“Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2)

Marriage is such a beautiful gift. It is equally a challenging experience. I have known people who have lived very sincerely in marriage bearing the piercing of the thorns in order to savour the fragrance but the marriage still ended in divorce. I have known people whose love and marriage of several years have ended up the cabinets of Church tribunals and they are nullified. And all those years of endurance come to an irreversible painful and traumatic halt. I have also known couples who have borne the piercings of the thorns, savoured the sweet fragrance and enjoyed the enduring fruits of marriage for as many years as ten, thirty, fifty and more and still have reasons to smile because they are still very much in love. Marriage, like every other aspect of human life, is a journey full of highs and lows that have to be traversed with perseverance.

Our Gospel story (Mark 10: 2-16) has marriage as the central theme of conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus. It would seem the Pharisees are more interested in divorce and remarriage rather than in marriage as an enduring relationship. And so they came up to Jesus and asked: “Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife?” Mark is right to note that they were “testing” Jesus because divorce was an acceptable custom among the Jews of the time. The Book of Deuteronomy had clearly laid down that a man could divorce his wife if she was “no longer pleasing to the husband” and/or if she did “something objectionable” to the husband (Deuteronomy 24: 1). So the case was not that of legality but perhaps it was a question of suitable grounds for divorce. The Jews had two different interpretations of this provision in Deuteronomy by Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. Shammai taught a strict interpretation that unless the wife commits adultery there could be no divorce. Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, had a very liberal interpretation: that if a wife burnt the dish; spoke to a strange man; spoke disrespectfully of her husband’s relatives in his hearing and if she was a brawling woman she could be divorced. Jesus did not take sides with any of these popular opinions, instead He took them back to the provisions of Moses: “What did Moses command you?” Their answer that Moses allowed them to write a writ of dismissal and so divorce the wife provoked Jesus to a very hard truth, namely that what Moses was a concession because of their “hardness of heart”, and not a regular norm. Then Jesus stated these facts about marriage:

  • That the initial intention of the Creator was for marriage to be between a male and a female – “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female” (Mark 10: 6).
  • That marriage symbolises the wholeness of the man whose rib was taken at creation – “They are no longer two but one body” (Mark 10: 8).
  • That marriage is indissoluble – “What God has united, man must not divide” (Mark 10: 9).

In stating these, Jesus alluded to the Genesis story presented to us in the First Reading (Genesis 1: 18-24). The Genesis story reveals some additional noteworthy points, namely

  • That the initiative to create a woman for a man was God’s, not man’s – “(It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2: 18), This reveals the sacredness and sanctity of marriage.
  • That the woman was to serve as a companion and a helpmate – “I will make him a suitable companion (helpmate)” (Genesis 2: 18)
  • That for the man and the woman the path to wholeness is not that of solitude but in communion with one another – “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins with his wife, and they become one body” (Genesis 2: 24).

Perhaps marriage, as we have it today, has broken all the rules. Our society now promotes and accepts gay marriages; divorce and remarriage have become the order rather than the exception; polygamy and polyandry are very suitable patterns in many cultures. Where do we stand as a Church? What is our position as individuals?

“Back in the house” the disciples asked for more explanations. But Jesus did not explain rather He expounded His teaching to be more restrictive than that of the Pharisees by condemning divorce and remarriage out rightly as adultery, whereas the Pharisees allowed divorce remarriage. Jesus added a new crucial part to His teaching by including the condition of a possible divorce by a woman. Before now the woman was not permitted to divorce the man for any reason, including adultery. By this Jesus, explicitly teaches equality of partners in marriage. The woman’s right are no less than the man’s. The rib taken from the side of the man is a symbol of companionship, friendship and equality.

Notice the easy flow from the debate on marriage to Jesus’ blessing of children. Children certainly are gifts from the Lord and His blessings in marriage for couples who walk in His ways as we sing in the Psalm.

The institution of marriage is rooted in creation. It was God’s loving and considerate initiative that “It is not good for the man to be alone” after He found man in the “original solitude.” Man was created male and female in “the image and likeness of God” to be to be a social being, a being-with-the-other for the procreation of human beings in creation. To sustain marriage and in deed every human relationship, Jesus calls us to return to “the beginning” where we can find the right answers to our longings for authentic human relationships. 

Let me conclude with the words of Pope Francis on the family aptly fit our present needs: 

There is no perfect family. We have no perfect parents, we are not perfect, do not get married to a perfect person, neither do we have perfect children. We have complaints about each other. We are disappointed by one another. Therefore, there is no healthy marriage or healthy family without the exercise of forgiveness. Forgiveness is vital to our emotional health and spiritual survival. Without forgiveness the family becomes a theatre of conflict and a bastion of grievances. Without forgiveness the family becomes sick. Forgiveness is the sterilisation of the soul, cleansing the mind and the liberation of the heart. Anyone who does not forgive has no peace of soul and communion with God. Pain is a poison that intoxicates and kills. Maintaining a wound of the heart is a self-destructive action. It is an autophagy. He who does not forgive sickens physically, emotionally and spiritually. That is why the family must be a place of life and not of death; an enclave of cure not of disease; a stage of forgiveness and not of guilt. Forgiveness brings joy where sorrow produced pain; and healing, where pain caused disease.

There is really no human relationship, marriage, friendship, corporate, social, religious, political, or whatever, that can be sustained to survive any reasonable period of time without loving forgiveness. Our marriages and families can be spared so much pains, agonies and traumas if we are determined to forgive, persevere and to love selflessly as Christ loves the Church.