27th Sunday of Ordinary Time/ Trinity 18.
Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife, the crowd asks Jesus, knowing perfectly well what the answer in Jewish Law would be, namely that in certain circumstances divorce was indeed permitted. But Jesus in a way that is typically his, then calls his audience and us too to a higher, more excellent way, and before we go on to ask ourselves about the implications of that challenge, we need to take a step further back, and ask what lies at the root of Jesus’ thinking.
And it is quite simply this: we are called to live the life of heaven here on earth, for that is what at heart all Jesus’ talk of the kingdom boils down to. We have no street maps of heaven but Jesus in his teaching gives us much to hope for, without giving a lot of specific detail, which we should not expect anyway. But clearly in heaven, all relationships are eternal – the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the relationship of the redeemed with their God. This undying commitment finds expression in this world in the covenant made between God and his people on Mount Sinai, and the New Covenant sealed by the blood of the Lamb on his Cross. But we are also called to mirror the permanence of this relationship on the human level as well, in friendship certainly, in our commitment to one another within the Body of the Church of course, but supremely in the marriage bond, where man and woman become one flesh. That is the ideal, and the church is right to set this in front of people, especially in the western world where, some have predicted, more than 50% of marriages will end in divorce (the latest available figure for the United Kingdom is 42%).
Relationships are not just a commodity to be used but lightly discarded. It may not be a popular view at a time when so much of our way of life is not simply under scrutiny, but under attack, but the wisdom of the ages, let alone Jesus Christ’s explicit teaching, shows that stable, committed family life is the rock on which society is built and flourishes. Sadly the wreckage of broken relationships is visible to all, not just in the pages of popular magazines and newspapers, but all around us. And too often it is children who suffer most in this situation.
But having said that, both as the Church and as individual Christians we have a tremendous task in front of us, both to affirm and commit to our own relationships, on all levels – friends, church, marriage and family – but also not to shun those who have tried and failed, and who often in consequence bear tremendous burdens of guilt and low esteem. Divorce is not the one unforgivable sin, which, sadly, some have seemed to suggest in the past. It is not without significance that many marriage liturgies refer to marriage as a covenant, for on the human level marriage reflects the unbreakable covenant between God and his people sealed on Mount Sinai.
Where a marriage is no longer sustainable, it is not a light matter, and few people regard it as such; neither are exploitation and self-centredness and all the other sins which can undermine and destroy relationships, even within marriage, and where the couple do not take the way of divorce. The challenge is in the first place to look at our own relationships and work to keep or make them healthy and non-exploitative, and next to be ready to help those who have tried and failed, knowing that there, but for the grace of God, go you and I.
Fr. Edward Bryant