By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp
Homily for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time - on the Gospel
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Jesus' Teaching on Divorce

Genesis 2:7-8,18-24 Hebrews 2:9-11 Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" (Mark 10:2). What is going on here? Why is it a test? Well, to start with, the Pharisee never had any doubts about the dissolubility of marriage. The Law of Moses took the lawfulness of divorce and remarriage for granted and all the Pharisees accepted that. It says:

If a man takes a wife, and after they are married she is unpleasing to him because of something objectionable in her, let him give her a statement in writing and send her away from his house. And when she has gone away from him, she may become another man's wife. (Deuteronomy 24:1-2)

The only disagreement among the various schools of the Pharisees was: What is the meaning of this "something objectionable" that a husband would find in his wife to justify divorce? The conservative school of Rabbi Shammai said it meant only a case of scandal, like adultery. The liberal school of Rabbi Hillel said it meant any case of annoyance, "even if she has burned his supper." And the even more liberal school of Rabbi Aqiba said that the woman did not have to be guilty of anything in particular; that the man simply no longer fancied her was enough reason for divorce. This was a trap because if Jesus took sides with one school of thought, he would antagonise himself with the others.

In reply Jesus went above the law as given in Deuteronomy to the mind of God as revealed in Genesis. He went from the law of Moses to the plan of God in creation. From the beginning of creation, he said, God ordained husband and wife to live in unity. "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate" (Mark 10:9).

Jesus' reply underlines two important points. First point, Jesus treats the woman as a person. Some earlier Jewish tradition regarded the woman more or less as property of the man to be disposed of at will. In fact, here for the first time in Jewish literature we hear not just of the man divorcing the woman but also of the woman taking the initiative to divorce the man (verse 12). Jesus treats the woman as a legal person of equal standing with the man. Second point, Jesus is interested in teaching not legal statements but moral principles. They asked him whether divorce was permissible, his reply was that the mind of God is for husband and wife never to divorce. The asked him about what was lawful, he told them what was best for them. They asked him about a legal position and he told them the divine provision. They asked what was possible and he told them what was the ideal. They asked what they could do or not do and he told them they should always aim at. They asked about what was lawful and he taught them what was best for them. For in Christ "All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up" (1 Corinthians 10:23).

With this ideal in mind Jesus reinterprets the Mosaic provision that a man could divorce his wife by giving her a letter of divorce. In intent, it was not a permission to divorce. It was rather Moses making allowance for the people's "hardness of heart." This implies that Moses knew the divine ideal for husband and wife and still did not enforce it but rather made room for the shortcomings of his people. In fact, viewed against its cultural background, the provision to divorce with a letter was not to facilitate separation of husband and wife but to protect the indissolubility of marriage.

What form of divorce did the Hebrews practice before Moses gave them the law? It was probably the same "triple express" rule that obtained among their Semitic neighbours, whereby a woman was considered divorced if her husband pronounced a divorce formula three times in the presence of two male witnesses. By oral statement alone a divorce could be concluded in an instant in a fit of anger. But requiring a letter of divorce in a culture where only the temple priests could read and write meant that a divorce process could take months to conclude. This would give the couple time to sleep over it, and friends and family members to mediate and resolve the conflict. The demand for a letter of divorce saved many marriages that would have ended in a hasty divorce in the old "triple express" system.

Popular understanding of this story comes more from the later version in Matthew's Gospel than from the earlier version in Mark. As a result, it is important to underline these three points. (1) The exceptive clause that we find in Matthew 19:9, to the effect that a man could divorce his wife on the grounds of "unchastity" is not found in Mark, or in Luke either. Jesus was more interested in teaching the ideals of marriage as indissoluble, not in offering practical legislation. (2) Jesus did not condemn the separation of husband and wife, what he condemned was divorce and remarriage. Sometimes it might be necessary for people in dysfunctional and abusive marriage relationships to walk away from the marriage so long as they continue to consider themselves married to their first partners and do not attempt to remarry. (3) If one entered into a marriage without sufficient knowledge or consent, or discovers that one of the partners was incapable of living a married life, he or she could file for annulment and the Church would re-examine the case and declare whether the marriage was valid or void from the beginning. If the marriage is found to be invalid from the beginning, it is declared null and void and the partners might be free to enter into new marriage relationships. The Church does not consider separation or annulment divorce.

In our world today, where Christian marriage and family is in crisis, it is important for us believers to understand and uphold what Jesus taught about marriage, even if we might fall short of the ideal in our own personal lives.

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