I see that Pope Francis has come up against Jesus’ annoying habit of being definite. I refer of course to the Synod of bishops in which Francis urged compassion in dealing with remarried divorcees but found himself on the wrong end of quotations from the teaching of Jesus. For it is notorious that Jesus did not advocate something vague like compassion on divorced people but said that they were committing adultery if they remarried. It seemed to some bishops that approving adultery could hardly be viewed as compassion. It could never be compassionate to lead a person into something wrong or to excuse something wrong that they had done. The problem is that compassion requires us to help a person towards what is right, which means we have to have a clear view of right and wrong.
In this case, Christian believers should have a good look at Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce.
The fullest version of this teaching is found in Mark 10 verses 1-12; although briefer versions are found in Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18. Here’s the Mark:
10 He left that place and went to the region of Judea and[a] beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.
2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3 He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4 They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5 But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[b] 8 and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
Of course we know that the whole story of Jesus was handed on by the first Christian communities and their teachers, not to mention the gospel writers themselves who used what they were given with some freedom. We cannot be sure in any instance that we have got the exact words of Jesus, but we can be reasonably sure that we are given the message of Jesus as understood by the writer. One device of the writers is to give the core of Jesus’ teaching in the context of an incident and to add their interpretation of it it as “Jesus’ explanation to his disciples.” This device allowed for changes and additions to what was the agreed “word of the Lord.” In this case the words about a woman divorcing her husband have been added, to meet the needs of people living under Roman Civil Law, which unlike Jewish law allowed women to divorce husbands. There is a sense here that the teaching is being used as community law and therefore has to be expanded to apply to gentile society.
The core of the teaching however is pretty plain. Moses in Jesus’ view, had moved away from the real intention of God in allowing men to divorce their wives with a writ of divorce, because otherwise they would simply have thrown them out. The existence of divorce customs according to Jesus is a sop to the hard – heartedness of men, in a society where women were materially dependent on their husbands.
Jesus in this instance acts like a radical rabbi, quoting one piece of scripture against another and indicating that only one represents the original intention of the creator God. For Jesus the Genesis scripture that makes men and women the equal creation of God and the equal bearers of his likeness also shows the sexual partnership of male and female as a fundamental unity in the eyes of God. According to Jesus, this unity should not be torn apart in divorce. Indeed, in God’s eyes the unity still exists after divorce making any new sexual partnership into adultery. The intention of God according to Jesus is that the sexual relationship of man and woman should be exclusive and lifelong.
This teaching is so bold, fresh and awkward that it’s very likely to have come from Jesus. But as it became the basis of community law in the developing churches, other elements were added. In Matthew’s version, there is an exception made in the case of a wife’s infidelity. Paul has to deal with cases where believers wanted to divorce their unbelieving spouses. Eventually the church developed disciplines which included excommunicating those who ignored the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.
We should try to distinguish the teaching of Jesus from the practice of the church.
He teaches that as against all the hard- heartedness of men in a patriarchal society. God intends that the sexual partnership of men and women should be exclusive and lifelong. We do not know what Jesus thought about homosexual relationships if he knew of any, or indeed about the sexual behaviour of young unmarried men and women. We do know that he saw a purpose of the creator fulfilled in marriage – “be fruitful and multiply”- and the unity of husband and wife as an image of the “oneness” of God. The mutual faithfulness of husband and wife mirrors the faithfulness of God to his/her own nature and to the creation. It is one of things God saw as ‘good’ that is, good for his creatures.
I realise that non-believers will find all this peculiar and irrelevant. Surely we don’t need to go to some obscure Jewish text for an understanding of marriage, or even to Jesus, a man who lived in a very different sort of society from ours, a long time ago. My own view is that even agnostics and atheists can benefit from Jesus’ teaching, but certainly those who have chosen to follow Jesus, should take his teaching very seriously indeed.
My own Church of Scotland has taken the view that although we should uphold lifelong faithful marriage as the intention of God, and the intention of couples when they marry, we should recognise that people make mistakes, that one or both partners may cruel and damaging to the other, or they may separate completely, and that therefore divorce happens. The church’s pastoral task is to support those marriages which can be rebuilt, and to support the separated partners if the marriage has broken down completely. The church also recognises and supports the new marriages of people who have been divorced, as well the loneliness of those who believe they should not marry again. Above all, however the church celebrates faithful sexual partnerships as a a profound joy and fulfilment of human potential.
In other words my church affirms an intention of God but accepts that even God can’t always get what he wants. When people fail to live up to God’s intention, we should help them cope with that failure without condemnation, and encourage them to try again if they want to do so. But we should not abandon the teaching of Jesus with its blunt assertion that sexual faithfulness is what we are made for. Compassion should require us to apply that teaching in our own relationships, and to help others to do so.
No one is forced to follow the way of Jesus, but those who so choose should be aware that by the standards of liberal democracy, they’re dealing with an extremist.