The trap was set as this question for Jesus, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’
We have to assume, since this is a trap, that there was some controversy about this question.
If Jesus says Yes, they will refer to the 10 Commandments re adultery.
If Jesus says No, they will refer to Moses and Deut 24:1-4, and He will also have to endure the displeasure of the crowd – human nature being the same then as now, having a ‘get out of marriage’ option would have been popular.
Jesus responds, in true rabbinic fashion, with a question.
‘What did Moses command you?’
For Jesus this question is a stepping-stone to discussing deeper truths, but their answer will also tell Jesus how well this group of Pharisees understands the law of Moses; or more precisely the law of God as given through Moses.
Their answer was, ‘Moses allowed us to draw up a writ of dismissal in cases of divorce’.
While this is true, it isn’t the full truth.
If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds some indecency in her, he may write her a certificate of divorce, hand it to her, and send her away from his house. If, after leaving his house, she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the second man hates her, writes her a certificate of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house, or if he dies, the husband who divorced her first may not marry her again after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination to the Lord. You must not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
This passage from Deuteronomy is more about deterrents to divorce than permission for divorce.
The first deterrent is the writ of dismissal itself. Only the very educated could write this kind of legal document, so a scribe would have been involved, and he’d have to be paid for his services. The scribe also would hopefully ask, ‘do you really want to do this?’ and point out the pros and cons.
The second deterrent is that once he has dismissed his wife he can never, ever take her back again. Therefore he has to be very, very sure that he will never change his mind on this. It is also a deterrent to dismissal on trivial pretexts. It is highly likely that any sent-away-wife will become defiled.
This law is also a protection for wives, preventing any ‘yo-yo’ scenario where two or more men swap wives on a regular basis.
Then there is the stern warning that God cannot abide defiled relationships. That the very land on which they live will be adversely affected by such sins.
Extremely serious stuff, that deserves far more pondering than is possible here.
Although we know from history that places and civilisations with strong family values prospered, and that places and civilisations where strong family values eroded and were lost entered a downward spiral ending those places and those civilisations.
Which is yet another major deterrent.
Divorce was a matter of life and death, particularly for the wife.
Without a husband, a woman had no home, no security, no income, and became extremely vulnerable. Poverty, being reduced to begging, prostitution, and all the other evils which can befall the vulnerable, were the lot of a dismissed wife, as well as the ruin of her reputation because ‘she was a horrible wife’ is going to be believed more than ‘he was an unreasonable husband’.
To be clear, a writ of dismissal was a message from husband to wife that meant, ‘I don’t care anymore if you live or die, in fact I hope you die’.
How do you get to such hard-heartedness?
By degrees; a harsh word here, a derogatory comment there, which leads to treating her as less than a person worthy of respect and honour, and little cut by little cut, love gradually dies, concern for the welfare of the other, dies, and generally we are oblivious to it happening until the loss of love is so stark that it cannot be ignored.
But no matter how bad it has got, God can resurrect it.
Resurrecting marriages is one of His specialties, and something He takes great delight in doing.
You may object, but what about arranged marriages?
True, some arranged marriages would have been arranged better than others, but they were still entering into an intimate partnership. If you are a man with a farm or a business, what’s the easiest way to get ahead in life? A large family, since children are unpaid labour, and the easiest way to obtain children is to found a family with a wife. The wife also takes care of all those details that make a husband’s life easier; meals, managing household servants, interior decorating, shopping, clothing, the needs of children etc.
It would still take a hard-hearted brute to be lacking in appreciation for such services.
How do you stop going down that ‘growing less in love’ spiral? Forgiveness.
Regular forgiveness, forgiveness from the heart, for the little hurts received, real or imagined.
All of us have foibles and little habits that rub each other up the wrong way.
None of us are exempt.
Without regular forgiveness and looking for the good in each other, our hearts gradually grow coarse and hard, our ability to love grows cold.
Jesus tells them, and us, that from the beginning, God’s plan was that the male and the female become one flesh; and a more accurate translation would be, to exist as one flesh. This is a reality in truth and in God’s eyes, even if we find it difficult to perceive.
Jesus also says, ‘What God has united, man must not divide’.
The word used for ‘united’ is ‘synezeuxen’, which means to yoke together.
When you put a yoke on two farm animals to do a task eg plowing, the best result is achieved when the two farm animals are evenly matched. That means that marriage is a team of two, put together specifically by God, for a common purpose, a common mission, with a common vision. Two yoked animals must needs look in the same direction at the same time.
Wow, what a vision for marriage as God sees it!
Divorce destroys that team of two brought together by God as a team with a single existence, and also destroys the God given purpose and mission for that team.
Divorce also disfigures the man and the woman. You cannot destroy a union like this without some destruction of both the man and the woman. It produces gaping wounds where seamless unity used to be.
In God’s eyes, divorce is a horrible evil that He never ever wants any of His creation to experience.
Yes, sometimes separation is necessary for a short or longer time, with a view to reunion.
Unless violence of the grievous bodily harm variety is present, in which case the separation could be life-long, but still holding out the hope of God’s grace of conversion upon the one prone to violence.
No wonder the enemy of our souls wants to destroy and disfigure marriage as much as possible.
Jesus then goes on to tell the Pharisees, and us, that divorce followed by marriage to another, no matter whether you are male or female, is adultery.
Thou shalt not commit adultery is one of the 10 Commandments.
Any infringement of the 10 Commandments calls down the curses of Deuteronomy 28 upon a person.
God is very serious about His plan for marriage.
That’s because it is the vehicle through which He can bless us, and our society, abundantly.
Like divorce, adultery conveys the same message to the repudiated spouse, ‘I wish you were dead, and I’m going to act as if you were dead, and as if I was free to marry again’.
That’s bad enough, but as we’ve just seen, adultery is also saying a very big No to God’s plan for that married couple and a very big No to God’s mission for that couple.
It isn’t ‘just having a fling’; it is a very serious rejection of the spouse, of God, and of God’s plan for the couple’s greatest happiness and greatest fruitfulness.
Just like the other time the Pharisees confronted Jesus, (Mark 7, 22nd Sunday Ordinary Time Year B) they got far more than they bargained for.
We’ve all been mightily challenged.
God cannot bring full healing to our land until marriages are fully restored and reconciled.
This matters more than we can possibly fathom.
So let’s turn to God and ask for His help:
May God bring healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and flourishing to those marriages that are hurting and to those marriages that are under threat of divorce and under threat of adultery.
May God bring healing to all those whose marriages ended without their consent.
May God grant repentance to the hard-hearted who initiated divorce.
May God forgive us for the times we supported divorce and didn’t pray and encourage reconciliation.
May God grant to married couples the grace to discover the mission and purpose for which God teamed them up together, and to fully co-operate with it.
May those tempted to divorce and to adultery be given the grace to permanently turn away from these temptations and to take measures to prevent such temptations growing again.
May God grant us His help to value and honour marriage as He does, and to valiantly protect it.
May God grant us the grace to soften our hearts towards each other, and towards our spouses, through acts of kindness, love and forgiveness.
Thank You Almighty and Eternal God for the amazing wonder that marriage is in Your eyes.
Mary, mother of Jesus, Help of Christians, pray for us.
St Joseph, protector of families, pray for us.