By Deacon John Hackett
When we hear the creation account in Genesis today we have to dismiss any former notions we may still have. At a previous time our unfamiliarity with the Scriptures gave us notions that led to stereotypes. A casual reading of the creation of humans shows how we can draw simplistic conclusions. For example… since the man was created first, he appears to be the primary focus of God’s plan for creating humans. The woman seems to be an afterthought and created just for the purpose of giving the man companionship and comfort.
Biblical scholarship and a thoughtful reading show the woman’s equality and her partnership with the man. She is created from the same “stuff.” Thus, God intended man and woman to live in cooperation and meant to share life with one another. The text asserts that in marriage the two become “one flesh.”… even their derivative names, “man,” and “woman,” (wo-man) affirm their intimate relationship. The Genesis reading forms the backdrop for our gospel passage today.
The question posed by the Pharisees was not if divorce was allowed, but when it was permissible. The question of divorce had been debated for a long time among the religious teachers. The texts about it were scrupulously studied. So, for example, Deuteronomy 24:1 – “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, so he writes her a certificate of divorce….” It does not take a biblical scholar to realize how vulnerable the wife would be to the pleasure of her husband. What was the “something objectionable” that would be grounds for the divorce? That was the focus of the debates. And there were a lot of debates…
You see, during the times of Christ divorces had become commonplace, and the commonness of divorce was influenced by the debates of the current rabbis, (the master teachers), of Jesus’ day. The debates about divorce were a hot topic between the followers of the rabbi Shammi and the followers of the rabbi Hillel. Rabbi Shammi said that divorce was allowable only for adultery and infertility; Rabbi Hillel was more “progessive” (or modern) and he said that divorce was allowable for other reasons as well : burning the bread, talking with a man in public, finding another man attractive, not bearing a son, and old age
It isn’t hard to imagine how society would be affected by such easy divorce procedures. Divorce involves legal issues, and much more, since family and community relationships are affected by divorce. For example, married couples are responsible to care for and protect children who are intimately affected by a divorce. As the Scriptures show, God is also involved in married relationships, and in our Catholic tradition, to signify that marriage is a sacrament.
Consider the dire straits a divorced woman would undergo in Jesus’ world. For the most part women did not own property. Marriage would provide them and their children support and protection. On their own they would be hard-pressed to find life’s essentials. Hence, the law was crucial for protection of women and their children from the more powerful forces aligned against them.
Jesus’ stricter interpretation of the law was characteristic of his desire to protect the least in society. In other places in the gospel Jesus calls his disciples to follow him, leaving behind their families. He was creating a new family, not related by blood ties. But about divorce and its consequences, he chose to follow God’s intention – the teaching we heard in today’s Genesis reading: “the two of them become one flesh.” “Therefore,” Jesus teaches, “what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
What I think is preach-able from today’s gospel, is not the absolute prohibition of divorce. In the light of domestic violence, for example, there is need for divorce to protect the vulnerable partner in marriage. Here’s where I would come down on Jesus’ teaching – the reason for his interpretation. Marriage was supposed to be permanent, but some husbands too easily cast off their wives. As he always did, Jesus seeks to protect those excluded who didn’t have societal recourse.
Jesus responds to the Pharisees in good rabbinical fashion, by asking another question, “What did Moses command you?” Moses permitted divorce with a certificate from the husband; which was a way to protect the wife from abandonment in their male-dominated society. With the certificate a woman was free to marry again and have the legal support she needed. Jesus refers to Genesis to show God’s original intention: the equality of man and woman. The man found the animals inferior that God presented to him. When God presents the woman to Adam he finally finds one like himself – “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”
What about the charge of adultery for remarriage? In Jesus’ world if a man were unfaithful he wasn’t committing adultery against his wife, but only against other married men. If a woman committed adultery she would be stoned. So, Jesus’ teaching now includes men in the charge of adultery if they remarry. (It’s important to note here that Jewish women could not divorce their husbands, but Mark addressed his Gentile audience where women could divorce and own property.)
Jesus preached with urgency the coming of God’s kingdom, which would enable a whole new way of living. Hence, among his other teachings, he forbade oaths and divorce (Matthew 5:34-37). But as the Christian community grew and spread they found they could not live up to all the ideals and they compromised over some of his teachings. So, for example, they struggled with how to support permanent marriages in light of human weaknesses.
Our country allows women to own property, receive wages and seek divorce. Still, women and children are the most vulnerable in our society. While divorce may be easier, society fails to enforce adequate child support, thus yielding an increase of those on the poverty roles – comprised primarily of young mothers and children. In summary, Jesus does not reject law. He wants life to have order and structures, and to provide and nurture those most in need.
In ending, and as an addendum, today’s passage also includes his comments about children. In light of our ongoing crisis of clergy abuse of children, and our obligations to protect our vulnerable members, his words are empowering. One way of “embracing,” and “blessing” children, as Jesus does, is for church members, clergy and laity, to call for full disclosure, the removing of violators from working in the church and to do whatever we can to facilitate healing among those who have been betrayed and violated. Jesus’ rebuke of the behavior of his disciples and his instructions to them about proper behavior towards the least, challenge and empower all of us disciples not to take a “wait and see” attitude, but to do what we can do to move us out of the muck we now find ourselves in.