Divorce is a very sensitive topic in the Church today. So when I read the Gospel for this Sunday, I thought that I would have to navigate through a minefield to get to the message of the passage. As I began to do some research around divorce at the time of Jesus I discovered some interesting and enlightening facts.
As the account goes a few Pharisees came to Jesus asking, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” Jesus answered them with a question, “What did Moses command you?” They immediately answered, “Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.”
O.K. The Pharisees knew the law. They also knew that there was a great deal of tension surrounding the law’s interpretation. They also were aware of the terrible state of marriage in their day.
In ancient Jewish tradition marriage was not only a covenant between a man and a woman, it was a mirror of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. There are many passages in the prophets that make this statement. Here is what Isaiah The Pastor’s Reflections wrote: “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you.” This is a mystical interpretation of marriage and it’s repeated each time an observant Jew prays. This isn’t done verbally. It’s spoken symbolically.
Before each daily Morning Prayer a Jewish man ties two leather boxes to his body, one on his forehead, and the other on his arm. The one that he places on his arm is strapped to his body in an interesting way. He begins by wrapping the ring finger of his left hand with a thin leather strap, and continues to wind it up his left arm. The little box is secured to the upper part of his arm by the strap, and held tight against his heart throughout the prayer. The phylactery is his symbolic wedding ring. Inside the box a small scroll states his marriage vow. It’s taken from the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your mind.” (Deuteronomy 6:8)
Though in theory marriage was held as the highest ideal in Jesus’ day, but in reality, mar- 2 riage was here today and gone tomorrow. In Jewish law, a woman was regarded as a thing. She had no legal rights. The male head of the household could dispose of her at any time. A woman couldn’t seek a divorce from a court of law. The most she could do was to ask her husband to divorce her. The law concerning divorce is based on a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy 24:1. “When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and therefore writes a bill of divorce and hands it to her, he thus dismisses her from his house.”
There were various schools of thought surrounding this passage, especially the interpretation of “something indecent.” One school interpreted this very strictly. The passage referred to adultery and nothing else. Another school interpreted it very broadly: if she couldn’t cook well, or criticized her husband in the presence of his relatives, or even if she spoke loudly! Well, I’m sure you can guess which school of thought was the most popular!
Today men and women have a more or less equal status when it comes to divorce in many countries. Divorce is more difficult as a result. But in our country 50% of our marriages end in divorce.
So what was Jesus teaching? He said that Moses permitted divorce because of “the hardness of your hearts.” But he goes on to refer to the Book of Genesis. “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” He continued the teaching. “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined no human being must separate.”
Jesus clearly saw the state of marriage in his day. He upheld its mystical dignity. In Matthew’s Gospel, when this question comes up, Jesus recognizes that adultery by either partner would be grounds for divorce because it destroyed the marriage covenant, and so no longer reflected the faithful marriage of God and God’s people.
Where does all this leave us? Marriage is still a struggle today. I know several men and women in their 20’s and 30’s who say they’ll never marry. They want to be in a loving relationship. They want to have children. They don’t want to enter into a legal marriage. I asked why. They all answered the same way. “I saw my parents get a divorce, and I don’t want to go through that.”
Perhaps they’re referring to the sometimes devastating legal fees, or the trauma caused to them by witnessing the disintegration of their parent’s relationship. Divorce is always rough on the children. Perhaps these young people think it might be easier on their children if they didn’t have to go though the legal hell of a divorce should their relationship fall apart.
We all know Catholics who have abandoned the Church because they chose to divorce, and later wanted to marry again, but couldn’t. We all know Catholics who feel ostracized by the Church because they’re divorced. And remarried. For many, the Church’s annulment process is a second humiliation following their legal divorce.
The legal process of divorce and annulment is not within my ability to reform, though I believe it needs reforming. I can suggest, however, that each of us try never to loose respect for marriage as an institution, and a spiritual way of life. I think sometimes we overlook the power of marital spirituality. Marriage is never easy. It takes a lot of work to keep a marriage moving, and developing, and deepening. A couple will have a difficult time if they rely only on themselves. They need the Spirit to walk with them, to give them strength, and perseverance through difficult times. The Spirit also gifts a couple with joy and happiness if they’re open to the Spirit’s power and guiding light.
Lastly, I want to plead with older married couples and newly married couples. Please don’t underestimate staying attached to the Church community. Keep the celebration of the Eucharist central to your spirituality. Sustain yourselves, and your marriage, with the Bread of Life. When Jesus said he would be with us until the end of time, he meant it. Lean on him. Bring him into your marriage. Invite him to strengthen you, and heal you over and over again. Ask him daily to bless you and your marriage.
Don’t try to make it alone. Make sure you love continues to grow; lean on Love itself.