Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
On the very first page of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis (1:27) there is a beautiful lyrical description of the creation of man and woman: “God made human beings in his own image, in his own image he created them; male and female he created them.” (see also 5:2) ‘Adam’ is not a name like James or John; it means ‘the creature made of dust (the word for which is ‘adamah’ in Hebrew). In the first three chapters of Genesis, ‘Adam’ means man and woman equally. Obviously, then, man and woman are on an equal footing and both are equally images of God.
All this, of course, is before the Fall! After the Fall, all is changed. Humans are seen as being under a curse, and they suffer differently for it. To the man, God said, “‘Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return'” (Genesis 3:17-19). To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you'” (Genesis 3:16).
Not great wedding presents! Nothing like “unconditional positive regard” (someone’s definition of love) as they go out into the world to make a living. Scholars regard this Genesis story as a reflection of actual conditions in the ancient Near East at the time that Genesis was written. In particular, in reflects the position of women in society at that time. A woman was subject first to her father, and then on her marriage she became subject to her husband. She was subject to them because she was their property. We used to be told that the Ninth Commandment was against entertaining sexual thoughts, and it was quoted only in part: “Thou shalt not cover thy neighbour’s wife.” But it was actually about property, as is clear when you read the full verse: “You shall you covet your neighbour’s wife, you shall not set your heart on his house, his field, his servant – man or woman – his ox, his donkey or anything that is his” (Deuteronomy 5:21).
Divorce was very easily obtained in the time of Jesus. Some Rabbis taught that if a woman ruined a meal or spoke badly about her in-laws her husband could divorce her; some even said that if a man spotted a woman who was more beautiful than his wife he could divorce his wife.
All this was the background to the Pharisees’ question to Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Instead of going into a legal haggle with them about the law of Moses, Jesus harked back to the original state of innocence (before the Genesis story of the expulsion from Eden). He affirmed the original state over the corrupted one; he stated God’s idea of man, woman, and marriage. The original state was the companionship of equals, not ownership by the man; it was love, not domination and subjection.
Today, wherever husbands and wives respect and love each other, refusing to regard each other as property – disposable or not – the mind of Christ is made visible and human beings are living in a state of original innocence instead of original sin.