Reference: Mark 10:2-9
“Gospel” means “good news.” It is contrasted with Law, which condemns us because we so often break it, and therefore incur God’s wrath and the consequences of our own bad choices. In church, we often have this backwards. I had a friend who was a deacon. When he preached on the Gospel, he always began his sentence with “you must,” even “you must love.” It made the good news from Jesus become just so much more law. If I “must” love, it won’t be love. Because love comes from my free will, in response to the love I have freely received. To start with, God doesn’t love us because he must. He loves us because, amazingly, he chooses to. That is the heart of the good news.
But humans get Law and Gospel mixed up. Loving becomes one more legal obligation in many minds. The above passage from Mark is mostly a beautiful and profound statement of the seamless love of the three persons of the Trinity for each other as applied to human marriage. Yet many Christians extract from it, and a related passage (Matthew 5:31-32), the message that “Jesus forbids divorce,” or “Jesus forbids divorce except for the grounds of adultery.” The Gospel is fully converted to being the Law.
In fact, Jesus, as often the case, is radically re-interpreting the doctrine of marriage that the Pharisees have proclaimed. The latter followed Mosaic Law in permitting divorce. But most modern Pharisees have missed a major point. Divorce was permitted for men, not women. This was a system where the woman could be returned to her family the way you return purchased goods to the store when you aren’t satisfied with the product. In the ensuing discussion of matrimonial assets, the modern concept of dividing up the property is replaced by a negotiation about how much of the bride price can be refunded. Matrimonial assets stayed with the man, end of discussion. The ex-wife was left to depend on her family. If she no longer had family, she was simply destitute. Even if she did have family, she became a burden on them. This is why Jesus comments that “it was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law” (vs. 5).
He then patiently teaches, starting at the beginning, a concept strange, indeed radical, for his listeners, Pharisees and disciples alike. Marriage is the loving unity of a man and a woman, a love so complete that “the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one” (vs. 8). This is a drastic re-orientation of the concept.
First, marriage in Jesus’ theology is modeled on a profound love and not on a contract that the groom makes with the bride’s family. It is the divine love of the Trinity, which completely absorbs the other into itself. Marriage becomes a sub-category of theosis, the entrance of each of us into Christ in the perfect unity that can only be achieved by God’s love. Beyond romantic love, it is “agape,” the selfless giving of one to the other. Paul repeats the theology (Ephesians 5:21-33), expressing how the husband and wife are essentially to be one body, just as Christ and the Church are one body. If you do not grasp theosis, you will misunderstand this passage, seeing it as the Pharisees might, as a call for control and subordination. But Paul is speaking of love, the kind of sacrificial and unifying love Christ has, which loves so completely that there is no difference between love of self and love of your spouse.
Second, man and woman are equal in Jesus’ theology, in sharp contrast to the male dominance of the society around him. If the two are to become one flesh, the concept that it is the man who contracts the marriage and can end it at will is abolished. No longer can the woman be seen almost as the property of the man. Instead, they have become closer than partners.
Third, marriage is made sacramental, possible because the grace of God is expressed in and through it. For the Pharisees, marriage is a legal institution. For Jesus, it is grace. Thus, the theosis which God grants by grace in marriage should not be thwarted by humans. To put it in reverse, divorce for the Pharisees is a legal action cancelling a contract. For Jesus, it is the reversal of theosis, in which sacramental love is blocked. As such, divorce is always a sadness, the sin of disunity making the couple into two from one, the loss of love.
The modern world mostly sees it like the Pharisees, as a legal question. How do we answer the frequent question: “Does your church permit divorce?” Unfortunately, all too often, those who appear to speak for “the Church” are all too ready to answer with legal conditions: it is permitted on grounds of adultery, or mental illness, or abuse, or serious crime, or it can be annulled if it started on incorrect or fraudulent premises, it is permitted for the laity but not for the clergy, it is permitted but you can never remarry unless she/he dies. There are a hundred variations expounded by the legalists. Further, most in our Church see legal marriage as the definitive act, and legal divorce as its negative equivalent.
There is one word to describe all of that: WRONG.
It seems strange to say it, but Christians need to figure out that they are dealing with a sacrament here, not a legal contract. Christians may well register their marriage legally, indeed they should. But it is sacrament that causes it to be marriage. Two have become one in a sacramental theosis of love.
But, alas, we are sinners. Our love is not the perfect love of the Trinity. Father John Meyendorff (in “Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective”) notes, “As sacrament, marriage is not a magical act, but a gift of grace. The partners, being humans, may have made a mistake in soliciting the grace of marriage when they were not ready for it; or they may prove to be unable to make this grace fructify….Ultimately, sin can destroy marriage.” The result, he says, is that “the Church, therefore, neither ‘recognized’ divorce nor ‘gave’ it…but the Church never failed in giving to sinners a new chance.”
The first challenge is to adjust the teaching of the Church to conform to the theology of Jesus. Marriage is sacramental, weddings are intended to be in the context of the Eucharistic community (as they uniformly were for the first millennium of Christianity). That context is separate from any civic or legal one. It is about love, union and theosis. We very badly need to inform those getting married of the absolutely wonderful vision of the unity they are entering. It wouldn’t hurt to mention it to the already married, either, most of whom were not well informed, and often suffer from the lack. In a sinful world, it can all go wrong sometimes. When it does, it is not accomplished by a legal proceeding but by the splintering of the unity of love and grace. It is not best dealt with by condemnation and punishment, let alone by trying to find the “guilty” party, but by the kind of patient love shown by Jesus.
Such splintering is less likely to happen if we share the vision of Jesus, a sacramental, gracious, unifying, sacrificial selfless love which keeps flowing, through the tough and sinful times and the good and healing times, towards the completion of the theosis which awaits us.