This Sunday Pope Francis’s great synod on marriage begins. The Gospel for the Mass is Scripture’s bluntest statement against divorce – and together, the readings give the most beautiful picture of why marriage is a central icon of Christian love.
In our passage from Mark’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus whether divorce is lawful. He goes out of his way to contradict Moses: he allowed divorce only “because of the hardness of your hearts.” But Jesus quotes Genesis – “from the beginning of creation” – emphasizing the words “they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together no human being must separate.” And therefore remarriage, he says, is no remarriage, but adultery. Strong words.
Mark slightly streamlines this dialogue compared to the almost exact same account in Matthew 19. But he eliminates Matthew’s confusing words about how fornication effects the situation. And at the end of the story, when the disciples ask Jesus to explain this teaching in private, Matthew has Jesus admit that it is hard (“All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given”), but Mark just has him repeat it (“Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.”) In Mark we simply have the teaching in its starkness.
But Jesus points to the beginning, and the Lectionary gives us the passage he cites from Genesis. Genesis, in fact, gives us some keys for appreciating this stark teaching in the Gospel.
Jesus quotes Gen 2:24. Immediately before those words (“This is why a man will leave his father and mother”) come Adam’s words of admiration for his wife, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
(In many modern translations, the words, “That is why” belong to the narrator. But the Tradition often assumes that Adam is still speaking: he prophesies – and, despite our translation, it is in the future tense – “That is why a man will leave his father and mother.” In his admiration of Eve, Adam prophesies all marriages to come.)
The first note, then, is similarity and equality. After the rhetoric of the Sexual Revolution we forget, but the Christian prohibition of divorce is one of the most pro-woman decisions in the history of mankind. Alongside the right of women to choose celibacy, it is the original feminism. Moses did not allow women to leave their husbands – like every other non-Christian society, he only allowed men to leave their wives. Jesus’s prohibition of divorce was first of all a rejection of this inequality – the inequality expressed every time someone abandons their promises. The man has no right to abandon his family, because God created man and woman equals.
A second note: the unity of body and soul. He admires that she is from his body: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” But in the preceding story, the problem is one of soul. He is alone (the Hebrew word is “separated” – already a word pointing toward divorce) and looking for a “suitable partner.” He names the animals, but the animals cannot speak back to him.
In Eve’s bodily similarity to him he discovers her personality. He knows that this one who has his flesh and bones will also be able to talk to him and so heal his loneliness. Marriage, with all its fleshly privileges and obligations, points to a much deeper kind of unity. Bodily union is an icon of spiritual friendship. Jesus’s insistence on maintaining that fleshly union points deeper, to an abiding friendship.
We begin to see that the key words in what Jesus says are “hardness of heart.” This is the true enemy of marriage. And the deeper claim of Jesus is that this hardness of heart – which has reigned even through Moses – can now be conquered.
Our second reading begins a tour through the Letter to the Hebrews that will last the rest of the liturgical year. It gives the theological key to this healing of our hard hearts.
In it, Jesus becomes “lower than the angels” – the Most High comes down – to taste death for us. He consecrates us by suffering. He becomes one of us, our brother – bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh.
Suffering among us, Jesus conquers hardness of heart. It is by our union with him, and our willingness to suffer for others, that divine friendship becomes possible. The heart of Jesus loving us even to the Cross is the icon of married love.
The long option for the Gospel brings us back, yet again, to the theme of children. In Mark, it almost feels like this discussion of marriage is an interruption of a conversation about children.
Suddenly what we have learned about marriage floods out into how we see all people: we love them as we love ourselves; see their bodies as an icon of their souls; are called, even through suffering, to overcome our hardness of heart. In marriage we have learned the grandeur of Christian love.
What does marriage teach you about loving your neighbor?