Jesus has been teaching and explaining how the Covenant was aimed at allowing fallen people, kicked out of Eden, to find their way back through the Flaming Sword. The whole purpose of the ritual law was to provoke genuine penitence, not as the means to pile up merit and buy your way back into Eden. The Pharisees were guilty of sin, no better than anyone else, yet they refused to repent, having convinced themselves that they had been too scrupulous to needed any kind of repentance. Jesus pointed out that they didn’t understand how Jehovah viewed all of this.
For example, they were covetous and that was an obvious sin noted in the Ten Commandments. But the scribes and Pharisees sneered at Jesus and His peculiar interpretation of the Law so very different from theirs. So we continue on the same theme in this passage, with Jesus condemning them as far too interested in justifying themselves to each other. Their smug sense of false righteousness didn’t impress God, because the Father could see their hearts and knew they were not interested in what He had actually said. They had spent all these past two or three centuries coming up with all kinds of oral traditions that gave them an excuse for defying God’s obvious intent.
They had made their massive pile of rules and exceptions into a false deity. They had their chance and blew it. Right up until John the Baptist came along, they could have repented and started down the true path. Now the Messiah had come and was preaching His coming reign. Their time was gone as leaders of the nation, as the Covenant would be completed and sealed in Jesus’ hands. There was to be a New Covenant, and everyone with any sense at all was trying very hard to get into that.
A basic requirement of this new kingdom was that you couldn’t look for ways to get around God’s revelation. The scribes and Pharisees considered their oral traditions more binding than the written Torah, and even had some wild story about how their teachings were the secret traditions of Moses that he handed down from the time at Mount Sinai. Jesus warned them that their made up garbage didn’t compare with God’s revelation. God was going to wipe away heaven and earth before He reneged on His original promises and demands.
And yet, what Moses had written in the Torah was actually too easy. Jesus hammered the scribes and Pharisees on their petty excuses for treating women like cattle. We’ve discussed it here before. This has nothing to do with modern state-controlled laws of matrimony and divorce. Under the Covenant of Moses, you had no excuse for not marrying wisely. There were ancient traditions, customs and laws making it mandatory that you enter into marriage with the intent of keeping your spouse for life.
Granted, Moses did offer a very narrow escape clause about a bride’s infidelity before the wedding. (Adultery after the wedding was a different case, a capital offense.) A man could send her back home with a certificate that said she could be remarried, presumably to whomever she slept with during the engagement period. There had been by this time a very long and ugly debate between two schools of Pharisaism about making it easier than that, and the liberal school had won out. This was addressed in other passages (Matthew 19), but what it meant was the scribes and Pharisees could pretend that anything at all their new brides did that failed to please them could justify sending her back home with a certificate that said she could be remarried. And they extended that period long after the wedding celebration. In practice, the scribes and Pharisees could swap wives like this, and there was a thriving trade in matchmaking with women of privilege.
Jesus said that crap was finished. In His Messianic Kingdom, there would be no excuses. It’s not the end of divorce itself, but the end of remarriage. In particular, He condemned the practice of dumping the first wife for the mere sake of taking up with a new one that came on the market. And no one else could snag the one he cast off. Jesus would end this business of treating women as mere breeding stock.
So it’s not as if Jesus was lowering the standards and making it too easy for people to repent. His standards were far higher than those of Moses. They were impossible for men to meet on their own; it required a miracle of God. It required a whole new sacrificial system based on the blood of God’s Son.