A few years ago I was called by a woman named Mary asking me to visit her husband Bob, who was on hospice care. When I arrived at the house Mary explained that Bob was dying of cancer. Fortunately, he was alert and did not have too much pain but his death was clearly approaching.
The love Mary had for Bob was evident not only in her words but in her eyes. She spoke lovingly of the man she had been married to for 60 years. In talking to Bob I saw and heard of the same love. Then when they were together it became even more evident. While there was a real sadness due to Bob’s illness, there was a great joy in them flowing from their mutual love for one another.
As I listened to them tell stories of their married life which spanned six plus decades, I heard how their love grew and developed over these years facing many challenges that life proposed. They spoke of the strength they received from their faith and from their love to face the challenges and to grow stronger by them.
I left there being uplifted by the encounter and their witness of married love. Bob died a few days later. Mary naturally was deeply saddened by his death but filled with gratitude for the blessing of their marriage, love and family.
Many of us have known couples who witness the greatness of married love. In helping young couples prepare for marriage, I often hear them speak of such examples that they look to for inspiration and guidance. These couples provide a witness to us of the greatness of marriage and family life. They lift us up in joy as we see their love manifest, sometimes tested by the challenges of life, and purified in their mutual self-giving. These marriages are sources of joy and inspiration not only for their own families but for the entire church.
Jesus speaks of the gift and responsibility of marriage as the Pharisees confront him in Sunday’s Gospel passage. “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” they ask. Jesus responds asking them: “What did Moses command you?” They respond: “Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.”
Moses actually never did permit divorce. The attribution comes from an understanding that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. While the instruction to which the Pharisees refer comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, Jesus notes that this was permitted “because of the hardness of your hearts.”
It is important to remember that in the ancient world a woman being alone (that is unmarried) was unthinkable. The law then provided her the opportunity to remarry if the husband wrote the decree. Thus the intention would have been more to protect the woman in the event of divorce rather than to sanction the divorce itself.
Jesus’ reference to “hardness of heart” is something seen in other parts of the Gospel. “Hardness of heart” can be described as a willing obstinacy or stubbornness that refuses to accept God’s invitation to life either through God’s law or its fulfillment in the new covenant, the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ message here is consonant with his first words in the Gospel: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In this sense, Jesus’ further instruction regarding marriage and the impossibility of divorce becomes even more clear. Jesus comes to offer us life through the proclamation of the Gospel and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. He comes to inaugurate the kingdom. God’s reign is established through Jesus’ sacrificial self-offering on the cross. The kingdom is established in love. His resurrection demonstrates his kingship and the power of love. His life and teaching provides us with an understanding of the kingdom, in which all aspects of life are directed by God. In other words, God has a clear vision for human life and the way it should be lived. The call to repentance is a call to live life as God intends us to live.
Jesus then goes on to speak of marriage itself. He quotes from Genesis: “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh.” Jesus’ direct and explicit reference to Genesis reminds the Pharisees, and us as well, that marriage and human sexuality is a great blessing given by God. The husband and wife are so designed that they compliment each other, joined together “in one flesh” they express that union physically. Jesus then reaffirms his Father’s intention for married life to be a life-long union: “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
Married life is a great blessing. The union of husband and wife is one whereby the gift of self and the reception of the other provides an ongoing dynamic of love. As we learn elsewhere in the Scriptures this love becomes a witness to and a reflection of God’s love for his people whether expressed as Israel in the Old Testament or the church in the New.
The bond of love is indissoluble. As St. Paul writes in First Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not see its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
The teaching obviously poses challenges. Love demands in us the gift of self which, in any age but particularly our own, is challenging. The fact that the disciples further question Jesus about this teaching when they are alone demonstrates their awareness of this challenge. In response, Jesus clearly reiterates and further clarifies the importance of sustaining the marriage commitment: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
In this formulation, Jesus now elevates the mutual responsibility for the marriage, further bringing to fulfillment that which was established in the original covenant. In this formulation, both husband and wife are referenced. In the Old Testament the reference was to a husband divorcing his wife; here both spouses are placed on equal footing; both have the responsibility to maintain the bond established in the marriage. The wife is not inferior to the husband or the husband to the wife. Both are equal partners in this covenant of love. Both have the responsibility to maintain the love shared between them.
Jesus gives this great instruction on the importance of married life and love. He affirms the Father’s intention for married life. As the couple come together in this union of love, they continue in the creative work of God of the Father. As they raise their children in love and offer themselves in love, they participate in the salvific work of Jesus, the Father’s only Son. As they instruct their children in the faith and they reinforce each other’s faith, they share in the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of their family and by extension the church and the world.
Challenges in married life certainly exist. As the Holy Father, Pope Francis, reminded us last week: “Families have difficulties, families fight, sometimes plates can fly. Children bring headaches. I won’t speak about mother-in-laws;” yet, “With families, there is always light…. The family is like a factory of hope, a factory of Resurrection.” Sometimes there are serious challenges that might cause a couple to cease from living together such as domestic abuse. The devastation wrought in these cases is a further demonstration of the import of marriage — it fundamentally affects the person, when a violation of the marriage vows takes place, it devastates. In these cases the entire community is called to support and embrace those affected.
Married life is a wonderful gift to the world. God has given us this gift, from the very beginning of creation. He creates in love. He sustains in love. Married life reminds us of this love and lifts the world in love.
As the Holy Father and the Synod of Bishops meet in Rome this week to continue their discussions on the family, which has married life as its foundation, please pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we may be strengthened in our understanding of, appreciation for, and guidance in sustaining holy, fruitful and strong marriages through their prayer filled deliberations.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.