October 4, 2015
In the Gospel this week we are presented with Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. To many people today this teaching might seem overly strict or out of harmony with the modern reality of frequent marriage breakdown. Many Christian denominations have accommodated themselves to the reality of widespread marriage breakdowns and their ministers freely conduct second or third marriages without any question. The irony is that these same Churches are often the very ones that stress the importance of the literal word of God. Yet the words of Jesus seem pretty clear: What God has joined, man must not divide. I frequently stress the need to look at the text of the Gospel very carefully to get the full and proper meaning of the text and we should do so also today. Here the Pharisees say that Moses allowed a man to draw up a writ of dismissal and so to divorce his wife. Notice the emphasis: men were allowed to divorce their wives but wives were not able to divorce their husbands.
Jesus denies the man’s right and so places the man and woman on an equal basis in the marriage. The teaching of Jesus states that the man must also stay and make the marriage work despite difficulties just in the same way as the woman would have had to. Jesus opposes the patriarchal approach to marriage which was taken for granted at that time and indeed is prevalent even today in many parts of the world. The woman was first the property of her father and then of her husband. If she committed adultery she violated the rights of her husband. According to this theory a man could not commit adultery; it was only the woman who was at fault.
Jesus is claiming that the woman has rights in the relationship as well. By doing this he is not making the demands of marriage any easier, but he is placing the marriage partners on an equal footing. In fact, this does change the whole nature of marriage. It takes it away from family alliances over property rights and power and moves it in the direction of a mutual love and union between two people.
However, Jesus does not claim to be introducing something new, he says he is going back to the original intention of God. As he says: From the beginning of creation God made them male and female… Here Jesus is quoting Genesis 1:27, just about as authoritative as you can get. He then draws the conclusion from this that they are no longer two, therefore, but one body.
The Church has quite a lot to say on marriage, and this is right and fitting because marriage is one of the most important foundation stones on which society is built. It is a divinely instituted sacrament and as such is a holy state. We have a very high ideal of marriage and are quite strict about it—sometimes our rules and regulations cause people difficulties especially when they wish to remarry. But the Church does not relax its rules for fear of pulling the whole edifice down. That doesn’t mean that those who are remarried are excluded from our community, far from it; but the Church is unable to sanction a remarriage unless the previous marriage was declared annulled. By that we mean that it has been proved that some essential element was missing and the diocesan tribunal has declared the first marriage to be no marriage at all.
In society at large and perhaps even among many churchgoers it is considered quite alright for a couple to live together for some months or even years before marriage. This is considered to be practically a universal custom these days. Not that long ago social pressure went in completely the opposite direction and this was also harmful. There was great pressure on people to get married and be respectable even when they were obviously unsuited. But social pressure rarely gets things right—the Pharisees in the time of Christ didn’t get it right either so we are not surprised that society at large today doesn’t get it right either.
Today people say that living together is the best preparation for marriage because it is only in this way that the couple can really get to know each other. Sometimes it is the case that some months or years after setting up home together the couple splits up and they take up with other partners. We know of not a few who do this over and over again in a sort of serial monogamy. We understand human weakness in this area, and with the relaxation of social more in recent years it is very hard for a young person not to enter into a full-blown relationship. We are not in the business of issuing condemnations or heavy judgments; our task is to show a better way. Our task is to show the way that Christ teaches, and although this way is difficult it has very great rewards and enhances our human dignity and self-worth. It is a way of sacrifice but it is also a way to true happiness and self-fulfillment. It is the way of holiness. We counsel restraint in our personal relationships before marriage. We urge our young people (and older) not to live together outside marriage. The self-control involved on both sides is a true expression of the worth that each has for the other. It is a real testing, much more of a testing than living together.
In our present social climate what we are proposing is by far the exceptional way of preparing for marriage. But it is a much better way. We are not all able to live up to what Christ teaches but this does not exclude us from his love. The point is to focus on what Christ wants from us, he wants us to be happy. He wants us to be pure and holy.He wants us to have self-worth. He wants us to be in relationships that truly build us up. He wants us to be free from the pressures of society which distort the Gospel. He wants us to live our lives in true and fulfilling love with our partners in marriage. And he knows what he is talking about. Difficult, yes; impossible, no. His grace is enough for us. Marriage is always a divine institution with the blessings of God. God, the loving Father, will weep with you when your marriage fails.