October 3, 2021

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the 2nd chapter of Genesis God finds that “it is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate.” God then put the man into a deep sleep, removed a rib from him, and fashioned a woman from that rib. The man rejoiced over this. “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body.” In Mark’s Gospel some Pharisees approached Jesus and asked if it was permitted for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus acknowledged that Moses allowed for divorce but declared that Moses allowed this because the people of his time were “unteachable.” Jesus went on to say that a man who divorces his wife and remarries is guilty of adultery. Likewise if the woman remarries she is also guilty of adultery.

I’ve spent virtually all of my adult life working in some form of Catholic ministry and countless times I’ve been approached by someone who isn’t Catholic and has questions about Catholicism. When this happens I groan inwardly because oftentimes they want to ask about our teachings on birth control or marriage (in fairness I sometimes get questions about the Pope but that’s grist for another day).

In my study of Scripture I’ve found passage after passage that I wish we Christians would take more literally. We are told that we must care for the resident alien (Leviticus 19:33), that justice will flow like water (Amos 5:24), and that God will judge us by how we treat the poor (Matthew 25:16).

And yes, there are passages I wish we would take less literally. In passage after passage in the Gospels we find the Pharisees attempting to trap Jesus over some passage in the Old Testament. Again and again Jesus does not take the bait and turns the question back on them. Today it’s about marriage.

The Old Testament does provide for divorce, and by the time of Jesus there was a raging debate over what justifies divorce. Some felt that a man may only divorce his wife if she was unfaithful while others believed he could issue a writ of divorce for any reason. The Pharisees hoped to force Jesus into one camp or the other, thereby dividing his disciples. It didn’t work: Jesus hearkened back to Genesis and reminded them of the original teaching in Genesis.

So what do we do with this reading from Mark? Please understand, on no level am I discounting what Jesus said or saying this doesn’t matter. I’ve been married for over 23 years and am insanely happy; my parents have been married for over 63 years and can’t imagine life without each other. But I think in the 2000 years since this scene we’ve taken this reading in a direction that Jesus did not intend.

When Genesis speaks of how the two become one we need to understand that for much of our history we didn’t believe in the equality of marriage. Instead we saw the man in charge and the woman as being his property or at least a lesser part of the marriage. Interestingly enough there was no provision in Jewish law for a woman to divorce her husband.

Here in the United States in some places we didn’t recognize marriage between people of different skin colors until 1967. And we’ve (albeit slowly) elevated the role of the woman to see her as an equal partner in the marriage. And in the last 20 years we’ve seen a new recognition of marriage between people of the same sex.

But we’ve also found ways that marriage can go wrong. We’ve always recognized that marriages sometimes cannot survive infidelity and we’ve also come to recognize infidelity on both sides, that is, a marriage may fall apart because the man was unfaithful.

As we’ve come to see marriage as equal between partners we’ve also recognized the role of abuse (substance, physical, emotional, sexual). But too often in generations gone past women in these marriages have been ordered to remain faithful and remain married long after their marriages became toxic.

Several years ago I had a friend who came from a family that probably should never have happened. Her parents were just not suited to each other, and while I was not privy to the particulars it was clear that they had no business staying married. But, using this passage on marriage, they were told that they needed to stay together no matter what because that’s what God demanded. They continued to fight but they also continued to have children and my friend was the youngest of them.

Her parents did eventually divorce but she was often reminded that she was the product of a doomed marriage and should never have been conceived. Her childhood and early young adult life was spent desperately hoping she could find a justification for her existence.

We all know, and some of us have experienced, marriages like this. We continue to struggle with an understanding that validates the sanctity of marriage but allows us to continue to love God and each other. And we continue to struggle when these values conflict.

Proponents of the absolute sanctity of marriage often accuse the divorced of not caring about the sanctity of marriage but I’ve witnessed just the opposite. I’ve ministered to people who valued their marriages and fought the good fight, often at great sacrifice, and finally surrendered at the point of existential exhaustion.

At the end of the day I believe we can hold two truths simultaneously, that God wishes for us marriages that are holy, joyful, and to the benefit of all while at the same time recognizing that a marriage that turns abusive does not demand permanence.

As for my friend, I haven’t seen her in many years. But I pray that she finds a way to see her existence as a measure of God’s love and God’s ability to bring life even out of the chaos of our sin.