Greetings, SBT Readers!
In countless churches this weekend, preachers will most likely address the evils of divorce, repeating Jesus' line, "What God has joined together, no human being must separate" (Mk 10:16). These words, however, lead to two questions that are not often addressed:
1) What has God joined together?
2) Can God separate what God has joined together even if humans cannot?
When couples get married "on a whim," or for the lifestyle, or because there is a pregnancy involved, or because they are infatuated with each other, or because one partner is dominating the other, or because both parties are emotionally needy and psychologically under-developed, has God really been instrumental in bringing the two together? If not, was there really a marriage in the first place?
And if once upon a time there was a fairytale relationship but it becomes toxic, could it be God's will that the couple should stay together, even if the union becomes destructive? Wouldn't
the God who sets free captives and liberates the oppressed want to set free those who are suffering acutely, both emotionally or physically? Would a God of Love want to bind the couple together in an irrevocable Dance Macabre? Could God reveal to the couple that the most loving action going forward -- if reconciliation is inadvisable-- is that parting company might be the best option?
Just something to think about...
The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked,
"Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?"
They were testing him.
He replied, "What did Moses command you?"
They answered, "Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her."
But Jesus told them,
"Because of the hardness of your hearts
he wrote this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, 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 so they are no longer two but one. Therefore what God has joined together,
no human being must separate."
Today's Gospel leaves many of us feeling uncomfortable. The text is often used to condemn divorce, and to keep couples in marriages that either should never have been initiated or which have become toxic-- even dangerous-- to both parties involved. It is a difficult Gospel to preach on, and, for some of us, even more difficult to listen to! What is helpful is to examine the cultural context in which it occurs and then to ask, "What would Jesus say to us today?"
To say that Jesus condemned divorce would be an over- simplification; what we see in this passage is his refusal to condone a system in which a husband could discard his wife because she "displeased him." This displeasure could be based on her growing old, becoming ill, rejecting his sexual advances, or simply burning his supper. Of course, there were also situations of infidelity, but a husband could be "displeased" over a multitude of issues ranging from his wife's inability to have children or bear sons to her inadvertently embarrassing him. A husband could also want a divorce so as to marry someone else for financial gain or to forge a strategic alliance with another family. If he were entirely unscrupulous, he could also allege that his wife had been unfaithful, resulting in her being stigmatized as well as abandoned -- and this in a culture in which the punishment for adultery was execution! Yes, such a husband was indeed hard of heart. An abandoned wife had little chance of remarriage, especially if there were questions about her "virtue"; moreover, in most cases, she would be destitute, unless she had male family members to care for her. For some, prostitution was the only alternative.
The Mosaic Code recognized the sanctity of marriage but allowed for divorce when one or both parties failed to fulfil the terms of the marriage covenant. Today, most couples get divorced when there is a failure of love and when staying together makes a mockery of the basic vows: "to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part." Today, we understand that marriage requires maturity, effort, understanding, mutual self-giving, forgiveness, and, above all else, unconditional love. Love shrivels when these qualities are missing -- especially when there is verbal or physical abuse, or infidelity, or when one of the parties is a narcissist, or an addict, or is in capable of being a partner to the other because of deep-seated psychological issues. Love shrivels when instead of "cherishing," there are envy, resentment, ridicule, hatred -- or when one of the partners clings to a parent, child, friend, pet, career or goal more than to his or her spouse. Sadly, there are often "red flags" that show up before couples exchange marriage vows; then we have to ask, did God really join together this couple or were they drawn to each other because of a fatal attraction of some kind?
If this is the case, then perhaps there was never any marriage at all...