Some Pharisees approached Jesus, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever” (Mt 19:3)?
The question about divorce came from an already existing debate within Jewish circles of interpretation and schools of thought. Testing Jesus arose from time to time to better understand who he would side with. Regarding the issue of divorce, there was a range of interpretations. On one end of the spectrum, there was the School of Shammai, which permitted divorce only in the event of some sexual misconduct. At the other end of the spectrum, was the School of Hillel, which would allow a man to divorce his wife if she cooked a bad meal (cf. Harrington 2007, 275).
The Pharisees sought to understand the perspective of Jesus in this debate. Jesus responded: “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'” (Mt 19:4-5)? This response negated both schools as well as rejected the precept that Moses set for allowing divorce, explaining that, “from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). Jesus’ defense went back to God’s original intent recorded in the Book of Genesis, which allowed no provision for divorce.
In God’s plan, marriage is a covenantal relationship, as is the relationship between God and his people. A covenant is a sacred bond that is not to be broken. In the Sacrament of Matrimony, a man and a woman who give themselves to one another and are open to children as the fruit of their union mirror the Trinitarian communion of Father and Son and the eternal love between then the Holy Spirit.
The ideal of marriage then is to be a lifelong commitment; for God does not break his covenant with us, nor should we. The goal is clear, yet we live in a fallen world and we do not often live up to what God has planned for us. For many reasons, there are times where a marriage does not work as intended, but that does not mean we are to give up on marriage. Even though Jesus holds the standard high, he does not abandon us when we ourselves fall. He is present in our brokenness, and fallibility. He reminds us: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mk 2:17).
It is right to keep our goals high and resist the temptation to settle for anything less than what God has in store for us, which is a covenant relationship with himself and each other. Relationships are not easy and no we don’t naturally know what we are supposed to do. We need to educate, support, model and mentor those preparing for marriage as well as during their marriage to help them remain faithful to God and one another. And when a relationship breaks down, we need to be present to and walk with those who suffer through the pain of the rupture. We ought not to abandon one another for Jesus does not abandon us and instead loves us more than we can ever mess up.
Photo: JoAnn and my hand on my breviary. We have dedicated our lives to God and each other, and on the inside of each of our rings is etched the word eternity.
Harrington, S.J., Daniel J. The Gospel of Matthew in Sacra Pagina, vol. 1. Edited by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007.