“I hate divorce” – Malachi 2:16

I think most of us would agree with Malachi. Divorce is a messy painful process that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Yet, for some of us, the alternative is worse. In the present day, the Catholic Church allows people to separate and even “divorce” in the eyes of the state. You can still receive communion if you do. Remarriage, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. That’s when you need to talk to the diocese about annulments. (https://www.buffalodiocese.org/trbl-annulment)

However, before we can apply Jesus’ teaching in our own day, we have to learn what it was like at the time. In Jewish law, a husband could divorce his wife, but she couldn’t divorce him. She also couldn’t get married again without his permission. Rabbis were split about what reasons a man must have in order to have a divorce. My bible commentary states “according to the Mishnah the school of Shammai gave it a strict interpretation as sexual misconduct on the woman’s part, whereas the school of Hillel said “Even if she spoiled a dish for him” and Rabbi Aqiba said “Even if he found another more beautiful than she is.”” (Sacra Pagina, Mark, 296) YIKES. Polygamy too, although less common in Jesus time, was still allowed. In other words, everything tilted in the favor of the husband. When he was also the one bringing in the money and she had no real dowry to offer to a second husband, there was very little justice in marriage and divorce in Jesus’ day. This is one reason Jesus speaks positively of the husband and wife as “joined,” like they are two oxen pulling a cart together. Side by side, equal. This lifts up women to the same level as men, and brings back ideas of equality that were present in “the very beginning” in Genesis.

As it turns out, Rome was a little better for women. In Roman culture, it was possible for a woman to divorce her husband. This is balanced, but Jesus rejects this too. He is not just putting men and women on equal footing, but encouraging peace between them, a peace that can require sacrifice from both sides.

How literally do we take this teaching? Is it an ideal goal or a divine law? Paul seems to think there are exceptions: “If the unbeliever separates, however, let him separate. The brother or sister is not bound in such cases; God has called you to peace.” (1 Cor 7: 15). We’re probably not going to solve that today. But I think it’s safe to say that for marriage to succeed as Jesus outlines it then it has to work by both spouses pulling together in unity, not with one lording it over the other.

Peace ~ Fr. Dan