“From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.” I know that there are some who now dispute that our species has just two sexes — this point on which Genesis and Darwin are agreed — but, if you don’t mind, I will take that as a given for this sermon I will preach. I believe the audience I have before me now will grant that. So let us proceed to the conclusion: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the twain shall become one flesh.” Then Our Lord iterates, after quoting those well known sentences in Genesis, “So they are no longer two but one flesh.” Then His own conclusion: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Marriage and Divorce in the History of the Church
In St Matthew’s parallel version, we perhaps see the beginning of the process that codified that saying in church law; for there Christ adds the exception for “sexual immorality,” which most take to mean adultery. Eventually, the Western Church developed the process for evaluating marriages of couples who split — and annulling them if they were judged not to be Christian unions, leaving each party free to enter into his or her first Christian union, without violating the principle Our Lord laid down. A bishop’s decree of nullity is a declaration after an investigation that, even though a civil marriage was contracted, there was no Christian marriage, usually because of the defective intent of one or both parties. The procedure of evaluation and statement of finding comes under the category of church discipline. You are probably aware that Pope Francis created a controversy in his church by putting up for debate the matter of whether the bishops will continue with their long-standing policy of withholding Communion from divorced and remarried couples unless or until husband and wife have any previous marriages annulled. Anglicans are not so strict about who receives Communion. But the bishops of the Anglican Church in North America do have a similar process for evaluating the previous marriages of persons who desire to remarry in the Church. We parish priests do not have such discretion ourselves.
The Intent of Jesus' Teaching About Marriage and Divorce
But enough about church discipline and the clergy’s attempts to work with persons in difficult situations in applying the principles Christ laid down for His followers. We are now going to return to our exercise of trying to look at His teaching the way a Jewish audience in Roman Palestine would have seen it. St Mark implies that the disciples were puzzled by the saying on marriage, and wondered whether they had heard Jesus correctly. So they asked about the matter again. “And He said to them, Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
St Matthew continues the exchange: the disciples respond, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, why, it is better not to marry.” Jesus does indicate that lifelong abstinence is an option, but His main replies are, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given,” and “let the one who is able to receive this receive it” [Matt 19: 10-12]. For you see, Our Lord made no bones about acknowledging to His fellow Jews that He was departing from the Torah in that teaching. “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send” his wife away, but “from the beginning of creation,” it was not so.
God Allowed Divorce Because of the Hardness of Men's Hearts
From our perspective today, the provision in the Torah is patently unfair, because the decision to divorce lies wholly with the man. Our Lord’s casting it aside thus afforded wives more protection. But that observation which many now make does not get to the heart of His message. Jesus intends His command only for His disciples. He does not purport to change the law for those who are unable to receive the command. So the first question we must have for ourselves is, Are we able to receive it? Are we called to be Jesus’ disciples? If so, then let us confront this so-called “hard saying” in all its stark originality. It is original only in the sense that it takes us back to the origin of marriage when human society was still in its innocence, and asks any who would follow Jesus and live in the Kingdom to fulfill its purpose. What is it that He says stands in the way of husbands and wives’ living according to the Divine institution of matrimony, fulfilling the intent of the Creator “from the beginning”? “Hardness of heart” was Our Lord’s answer. “Hardness of heart.” And if that is the problem that prevents husbands and wives from working through difficulties and remaining contentedly together, what do you think the solution is? Let us now try to place the “new” commandment in today’s Gospel in the history of salvation. Remember that, according to N.T. Wright’s commentary on Mark and the other two Synoptic Gospels, the story they tell is the story of Israel’s return from exile — and through Israel’s Messiah, of mankind’s return from spiritual exile, our exile from God’s presence. “Hardness of heart” is the very thing that God promised through Ezekiel to take away from the Jews when they returned from Babylon:
Christian Marriage and the New Covenant
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you . . . . You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be My people, and I will be your God [Ezekeil 36: 26-28].
The prophecy of the New Covenant in Jeremiah states the same in different language. The LORD says that, in the days of the Return, He will put His law within His people; He will “write it on their hearts.” And He says in that text, too, “I will be their God, and they shall be My people” [Jer 31: 33]. In other words, when the covenant between God and man is renewed, it will not again be broken, because men and women will at the same time be given renewed hearts. And such is the condition of living with Christ in God’s Kingdom. Living with a hard, stony heart is incompatible with living under the Reign of God and in his presence, which it was Our Lord’s whole purpose to make available to us. Now the practical difficulties of a married couple’s staying together are the same for Christians as they are for everyone else. Anyone can make a case for divorce when talking to a therapist. Anyone can do that. Because of our permissive laws, one no longer has to make the case before a judge. But the question for any husband or wife who would follow Christ is the same today as it was in Roman Palestine: Do you want to live in the Kingdom? Do you count yourself among Yahweh’s redeemed, who “shall return and come to Zion with singing” and “everlasting joy upon their heads”? [Isa 35: 10]. If so, then your heart must soften, not only toward your spouse, but also toward your children, parents, siblings, fellow sinners, and not least your brothers and sisters in Christ.
If both husband and wife will do that, the marriage will not just last; it will flourish and be enjoyable. If only one party has a generous and loving heart, then maybe it will last, but it won’t be enjoyable. If neither has one, then no way, because the permanency of marriage in society today no longer rests on either the law or economic interest. A good marriage is one in which both husband and wife do battle with their own selfishness, not with each other. Rearing children together is usually a great help to winning that battle. Even difficult children will succeed in getting your attention off yourselves. The law of the Church comes into play only when agape fails. The purpose of canon law regarding failed marriages is to provide a little order when a situation becomes chaotic, to give God’s children something to grab onto when they appear to be sinking. But Christ, in the challenge he puts before us today, would have us look away from that, and affix our attention instead on the law of love. The challenge is to claim the promise of living with transformed hearts in the Kingdom. The promise is fulfilled when we allow God to put His Spirit in us and remove that old “heart of stone.” In the final analysis, the command to love is God’s entire law. The other commandments are just details.
*Headings and emphasis added by site admin