Jesus faces the test of the Pharisees who are using the thorny issue of divorce to force him into a controversy. Divorce, then as now, was one of what are sometimes called ‘neuralgic’ issues. They are issues that cause great pain, not only to those directly involved but to all the people close to them as well. It has been said that our treatment of the ‘opposite’ sex is a great test of our humanity and it seems that God and religion has always had something to say about marriage and relationships.
The Genesis story tells us that God made man and woman to be complementary. He forms the woman from the rib taken from the side of man. The symbolism is of complementarity and of working side-by-side. He did not take woman from under the foot of man and he speaks of the union of man and woman as constituting one body; one flesh.
In his reply to the Pharisees, Jesus tries to teach the unteachable. He uses the teaching techniques of his time and tradition and answers with a question that throws the questioner back into his own tradition and culture. Jesus invokes Moses, the great law-giver who nonetheless allowed his people to divorce on certain grounds. Jesus accepts the answer and goes on to explain that this was a stage on the way to greater maturity and growth. He tells his interrogator that Moses was dealing with a people who were difficult and unteachable in those days and he throws the questioner further back into his own tradition by quoting Genesis. As Jesus moves away from the question and the debate, his answer is obviously still causing waves as his disciples, ‘back in the house’ question him again about his reply. He elaborates on his teaching that divorce and adultery are unacceptable. He then widens their perspective by talking about the kingdom of God and shows tenderness, following what could be construed as a harsh reply, by embracing and blessing a little child.
Most of our families have divorced or separated members now. Adultery is common and widely accepted or justified. We all have had the sadness of hearing that couples whom we regarded as happy and content have recently split up. There is a common justification that ‘so long as s/he is happy’ then everything is acceptable. It does not appear to matter how many people are hurt in an individual’s search for happiness. It does not take an expert to see the fall-out from marriage breakdown in our schools and on our streets.
There are situations where the idealism of the Gospel has to be tempered with the affection of Jesus. People are occasionally faced with the most distressing situations where separation from a spouse is the only option if health and sanity are to be preserved. The church tries to deal with these situations in its own way by pastoral care and legal solutions, while trying to preserve the ideal. The prevailing culture of serial monogamy among those who ought to be leading by example does not help. Westerners sometimes look on the marriage traditions of the past or of some present-day cultures with disbelief. We have little to offer them however, other than marriage chaos. Christ upholds the teaching of Genesis and what he sees as ‘God’s plan from the beginning’. It is a high ideal with wonderful possibilities and promise including the pro-creation and nurturing of new life. Our failure to reach the highest ideals should not stop us from recognising the good in them and continually trying to discern the ways, the will and the Word of the God who is revealed to us in Christ.