7 Oct 2012
“The Pharisees approached [Jesus] and asked, ‘Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?’” (Mark 10:2) In the name …
This question was asked of Jesus as a test, the Bible tells us, and it’s not hard to see why this was the chosen question. It seems that no matter how it’s answered someone will be offended. The Pharisees figure that even Jesus is going to get into trouble with this one. Divorce remains today a delicate topic, and so appropriately, let’s begin our discussion of this complex theological question with some lines from the great philosopher – Henny Youngman, the old Vaudeville comedian – just because I can’t resist the opportunity. One of his lines was: “I've been in love with the same woman for 49 years. If my wife finds out, she'll kill me!” How about this one: “Why do divorces cost so much? They're worth it.” And if you’re driving by the rectory tonight and you see the light on in the garage, don’t worry, that’s just me sleeping outside.
But now that I have that out of my system, we need to talk about the serious messages found in this delicate subject of divorce, and that needs to begin with a little history. Ancient Jewish law allowed for the husband to sue for divorce, and all he had to do was write out a bill of divorce for it to happen. One day she’s married, the next day she’s given this piece of paper and thrown out of the house. (Dt. 24:1) But Jesus is also living in a Roman province, and Roman law allowed for the wife to divorce her husband too.
Let’s try and tackle the Jewish custom first. Jesus is here making a very strong argument in favour of gender equality. What He inherits is strictly a male-centered tradition. The husband can divorce the wife for any reason or even for no reason, but the wife cannot divorce the husband even if he beats and harms her. So in his reply to the Pharisees Jesus reaches farther back in religious history than Moses and the Law. Jesus reaches right back to the story of creation. Maybe you’ve heard that Genesis begins with two creation stories. The second one has Adam created first and then Eve comes along later as his helpmate, but Jesus refers to the first creation story. In Genesis One, God creates male and female simultaneously and both are created in the image and likeness of God. There is a fundamental equality in this account, and it is this equality that Jesus reaches back to. To the question of the religious implications of divorce Jesus throws-out the notion of one rule for the husband and another for the wife. Jesus is protecting the wife from being treated like property, like property that can be thrown away when it’s no longer needed or wanted. Jesus is treating the wife like a person, like an equal to her husband.
But there’s more. Jews living in Palestine could appeal to the Roman laws of their conquerors, and then wives could divorce their husbands. Now with this in mind, Jesus states categorically, without exception, that “‘what God has joined together, no one must separate.’” (Mk 10:9) Even though the wife could divorce her husband, even though the husband could divorce the wife, Jesus offers a categorical NO to divorce. And the reason for His strict reply may have to a lot to do with the story that follows in the Gospel. Children were being treated as inconsequential by the disciples. Their feeling was that a great teacher like Jesus shouldn’t be bothered by sniffling, rambunctious, untidy children. They’re just a nuisance; they get in the way. But instead of scolding the children, Jesus scolds the disciples. Just like Jesus had protected the worth of women so that they couldn’t be divorced simply because the husband grew tired of her, so Jesus respected the worth of the child. “‘Let the children come to me,’” says our Lord. Maybe it was with these little ones in mind that Jesus was so stern in His words forbidding divorce. It was for their sake.
But again, there’s more. Within ten years, Matthew’s Gospel is written based on Mark’s earlier Gospel. When Matthew tells his story about divorce all of a sudden an escape clause appears. Divorce is allowed in cases of adultery, which is a very specific situation, (19:9) but in some pretty creative and convenient translation work, the Roman Catholic New American Bible says instead that divorce is allowed if “the marriage is unlawful,” which opens up the floodgates for all kinds of marriage tribunals arguing about all kinds of different reasons for allowing for annulment. In both cases, even if they are separated by almost 2,000 years, the reason for the creative interpretation is that while Jesus’ ideal of “until death do you part” is beautiful, it is not always practical, and this realization began to emerge even while the Bible was still being written!
Any couple approaching God’s altar enters matrimony with the expectation that this will be their one and only marriage. And when it works that way, it is a blessing for the husband and the wife, and for the children if they are so blessed. But when a marriage falls irreparably apart, when love can no longer be found, then to force that family to stay together can do even more harm to them and to the children than allowing them to divorce. And if any wife is in a violent marriage where her very safety is at stake or that of the child or children, then it would be as misogynist of me to tell her to stay married as it was in the days of Jesus when the husband could simply throw her out of the house. Jesus wouldn’t tolerate that and I don’t believe He would tolerate abuse today either.
But there’s still more. You may hear an awful lot from some religious factions who are trying to “protect marriage.” Your stance on this issue is yours to make, but to be intellectually and religiously honest, the same ones pushing for a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, which Jesus does not address, must also reject the legality of divorce, which Jesus does explicitly reject. But this will not happen, nor should it. But be aware that this distinction has been made when they make their argument, and it is not biblical.
Divorce remains a delicate issue in the church. Marriage is a blessing, but sadly, sometimes, so is marriage’s end. Our church grants permission for remarriage under strict circumstance because we realize this fact. And if any of you have questions or comments about this matter, if any of you would like to speak to me privately about this matter, please don’t hesitate to contact me. The church is here to marry you, to try and help a marriage if things get rocky, and the church is also here for you when some marriages just can’t survive and the husband the wife need God more not less. We would never restrict a person’s ability to fully participate in church when they are at their most vulnerable, such as at times of divorce. That we may appreciate the subtleties and complexities of our faith, and try to live as best we can as Jesus would have us do, for this we pray in His most holy of names. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo