Concession not a command – Friday, 19th week in ordinary time- Matthew 19: 3-12
With His teaching on community ethics now done and dusted, Jesus leaves His ‘headquarters’ in Galilee and heads south to Judea. This incident in today’s Gospel takes place several months prior to His final trip to Jerusalem, where He will be crucified.
Having already set in motion the plan to kill Jesus, the Pharisees are now stacking up evidence to use against Him. They have come to ‘test’ Him. Make no mistake, they are not testing His ‘knowledge’ but trying to drive a wedge into the growing number of His disciples with the content of His answer.
So what’s so deadly about this contentious question? The question thrown at Jesus is about legality; can one legally divorce one’s wife for any cause? This was a catch twenty two; damned if you do answer and damned if you don’t, for this question already had a Jewish community divided down the middle. At the heart of this issue were two rabbinic schools of thought. The school of Hillel held that divorce could be granted over bad cooking or because of the wife leaving her head uncovered and to say nothing of the ‘must happen’, inevitable; a fight with the in-laws.
The school of Shammai, however, held that divorce could be granted only in the case of moral impurity such as adultery. We have no idea which school of thought was behind the question posed to Jesus but we can be sure of this: He understood the implications of even appearing to take any particular side.
Jesus was not here to take sides but to go back to the truth. In answering the Pharisees, He passes a snide remark at His detractors to expose their hypocrisy. If this answer should be known to anyone, it should most certainly begin with these learned Pharisees who seem to ‘have not read’ the scriptures.
Jesus takes the discussion to where it all began; the Garden of Eden. He takes a step back in time, even before the matter found reference in Deuteronomy 24. For Jesus the bigger picture begins with what God ordained. Marriage is His idea, not ours and so we have no business to alter, delete, subtract or alienate.
Interestingly, Jesus is doing some serious course correction. While the issue in question seem to be divorce, the real issue lies with the understanding of marriage. That is why Jesus re-visits the first human marriage.
Well that should have settled things! Round one resulted in a ‘mere’ bloody nose and the Pharisees could have beaten a hasty retreat; but they did not. The Pharisees certainly did not want to give up the match. They seemed to think that they had a few more punches to pull and that came in the form of quoting their legal superstar, Moses. So then, did the great patriarch Moses get it all wrong when he ‘permitted a certificate of divorce’?
For Jesus this question posed no challenge. The Pharisees seemed to have missed out something very crucial. And here in lies the answer; they had turned a concession given by Moses, to be lived as a command. Moses had never overturned the fundamental command of God and neither had God changed His mind on the matter.
Perhaps the thoughts that run in our minds are the same as those of the disciples (verse 10); “if such is the case, it is better not to marry”. The disciples, like us, speak from the human experience of the difficulties faced in marriages. Does getting married make any sense at all?
So let’s understand the point being made. Marriage is not some social obligation that we commit ourselves to. It requires discernment, for not everyone can live its challenges. Having said that, we must accept, that what’s difficult is not impossible!
We might think to ourselves that Jesus could have backed off just a wee bit and adjusted to our human frailty. For Jesus, the heart of this discussion is not divorce as much as it is about marriage. God did not think divorce; He just worked on the rule of engagement in a marriage. So it’s time we give marriage the respectful thought that it deserves.
It takes a priest eight years to discern his vocation while he studies. A seminarian is not in a seminary merely to learn the rubrics or cram one’s head with earthly knowledge. His fundamental task is discernment. Weigh this thought in well; if it takes eight years of discernment for the priesthood do we have similar mechanisms for the discernment of marriage?
Fr Warner D’Souza