Dear Brothers and Sisters,
There are huge challenges to being truly human. Aside from the physical needs of food, water, shelter, and warmth, we need to live in relationships and in community. Being a person is complicated enough because very few people have a grasp of their own identity. Some psychologists think that the iceberg image applies: There is a bit of your own personality that is known to you and others, while most of your thoughts and feelings are under the surface. A human being is complicated. When you bring two people together in any kind of relationship, you are multiplying all those known and unknown things together.
Relationships give life its meaning, but they are seldom easy. Somewhere in your childhood, you realized that the world is filled with people who have their own thoughts, feelings, and needs. An infant is content when it is fed, but an older child is troubled when their friend is hungry. When we are small, we are concerned about our own pain, but as we grow older, we get more sympathetic to the pains of others. So, we go through stages of growth from thinking of others as objects to thinking of them as people who are much like us.
The law of God helps us to live in relationship and in community. In the Ten Commandments and elsewhere in the Bible, we are given a moral code that enables us to live with each other by limiting behaviors that ruin relationships. Stealing, killing, infidelity, lying and yearning for things we shouldn’t have are all offenses that destroy relationships.
Today, Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees on the issue of divorce, but before we get to that, we should say a few words about marriage in those days.
Marriage had changed in the centuries before Jesus was born. It held onto its roots in the stories and lessons of the Old Testament, but the effects of Greek and Roman culture had altered it. Marriage was a relationship to provide support and stability for the raising of children. Since sexual activity was the way that children were conceived, and sexually transmitted diseases were disastrous, it required fidelity and commitment. Monogamy was considered ideal, but the Old Testament practice of male-centered polygamy would not be illegal in the Roman Empire for a few more hundred years, and not in Judaism for another thousand years.
The main effect that the Greeks and Romans had on marriage was to strip Hebrew women of their personal rights. Before these changes, Old Testament women often owned property, ran the family business, and oversaw the work of others. After these practices were stopped, the only women with personal power free of male control, were some wealthy widows.
The most powerful Hebrew woman we see in the Old Testament leader name Deborah. Deborah was a prophet and judge, a ruler, in the days before the first king. You can find Deborah’s story in Judges, chapters four and five.
Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
“What did Moses command you?” he replied.
They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
In this particular text, Jesus is defining marriage as the sexual union between a man and woman. It is not about a civil contract, a ceremony, or anything but the assumption that a bride and groom are spiritually unified forever by the sexual act (a marriage bed). Sexual activity doesn’t lead to a shotgun wedding, sexual union is marriage. Based on Old Testament law, Jesus would have had severe opinions about questions of rape and incest, but the sin of pre-marital sex would be that you are married to the first person you slept with and guilty of adultery if you sleep with any another (even after a “proper” wedding).
Jesus often spoke of Old Testament laws and re-enforced them to be stronger than they had been before: Partly to encourage moral behavior and partly to convince people that their righteousness was insufficient to earn their way into heaven. Jesus demanded a moral perfection that requires seeking God’s mercy rather than standing on our track record.
The reasons for stricter rules against divorce may also have been because divorced women had no safe place in that society. By being forced out of marriage a woman lost her rights, her public respect, and any expectation of personal safety. Being cut off from her source of food and shelter, she was forced to seek help from any extended family or to beg in the streets. Divorced women were much more likely to starve, die of exposure to the elements, or be forced into prostitution.
There was no service of marriage in New Testament days. Marriages were often arranged or entered without any romantic notions. The period of engagement was when the woman lived at home but made meals for her husband-to-be until it was time for her to move in with him. There would be a party, but no religious ceremony. We have no record of any wedding vows or promises being made for another 1300 years. A woman just went to live with a man, and they were married. As far as divorce, there were no alimony payments and the husband retained custody of any children and property.
For us, in the modern world, marriage and divorce have changed a great deal, but God still values fidelity. In modern Christian marriage we focus not on the marriage bed, but on the promises made to care for one another “till death do us part,” with the help of God. We see divorce as a breaking of these promises that we have made with an honest intention of permanence.
Today, people enter marriage with no intention of the conception or the raising of children. We even allow couples to marry if they have no intention of having a sexual relationship. The biggest changes in marriage were the Roman Catholic Church’s requirement that a priest conduct a marriage ceremony with two witnesses (in 1563) and the British/Anglican law of 1753 that identified prolonged cohabitation of a man and a woman as being joined in a “common law marriage.”
We suffer from the fact that we apply the word “marriage” to mean so many different things. Is it a physical bond based on sexuality? Is it a civil contract (like a building permit)? Is it a relationship based on mutual promises? Is it conducted by a priest, a judge, a ship’s captain, or at a drive-in in Las Vegas? Modern churches like ours don’t ask for any proof that a couple is married (in either a church or courthouse), but we provide documentation to the state when we join couples. It is a confusing mess because we use the word marriage in a half-dozen ways. And it is always getting more complicated.
Still, Jesus speaks against divorce and we must take that seriously. It encourages us to do one of the most important things we can do, which is to work hard at maintaining a lifelong relationship of mutual love, support, and devotion. Jesus often uses marriage as a symbol for our eternal relationship with God. We, the church, are the bride of God. And God is our ever faithful and loving husband. So, marriage is primarily about maintaining unity. “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Questions to Ponder: What would you say to a friend or family member who wants to rush into a marriage? What would you say to a friend or family member who suffers the pain of divorce?