In the Gospel today we hear Christ’s explicit teaching on marriage and divorce, family life and the indissolubility of marriage.
The Jewish tradition had a very high ideal of marriage and divorce was extremely frowned upon. However, despite this, divorce was very common and in fact very easy to obtain. Moses had commanded that if a man was going to divorce his wife, then he had to issue a certificate of divorce. The wife was a man’s property, with no legal rights at all. Moses ensured that by the issuing of this certificate the woman was then at least free to marry again. If the man did not issue the wife with this certificate, then she remained his property. In this way, Moses was trying to offer the wife some protection, even though he only allowed divorce if the woman had committed ‘some indecency’, which was held to generally mean adultery. In addition, only the man could divorce his wife. The wife could not divorce her husband.
King Herod had married his brother’s wife, Herodias, violating the Mosaic Law. John the Baptist showed courage in condemning the king in public and lost his head for it. In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees were setting a trap, asking whether Jesus agreed with John on the non-legitimacy of divorce or would criticise the Mosaic tradition and alienate the people. But Jesus used the occasion to declare unequivocally that the bond of marriage comes from God, not man, and that it is permanent and indissoluble: “What God has joined, man must not separate”.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce here stands out dramatically for its sternness, which allows no exceptions unlike the Mosaic tradition. In the parallel version in the Gospel of Matthew, an exception for unchastity/adultery is added, whilst the account in Luke does not include this exception. As is the case with many of the teachings of Christ, these are difficult messages to preach in a society that embraces co-habitation and has no issue with divorce being freely available. The Gospel teaches that family life is sacred, that marriage is between a man and a woman and that the husband and wife are joined together as partners with equal rights.
The Church understands that marriages can break down and that there may be many reasons for this. As Christians we need to reach out to ensure that the divorced are not made to feel isolated and abandoned. Rather, that they are accepted and treated with respect, compassion, sensitivity, love, and support. There are also Catholic support groups as well as expert advice for those who have experienced the pain of divorce and may be able to pursue an annulment if the circumstances permit.