The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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September 29, 2000 Issue
Fr. Ver Bust's Column:
"Explaining the Gospel"

Fr. Richard Ver Bust
Fr. Richard Ver Bust

Marriage is a total and lasting union

God had intended that the couple be united in marriage as 'one flesh'

October 8, Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

By Fr. Richard Ver Bust

It is strange to think that 2,000 years ago people were talking about divorce and whether it was allowed and on what basis. Things really haven't changed that much. In today's Gospel reading, Mark, in the short version, presents two scenes in which this question is posed. Jesus' teaching, radical for his time still challenges us today.

In the first scene, the Pharisees approach Jesus and ask him the key question, "Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?" They were not really asking him whether divorce was itself lawful for they believed it was permissible by the Mosaic Law, they were testing him. Jesus then challenges them by asking what Moses had commanded.

In Deuteronomy 24:1-4 it is taken for granted that divorce was allowed. It seemed to only deal with the procedures when a husband had decided to divorce his wife. The grounds for a divorce there are quite vague, simply "some indecency in her." The meaning of this indecency led to debates among the rabbis. There were some who wanted a serious reason and others who thought that any excuse might do. Regardless, divorce did not involve any court proceedings. The husband simply wrote out a statement that said, "I release and divorce my wife this day." Not even irreconcilable differences were needed.

Jesus accepts teaching in Deuteronomy but suggests that this was not God's original plan but only allowed because of human weakness. So he was not denying the authority of Moses but used another biblical passage to show that was not really God's intent for marriage. He quotes the Book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve to point out that in creating human beings, God had intended that the couple be so united that one could speak of "one flesh." This unity is so strong that it could not be dissolved. The ideal then is a total and lasting union.

The Pharisees, in their test, were trying to see if Jesus would disagree with Moses and the Mosaic Law. Jesus did not agree with those rabbis who felt only adultery allowed divorce and also disagreed with those who suggested more liberal reasons. Jesus pointed to the very ideal that the story of creation presents as being his position.

In the second scene we find Jesus and his disciples in a house where they continued the discussion. Now it was no longer a test but one in which the disciples could ask further questions. And now Jesus challenges the whole patriarchal system. Remember in our quote from Deuteronomy that it was only a husband who could initiate a divorce. Jesus now says that a man who divorces and remarries commits adultery but also a woman who divorces and remarries also commits adultery. It is hard to tell whether Jesus added this himself. Some scholars believe that Mark added this point because in his church based in Rome, by Roman law, women could also divorce their husbands. There are other scholars who think that they can find examples in Jewish circles in which this happened too.

Mark certainly believed that Jesus wanted to put both partners in marriage on the same level and be bound by the same requirements. Jesus wanted to highlight the sanctity of marriage and the unity that a couple would consummate. Later Paul will compare marriage to the unity between Christ and his church. This is a difficult challenge for Christ's disciples.

(Fr. Ver Bust is professor emeritus in religious studies at St. Norbert College, De Pere.)

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