Friday of week 7 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Mark 10:1-12

Jesus is approached by some Pharisees and they ask him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. We are told they asked him this question in order to put him to the test.  It is another example of their efforts to find Jesus on the wrong side of the Mosaic law.

As frequently happens, Jesus answers with another question: “What did Moses command you?” They reply that Moses allowed a man to make out a writ of dismissal and so divorce his wife.  They are quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy which says:

Supposing a man has taken a wife and consummated the marriage; but she has not pleased him and he has found some impropriety of which to accuse her; so he has made out a writ of divorce for her and handed it to her and then dismissed her from his house; she leaves his home and goes away to become the wife of another man.  If this other man takes a dislike to her and makes out a writ of divorce for her and hands it to her and dismisses her from his house (or if this other man who took her as his wife happens to die), her first husband, who has repudiated her, may not take her back as his wife now that she has been defiled in this way” (Deut 24:1-4).

Jesus clearly is not happy with this teaching and says Moses allowed divorce to accommodate the moral weakness of the people (that is, primarily the men!).  He challenges this stand with words from the creation story in Genesis: “God made them male and female… This is why a man must leave father and mother and the two become one body” (Gen 1:27; 2:24).  After marriage, then, he says that there are not two separate people but one body.  And from that Jesus concludes: “What God has united, humans must not divide.”

When they were back in the ‘house’ (that house again, the place where Jesus’ disciples are gathered about him – the church), Jesus’ disciples expressed their misgivings about what they had just heard.  But Jesus went even further: a man who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery and a woman who divorces her husband and marries another is also guilty of adultery.  He does not recognise divorce. One gets the impression that this teaching of Jesus came as something of a shock to them.

In a sound and enduring marriage the words of Jesus are realised. One meets people who have been married for decades and are as deeply in love with each other, in fact more so, than on the day of their wedding. One has only to see bereaved spouses to realise the terrible void that is left when a partner of many years dies.  They feel as if a part of themselves had been torn from them.  It can take years for life to come back to some kind of normalcy.

However, in our own day divorce has become a very common phenomenon.  In some societies, the divorce rate is almost half of all marriages and in most societies all over the world it is increasing.  Marriages between Catholics are also seriously affected.  Obviously it is a very complex question and cannot be dealt with here.

Perhaps two comments could be made:

a. Jesus is attacking a situation where men, when they got tired of their spouse and found someone more interesting, simply wrote a piece of paper and unilaterally dumped the first wife, leaving her high and dry.  Jesus rightly deplores such a situation.  His final remark indicates something new for his time (and often not yet accepted in our own): equal rights and equal responsibilities for both partners.  Women are not commodities to be picked up and dropped off at will.

b. Divorce as we experience it in our society today often involves a genuine breakdown in the marriage relationship which neither partner wishes and which is a cause of deep pain and suffering to both sides.  It may be due to some element of immaturity at the time of marriage or the partners growing apart as they develop as persons.  Whatever the reason, this situation is quite different from the one Jesus is speaking of.  One feels that that Jesus would be most sympathetic to the painful breakdowns of marriage which happen today and, as Christians, we too should try to empathise with people in such a situation.

Most people enter into marriage with good will and with the intention of having an enduring, lifelong relationship.  It is a hope sometimes not realised.  At the same time, we also have in our society today a pluralistic approach to the concept of marriage from merely seeing it as two people living together “as long as it feels good” to those who believe in marriage as a permanent relationship “in good times and bad”. And everything in between.

c. We need to remember that the Church accepts that marriages can break down and that for various reasons the couple may need to have their separation made legal by a divorce settlement in court.  What the Church forbids is remarriage.  However, many Catholics do remarry in a civil ceremony and we need to deal with such people with great sympathy and understanding if they express a sincere desire to remain active members of the Christian community.

The ideal that Jesus proposes remains but a changing society may need a different approach to marriage where the emphasis is more on the relationship and less on the legal contract.  A truly pastoral Church will need to help people live the Gospel in such a changing sociological situation.  As always, the solution will lie in answering the question: “In this situation, what is the loving thing to do as far as all are concerned?

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