This is a repeat of my homily from 2015, but I felt it was worth republishing.
Gn 2:7, 15, 28-24
Ps 128 R. May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives.
Once again, in today’s Gospel, we find the Pharisees placing their trust in their education and intelligence, and trying to trick Jesus. You see, the question they put to Jesus — Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? — was a trick, a double edged sword.
If Jesus said no, then He’d be disagreeing with what Moses taught, and that would make Him a blasphemer. If He said yes, then He’d have to choose His interpretation. That’s because the Pharisees themselves were divided on the matter. Some taught that a man could divorce his wife only for reasons of adultery; others that he could divorce his wife if she angered him (say, if she burned supper or broken something); and still others that he could divorce her simply because he didn’t want her any more. If Jesus answered yes, He’d have to choose one camp and have the other two as enemies. The Pharisees thought they had Jesus in a corner.
But, like in all other attempts to trick Him, Jesus outsmarts them. Instead of answering their question about divorce, Jesus speaks to them about Marriage: But from the beginning of creation, ‘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. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate (Mk 10:6-9).
Instead of debating whether divorce was lawful or not, Jesus teaches about the meaning and reality of Marriage, and though His answer was short, He makes some very important points.
In making reference to the text of Genesis we heard in the first reading today, Jesus roots His answer in the will of God. God created man and woman, and He created them not for divorce but for partnership and union: This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh… Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh (Gn 2:23, 24).
By creating Eve from the rib of Adam, God created her as an equal: a partner not merely because she is of the same nature and being as Adam, but because she is his equal in matter and dignity. She comes from the same piece of clay, and the rib, being close to the heart, places them side by side, and not one above the other. Therefore, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of the dignity God gave women, and that women aren’t property that can be dismissed when no longer wanted.
In creating man and woman as equals and for partnership, their union as husband and wife isn’t a mere human experience: it’s God’s plan. Therefore, He is the one who binds them to one another in the union of Marriage.
The Church has always understood that in the exchange of vows to each other, a bride and groom give themselves to each other as gifts. They offer each other as a mutual exchange of persons: ‘I give myself to you as husband, and I receive you as wife’, and vice versa. And it’s this mutual gift of self to the other that makes Marriage a sacred covenant, because it’s done in totality: total self for life. The Council Fathers of Vatican II put it in this way:
The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other, a relationship arises which by divine will … is a lasting one. ~
Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them (Cf. Pius XI, Casti Connubii) (GS, 48 – emphasis added).
By making appeal to God’s plan in creation, this is what Jesus brings into the discussion. Just like Jesus can’t separate His humanity from His divinity, nor can I separate myself into two people, neither can husband and wife break the union they have established through their mutual gift of self. That’s why Jesus concludes, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate (Mk 10:8). And why He insists that anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery (Mk 10:11-12).
Now over the years (and even in our own day!) many have misunderstood this truth about Marriage. Some have used it to keep people in abuse. The Church has never taught that someone has stay in an abusive relationship. In our Gospel passage, Jesus didn’t condemn separation; He condemned remarriage after divorce. Sometimes it may be necessary for someone in an abusive Marriage to live apart from their spouse. This is a sad and painful reality of our sinfulness. But such a separation doesn’t break the marital bond between the two; separated spouses are to continue to understand themselves as married, and to not attempt remarriage. And nor does legal divorce break the bond between husband and wife.
In some cases, though, the consent upon which the mutual exchange was built can be defective; that is, one or both people didn’t truly give themselves to each other. In such cases, the union can be declared null. That’s what we call a ‘declaration of nullity’ (wrongfully called an ‘annulment’); it’s not the Catholic version of divorce, but a declaration that, after careful study of the relationship, the bond of Marriage was never established; it was invalid. If a Marriage is declared ‘null’, then both parties are free to remarry.
This is the reality of Marriage: through the exchange of vows, a man and a woman are joined to each other so as to become one, and this union is for life. This was God’s plan in creating us male and female, that the two should come together for a communion of life and love. And this is a sacred union, one that reflects the Trinity and our union with Jesus (Eph 5:32); and one that’s revealed most beautifully in the Incarnation of Christ and in His Death on the Cross.
Let us pray today, then, for all married couples, especially those experiencing difficulties; for those preparing for Marriage; and for all the Bishops participating in the Synod on the Family, which opens today. Amen.