Last Sunday we heard strong words from Jesus: “If your hand leads you to sin, cut it off,” etc. Difficult words to hear, which have to do with removing from our lives anything that leads us away from God. And this week Jesus begins to talk about what following Him means for ordinary life. The context is another challenge from the Pharisees. It seems that they are always in the background, waiting for Jesus to slip up, hoping to trap him with his own words. They question him not because they really want to learn from him, but because they hope he is going to say or do something that will discredit himself.
In this instance, it seems that perhaps they have already heard Jesus talk about marriage, and what he had said must have been controversial. The subject of marriage controversial – nothing has changed, has it? Talking about marriage these days is like walking through a minefield.
But anyway, back to Jesus and the Pharisees. They ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” According to the Law of Moses, it was permissible. In fact, divorce was widely accepted in Jewish society of that time. Here is a little historical context: the Law of Moses did in fact permit a husband to divorce his wife (but not the other way around). This was actually a provision to, believe it or not, protect the woman. Why? According to a Biblical scholar named Mary Healy, “A bill of divorce was a man’s relinquishment of legal claims on his wife, freeing her from any obligations to him and allowing her to marry someone else. This provision afforded some legal protection to a woman whose husband repudiated her, in a society in which it was unthinkable for a woman to live on her own. The purpose of the bill of divorce was not to authorize divorce, but merely to limit its consequences for the woman.” So in other words, prior to the Law of Moses, a husband could just abandon his wife; legally she would not be able to remarry, and she would become a poverty-stricken societal outcast. With the Law of Moses, she could legally remarry and not end up destitute and vulnerable.
However, Jesus points to the higher law, the greater commandment, which comes from the very beginning of Scripture. He quotes from the story of creation, of Adam and Eve, from the book of Genesis, which we also heard in our first reading today. God made man and woman for each other, to complement each other – not in the sense of saying nice things to each other as in giving someone a compliment – but rather in the sense of two parts fitting together to make a whole or to make something better. This complementarity between husband and wife was willed and created by God himself and as such it is good and beautiful and should not be separated.
No doubt this may be an uncomfortable Gospel for many – for many people nowadays have gone through a divorce. I think the rough estimate is still close to 50% of marriages end in divorce. But I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion about what the Church says about marriage and divorce. Hopefully I can give a little bit of clarity right now. Jesus’ teaching about marriage still holds and cannot be changed. A valid sacramental marriage only ends with the death of the husband or the wife. That’s because marriage is a reflection of God’s love for humanity: total, faithful, fruitful, and free. God’s love is faithful; i.e. he never withdraws it; he never takes it back. The same thing applies to a valid sacramental marriage. I know that people who have been divorced often feel rejected by the Church. Where does this leave them then?
First, let me say that civil divorce is a legal issue that has to do with the State, not the Church. Divorce can be but is not necessarily a sin, depending on the circumstances. For example, I know many people who got married and wanted to remain married, but their spouse one day walked out on them, or said they were leaving them for someone else, and suddenly they found themselves divorced. In this situation, they have done nothing wrong and are not excommunicated or kicked out of the Church, and nothing prevents them from receiving the sacraments. Or sometimes they find themselves in a toxic marriage and their physical health and safety – and often that of their children – is at risk. The couple needs counseling, often their spouse needs individual counseling or even treatment for an addiction, but he or she refuses. So the other party initiates a divorce for their own and their children’s safety, well-being, etc. Again, this person is not excommunicated and he or she can still receive the sacraments.
An issue emerges if that person then gets remarried or enters into a romantic relationship with someone else without first having obtained an annulment. This is where Jesus’ words today about adultery must be remembered. That’s because the Church presumes that a marriage is sacramentally valid until proven otherwise. With an annulment process, the Church does an investigation to determine whether there was something essential missing from the marriage from the start that would render it an invalid sacramental marriage. What makes a marriage sacramentally valid? Remember: marriage is a reflection of God’s love for us – it must be total, faithful, fruitful, and free. So, if either the husband or the wife, or both, felt pressured to get married, or they didn’t intend to give themselves to the other completely and for life at the time they got married, or perhaps withheld important information about themselves from the other at the time they got married, or were even lacking sufficient maturity to even get married in the first place, then it’s very possible that it was not a valid sacramental marriage in the first place. That is what the Church investigation seeks to determine. If it is determined that it was not sacramentally valid, then the Church declares the marriage null, and both parties are free to marry again, receive the sacraments, etc.
If you are in an “irregular” situation, I would suggest that you come in and talk to me and see what can be done about it. I don’t want people to drift away from their relationship with God and from full communion with the Church over a misunderstanding.
But there’s another important part of this Gospel! The conversation suddenly moves from Jesus’ radical response to the Pharisees on the question of divorce to the subject of children. Of course, first we have marriage, then we have children; naturally, the two go together. And this is very fitting, given that today is Respect Life Sunday. Jesus rebukes his disciples because they are preventing the children from coming to him. Jesus welcomes the children; we are given the tender image of Jesus embracing and blessing the children. Jesus is our model. How do we welcome children? How does our society welcome children? What is our attitude toward them? How do we see them? As an annoyance, a threat to our autonomy, our freedom, our happiness? Do we see them as entities that merely consume resources? As accessories to our lives, something that we have a right to, or as just another experience to fulfill us? Or do we see them as gifts from God, to be loved and cared for and cherished because they are a new creation with an eternal soul?
More than anything else, welcoming children means loving them and giving them what I call the three S’s: security, stability, and structure. Children thrive the most when they know that they are loved, when they know that they are safe, when they know that their home life is stable, and when their lives have structure and order. These are their needs. Providing for their wants is much less important. But often this is what many people emphasize: lavishing gifts on their children, making sure they have the latest technology, giving in to their requests for more stuff, and so on.
And remember, through baptism we all go from being God’s creatures to even more than that: we become his children. His beloved sons and daughters, whom he welcomes, providing for our needs – not necessarily our wants, but our needs! Jesus tells us to receive the Kingdom of God like children, that is, with complete trust and confidence in the Father’s love for us. So as we seek to create welcoming homes and communities for our children, let us never forget that we too are God’s children. Let us receive his embrace and his blessing as we go forward to receive him in the Eucharist.