sin. Jesus said not only does this kind of husband force his wife to commit adultery by her remarriage, but also the man she marries. In God’s eyes the indecency to justify a divorce had to be serious to break the covenant bond of marriage. Apathy towards the wife of your youth or the desire for a younger, prettier “trophy wife” were not acceptable reasons for divorce.
Clearly Jesus saw marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman. Addiction can destroy that bond as effectively as adultery. In fact to a spouse, drug and alcohol addiction often feels like the addict or alcoholic is in an adulterous relationship—even when there isn’t another human being involved. There are frequent promises to their partner they are finished with alcohol … cocaine … heroin. Then the partner discovers those were promises without teeth. The addict didn’t follow through with a permanent breakup with their drug/lover.
Farther on in the Sermon on the Mount, in the midst of discussing treasures on earth or in heaven, Jesus tells his audience that whatever they treasure has their heart. Since no one can serve two masters (or lovers), they will be devoted to one or the other, but not both (Matthew 6:19-24). Being with an addict can feel like that. Your partner is in a relationship with something else; and you can’t compete.
In the A.A. Big Book, chapter 8 is “To Wives.” Counter-intuitively, that chapter was written by Bill W.; not his wife, Lois. In Pass It On, Lois said she was hurt Bill insisted on writing it himself. His given reason, so that it would be in the same style as the rest of the book, seems a bit weak. There was, in fact, a section included in the A.A. Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, that was written by another hand. “The Doctor’s Opinion” was written by Dr. Silkworth, the doctor who treated Bill at the end of his drinking. I think it is fair to say Bill W. had a strain of chauvinism in him and it showed up here.
Another way to apply Matthew 5:31-32 to recovery is to reflect on how adultery and divorce were frequently used as metaphors to describe idolatry or unfaithfulness to God in the Old Testament prophetic literature. Here, the adultery would be spiritual adultery; a violation of the individual’s relationship with God.
Ezekiel 16:15-35 frames the unfaithfulness of Jerusalem to God as adultery. Jeremiah 3:1-10 similarly describes how Israel polluted the land with her lovers. Israel and Jerusalem are the unfaithful wives. In Malachi, the priests are described as being faithless to the wife of their youth. Adultery, whether it was literal or a metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness, violated the individual’s covenant before God.
The Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (Malachi 2:14-16)
This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”