A New Law For New Life
Friday, June 10, 2022
by Fr. David M. Knight
Reflection on Mark 10:1-12
Jesus cannot be accused of remaining abstract. Having established that the Good News is greater than anything humans could conceive of, both in what it promises and in what it demands — and having shown himself transfigured as the source of it — he goes on to show how the Good News transfigures two of the most basic values in human life: sexual love and (Mark 10:21) property ownership (see Monday, Eighth Week).
Some Pharisees introduce the first issue by asking what Jesus thinks about divorce. Knowing their legalistic mentality, Jesus asks, “What did Moses command you?” They answer, “Moses permitted divorce.” Jesus replies, “He wrote that commandment for you because of your hardness of heart.” Then he goes on to explain what marriage is in God’s eyes: “The two become one flesh. They are no longer two, but one flesh. So what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus didn’t get into a discussion about divorce under the Old Law. He goes to a different level and explains the ideal of sacramental marriage as God sees it, and points out that—on the plane of his New Law, where words take on a higher meaning—to divorce a wife just to marry another is like adultery. But before we presume that “adultery” means the same thing every time it is used in the Bible, we need to consult the Scripture scholars. In our ordinary speech, there is a difference between the clear adultery of having an uncommitted affair with a married person and the less clear “adultery” of entering into an official, if non-sacramental, second marriage with a divorced person, intending to sustain the new relationship “till death do us part.” How was Jesus using the word when he applied it to those who remarried?
If we take Jesus literally when he says, “Whoever divorces his wife… and marries another commits adultery,” we have to take him literally when he says in Matthew 19:9 and 24, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”—that is, impossible. The inescapable literal conclusion would be that we have to deny Communion to everyone who is rich.
Divorce is not part of God’s plan; it goes against the way things are supposed to be — something keenly felt by every person who has suffered through the experience of one. This prompted the great moral theologian Father Bernard Häring to write: “Personally, I would be ashamed of myself if I felt even the slightest temptation to judge divorced and remarried people as ‘living objectively in a state of grave sin’ after they have suffered so much pain and humiliation in the total breakdown of their first marriage” (Priesthood Imperiled, pp. 24, 42).
Jesus is not making a precise law. He is holding up an ideal. But in her pastoral policy the Church doesn’t have that option. She has to translate ideals into practical laws to keep the community united. Where Jesus just speaks of “divorce,” Canon Law specialists will spell out precisely “after a ratified and consummated sacramental marriage between two baptized persons.” And they will specify the legal consequences of entering into another marriage not recognized by Church law. Jesus isn’t speaking like this.
Church law allows divorce and remarriage in certain cases and for the sake of a higher good: for example, the conversion of one of the parties. And laws have changed over the years (see the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, 1990; Code of Canon Law, 1141-1150; and Google “Pauline, Petrine Privilege”). Jesus’ focus was not on crafting a law, but on presenting marriage as God envisions and desires it. He is teaching us how to “be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). To be authentic Christians, this is the kind of marriage we have to believe in. Whether we are always able to live up to it in practice is important, but most important is our heart’s sincere desire to try, and never to be comfortable with less.
Initiative: Give God’s life: Clarify why, as an ideal, Church teaching on marriage inspires you.
Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry