Commentary on Matthew 19:3-12
We return now, after the discourse on the Church, to a narrative section which describes Jesus’ ministry in Judaea and Jerusalem. He is no longer in the north, in Galilee but in the south. We are now entering the sixth section of Matthew’s gospel which will conclude with the parables of the last times.
Today’s passage begins with a discussion about a contentious issue between Jesus and the Pharisees, an issue which continues to be contentious in our own time. The question in itself is straightforward but, as was often the case, it was thrown at Jesus to test his orthodoxy with regard to the Law.
They ask: “Is it against the Law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever?” Among the Jews there were two schools of thought on divorce. The school of Shammai would only allow marital unfaithfulness as a justification for divorce. The Hillel school, however, would allow a man to divorce his wife if she did anything he did not like, such as burning his food! Jesus clearly sides with the first interpretation.
Using two passages from the creation story in the book of Genesis Jesus gives an uncompromising reply which it would be difficult for his opponents to challenge: “The creator from the beginning ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘This is why a man must leave father and mother, and cling to his wife, and the two become one flesh’.” Jesus goes on to say, “They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then, what God has united, no human being must separate.” And, in fact, in a good marriage, the two becoming one flesh is a reality. It is in the death of one partner that that can become very clear.
Marriage, therefore, as the intimate bonding of a man and woman is part of God’s plan for the human race; it is not something to be undone by us. However, the Pharisees are not satisfied with this answer. They press their case further by asking: “Why did Moses command that a writ of dismissal should be given in cases of divorce?” Jesus replies that that was simply a concession to the “unteachability” of the people in his own time but that it was not the situation from the beginning. The purpose of the writ was obviously to formalise a separation and allow a husband to enter into another marriage.
Jesus says that “the man who divorces his wife…and marries another, is guilty of adultery”. Nothing is said of the woman who might divorce; in a patriarchal and male-dominated world this would have been far less common, if not impossible. The woman had very little say in such matters. (In Mark’s version of this passage, both husbands and wives are included. He was writing for a Gentile audience where the rules were somewhat different.)
There is, however, an exception mentioned only by Matthew which has caused problems for exegetes and moral theologians. He has Jesus give “fornication” as one possible reason justifying divorce. The problem is that the word Matthew uses, porneia (porneia), is not clear in its meaning. It is variously translated as ‘fornication’, ‘lewd conduct’, ‘unfaithfulness’, or ‘marital unfaithfulness’. And it seems to apply only to the wife.
Unfaithfulness, leading to an illegitimate pregnancy, would, of course, in that society be a very serious breach of family purity and the integrity of the family (i.e. the father’s) line. The child born of such a relationship would be a bastard, coming from another family line and, at birth, might not be recognisable as such. In fact, a wife could be stoned to death for entering into such a relationship.
Jesus seems to say that, in such a case, a man would be justified in separating from such a wife and in entering on another marriage. Otherwise, any repudiation of the marriage contract for any other reason and to enter another contract would be adultery.
In our secular societies, unfaithfulness as well as many lesser reasons are given for justifying a legal divorce. If the original contract is known to be valid, the Catholic Church does not recognise any reason for its termination. However, in these times, divorce is not always the result of one partner’s decision. It is often the result of the mutual breakdown of the marriage relationship where they can no longer live together with mutual love and respect but where there are mutual feelings of hostility and unhappiness which are irreconcilable. Of course, the Church allows and may even encourage legal separation in situations of serious incompatibility but it does not allow remarriage. Even so, it is well known that many Catholics do enter a second marriage, which can turn out to be stable and enduring.
Whether this position will be maintained in the future remains to be seen. The issue is seen nowadays to be more complex and the nature of marriage and the contract contain elements not considered in the past.
In any case, Jesus’ position was seen by his own disciples as rather severe. If things were the way he saw them, then they thought it would be better not to get married at all! Jesus makes a statement which perhaps we should listen to more carefully than we often do. While, on the one hand, he lays down a clear principle he also indicates that not everyone may have the strength to observe it. There seems to be a call, then, for some compassion and flexibility in implementation. “It is not everyone who can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted.”
He goes on to describe three kinds of people who can live lives free from sexual activity:
those who are congenitally impotent (“born that way from their mother’s womb”);
those who are physically castrated (“made so by human intervention”) – what are commonly called ‘eunuchs’;
and, thirdly, “those who have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”. This last group can include either those, who like Paul, choose to live celibate lives in order to work for the Kingdom and the Gospel or those whose marriages have broken down for one reason or another and choose to remain celibate for the rest of their lives also for the sake of the Gospel. This last does not seem to be a universal requirement: “Let anyone accept this who can.”
Marriage is seen here very much linked to the call to work for the Kingdom. If it is an obstacle, it should be avoided; if not, then one can and should work for the Kingdom through one’s marriage.