Fr. Charles Irvin
Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16
Today’s gospel account presents us with an occasion when religious authorities of the day were trying to trap Jesus with a trick question so as to discredit him. There were two schools of thought back then among the Pharisees and other authorities. In one, the stricter authorities taught that a man could divorce his wife only for a grave reason. The other authorities, more lax, allowed a man to divorce a woman “if she no longer pleased him.”
The episode we just heard in today’s gospel occurred in Judea, in the area in where King Herod ruled the Jews. He was the king who had married his brother’s wife, Herodias, the woman who caused her daughter dance a sensually provocative dance that captivated King Herod. Herodias then told her daughter to request of Herod that the head of John the Baptist be delivered to her on a platter right there during the dinner banquet. John the Baptist, you will recall, had denounced Herod for divorcing his wife in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias.
The trick situation set up by the Pharisees was such that if Jesus opted one way He would be betraying John the Baptist’s martyrdom and if He opted the other way He would incur the wrath of King Herod and his wife Herodias. Either way the Pharisees thought they would rid themselves of this annoying Jesus from Nazareth.
And so Jesus asks them a question in return. “What did Moses command you?” They responded that Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife if the husband found a defect in his wife.
As further background we should remember that women in those days had few, if any, legal rights. They were considered to be the property of men. Marriage was a business contract between men. A prospective groom had to enter into negotiations with the bride’s father. A cash or property settlement was agreed upon, and thereupon the father gave permission for the suitor to marry his daughter. This, by the way, is where the custom of providing a bride with a dowry comes from. The larger the dowry conferred upon her by her father the more attractive she was in the eyes of the prospective groom. The contractual agreement is also the origin of the question: “Who gives this woman away in marriage?”
Once married, a woman’s act of adultery was an offense against her husband’s property rights, not against hers, for she had no rights. Moreover, the right to secure a divorce was a man’s right; the woman had no such right. Only men could seek a divorce; women could not.
In this context we find Jesus rejecting all of His questioners’ nonsense and calling everyone to return to the original intent and purpose of God at the beginning, where man and woman were created in God’s own image and likeness. When a man marries a woman, Jesus was saying, he cuts away all previous ties and legal obligations and gives himself to his wife as his equal partner. Taken from Adam’s rib Eve is made of the same stuff as a man,. God put Adam to sleep, thus returning him to the condition from which God made him. Then God enters into another act of creation, creating for Adam a suitable partner, one that suits him because she has the same status as the man and is made from the same stuff as he is. She is his mate, coming as she was from the rib closest to his heart. The two are mingled and become one new entity. Moreover, the woman is made in the image and likeness of God, just as is the man. There is an equality in being; the man is not superior to the woman.
Thus if a man divorces his wife he is not only sinning against God, he is also sinning against his own nature. And if either the husband or the wife commits adultery, they are likewise sinning in the same degree and manner. If a man divorces his wife and marries another, declares Jesus, he is committing adultery, a teaching that totally shocked and dismayed His listeners, a teaching which likewise threw into confusion and disarray the tricky, legalistic religious authorities who were trying to trap him. In effect it was giving women rights that were unheard of. Furthermore it gave women equality of status in the eyes of God. It dethroned all notions of male dominance and superiority.
The problem of divorce is both ancient and current among us today. Listen to the words of a Bishop named Asterius who lived in what we now know of as Turkey and who died around the year 400 A.D. His diocese back then was located within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, an empire that was lapsing into moral decay, corruption, and decadence. Preaching about this gospel passage we just heard, setting forth the sacred character of marriage and what it means in the eyes of God, Bishop Asterius said:
“Such is the response that Christ made in the past to the Pharisees. Today, listen to me, you merchants of marriage, who change wives as you change cloaks; you who build homes as flimsy as the stands at a fair; you who marry wealth and traffick in wives; you who, at the least grievance, write a bill of divorce; you, in a word, who, still alive, leave widows. Be persuaded that only death and adultery can break marriage. A true and legitimate union is neither an encounter with a prostitute nor a fleeting pleasure, Marriage, my brothers, joins bodies and souls; it mingles two spirits and unites two bodies. How can you be separated without torment from the one you have knitted into your life not a casual maid, but as a sister, as a wife? Sister, according to creation and origins. Both of you are made of the same earth, the same clay. Wife, through the conjugal bond and marriage contract. What knot are you about to sever you who are bound by nature and by law? How could you dare betray the oath pronounced on your wedding day?
There are those who accuse the Catholic Church of imposing man-made laws on others when it comes to the question of marriage and divorce. They are quite wrong. The Church stands on the issue today where it stood sixteen hundred years ago, and where it stood two thousand years ago. The Catholic Church did not create the Sacrament of Matrimony; it received it from Christ, the Bridegroom who has married her.
Marriage is the building block of our human society. The covenant of marriage is revealed in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ who continually marries us in each Mass, saying, as married couples say, “This is my body. Take it. This is my life, my blood; mingle it with yours. I am marrying you. I will never divorce you. I will never turn my back on you. I will never leave you. You are mine, and I am yours. We belong to each other forever.” That is why the Lord’s Supper is referred to in the bible as “The Wedding Feast of the Lamb.”
Jesus lived in hard times, times in which both marriage and women were not held in high regard. Early Christians lived in such times, times in which we just heard the words of an ancient bishop named Asterius. And we, too, live in such times, times in which marriage, women and even the priesthood of Jesus Christ are not held in high regard. We live in radical times, times therefore in which we need to be radical, to radically return to our roots, to our very beginnings and to find there the intent and purpose of God in making us male and female. For He made us to be — to exist — in His own image and likeness, and He calls us to live together in total and everlasting union as He does, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, forever and ever bonded together in love.