3 October 2021
I have to make a confession. Every time I have to preach on this Gospel, I get a bit nervous because I know that it is not always easy to say the right thing and be faithful to Gospel. The question of divorce is one every church, every member of clergy, has to think about at some time today, especially in the Western world. Everybody knows someone who is going through, or has just gone through, the breakup of a marriage. We may have friends and families who have gone through the painful and traumatic experience of separation and divorce. Just hearing the experience of people close to us, it reminds us how difficult is for a couple to admit that their marriage is over, and they will have to rethink and redo their lives separately, which in many cases it means freeing themselves from a relationship that was intoxicating them. I know many people who flourished after divorce, and some others who got into depression because of divorce. Of one thing I’m certain, this is a traumatic and hurtful experience.
When you read this Gospel in a Roman Catholic context, it seems crystal clear to the hierarchy that divorce is not just wrong, but impossible, and this passage of Mark’s Gospel would confirm the doctrine that has been taught for centuries in the Roman Catholic Church. However, when we look at the different denominations we are very far from being unanimous on this matter. For instance Evangelical Conservatives who agree on some issue with the Roman Catholic church, will strongly reject its doctrine on marriage and contraception. The Church of England made its journey toward a more compassionate understanding of the difficulties of broken marriages allowing remarriage under certain conditions and essentially taking a more pastoral approach to the matter.
Now reflecting on divorce from a legalistic point of view, would be very misleading. Mark’s Gospel would be misinterpreted if we had read Jesus’ response to the Pharisees as a reaffirmation of a lawful principle solidly rooted in the Scriptures tout court. Maybe we need to contextualise Jesus’ words. We certainly remember that a similar incident happened to the last great prophet, John the Baptist. Why did John get put in prison, and finally loose his head? For criticizing Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife. Jesus knows that and immediately spots the trap a mile off. He does not want to get muddled in politics, and in an admirable response to the Pharisees refers the matter back to the Scriptures avoiding any sort of political connection to the king, and therefore spoiling their attempt to accuse him of treason. With his response in the public debate with the pharisees he doesn’t loose his integrity neither does he in private with his disciples.
Personally I think that Jesus’ public discussion is extraordinarily interesting. According to the Pharisees, Moses commanded divorce, but Jesus rejects their interpretation of the mosaic law and, instead, says that Moses allowed it and designed strict procedures for it to protect the vulnerable woman from exploitation. Previously, women would have been abandoned and thrown out of the house like useless objects. Jesus prefers to talk about permission given to men to divorce their women humanly and under certain conditions, and at the same time wishes to reaffirm that the original meaning of marriage has to be found in Genesis, which expresses God’s original intention. In a non-idealistic but certainly humane way, Jesus affirms the importance of marriage.
That said I recall Nino Manfredi, a famous Italian comedian, saying in the ’60 -when there was a huge Catholic campaign for the abolition of the law on divorce-: ‘I’m in favour of the indissolubility of the successful marriage and against the indissolubility of the failed marriage, because divorce is better than ongoing cheating or domestic violence or even murder.’ Interestingly, the comedian was a happily married man with two children so his opinion was above any suspicion.
Now nobody likes to be called cruel, unfeeling, unforgiving and exclusive, and being called names while affirming the importance and value of marriage for life. That said, affirming its value and meaning for our society and for the church, it does not mean undermining the drama and tragedy of broken relationships and, the ‘Church of England also recognizes that some marriages sadly do fail and, if this should happen, it seeks to be available for all involved.’
At the same time, we don’t have to forget that the story does not end with the debate on divorce, but with people bringing children to Jesus for him to touch them. In fact, this finale is doorway to a new perspective for our spiritual journey and Christian life.
Interestingly, the disciples want to send them away because they are distracting Jesus from more important matters, but Jesus tells them off.
‘Let the children come to me! Don’t stop them! The kingdom of God belong to people like that’, he says. Fascinating! With this he is forcefully establishing two fundamental principles of the Christian faith: inclusivity and hospitality. And he goes even further by making the children the symbol of this loving community he wishes to see realised among his disciples: a community that puts the most vulnerable ones at the centre of its ministry. We all know that marriage break-ups can devastate children, even grown-up children, with long lasting ill effects, and it is also true that victims of broken marriages, especially women, are vulnerable ones we should look after and empower. Jesus does not seem to preferring ones against the others, but rather showing us the need to be deeply humane and Christian at the same time. The challenge is set before us every time a friend, a family member, a neighbour goes through the painful and dramatic experience of divorce. The Gospel does not tell us to make it a matter of principle to defend no matter what, but rather to find creative ways of loving and caring firstly and foremost for the most vulnerable ones.