"What God has united, man must not divide"
(Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16)
Introduction to Mass
Jesus surprises his followers in the gospel this Sunday by putting forward such high standards regarding marriage. Jesus sees human beings as being made in God's image and likeness, so that all forms of human love, including the love between husband and wife, are a reflection of the perfect, faithful and steadfast love which is the essence of God's nature. It's our vocation as God's creatures to express that love as completely as possible.
To begin Mass we think of all the times we've fallen short of the standard of God's love, especially with those we're closest to, and we ask God to forgive us and strengthen us.
The Law of Moses, which the Pharisees supported fanatically in all its pedantic detail, allowed for divorce. The regulations were weighted heavily in favour of the husband. The man could divorce his wife for just about any reason he liked. The only thing he was asked to do for the woman's benefit was to give her what they called a "writ of dismissal", so that at least she was free to marry someone else if she wanted to.
That was still the situation among the Jewish people at the time of Christ - although the prophets had spoken out pretty consistently against divorce for centuries beforehand.
Jesus, as we just heard, follows in their footsteps. Moses allowed for divorce, he says, because of the people's unteachability - their hardness of heart, their resistance to the truth about God's love, their lack of readiness to imitate it and live by it.
The divorce law was a compromise with human nature and human selfishness - especially, it seems, men's nature and men's selfishness. In large part, Jesus' defence of marriage was a defence of the woman's right to expect her husband to be faithful to her for the rest of her life, and not to divorce her as soon as he felt like it for some trivial reason.
The Pharisees, for their part, prided themselves on being the guardians of the tradition of Moses. But to defend his position, Jesus goes back further than Moses, to the first man and woman.
Marriage is permanent and exclusive, he says, because God intended it be like that from the beginning. "A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife. They are no longer two but one". And he finishes off with the words that we still use in the wedding ceremony: "what God has joined together let not man put asunder".
No one was more compassionate than Jesus was when people didn't come up to an absolutely perfect moral standard in any area of their lives, but on this occasion it's the basic principle he's concerned about. Without lifelong faithfulness love isn't the same love as God's love.
According to Christ, divine love and human love are of the same essence. It's a mistake to see them as different or separate. All the forms of human love - affection for friends, compassion for those who are suffering, the love that unites the members of a family, the forgiveness we manage to give, hopefully, to someone who has offended us - are all traces, or reflections, of God's divine love.
In the Bible, one of the most common images for this love of God's is marriage, the relationship between husband and wife. God's attitude to the human race is depicted in Scripture as that of a completely faithful and committed husband. His motives and behaviour aren't darkened by any thoughts of betrayal, being unfaithful, causing hurt.
But as in the Old Testament, and as in the time of Christ, this idea of love is in competition today with other versions. We all know for example, that even before they get married, many rich and famous individuals anticipate a separation later on and they plan their divorce arrangements in advance by way of a "pre-nuptual agreement".
Many people now, whose attitudes to the marriage partnership are not shaped by definite principles of their own, are influenced quite strongly by the destructive relationships portrayed in television soap-operas. Scriptwriters give the impression that they take an almost malicious pleasure in setting up marriages which are doomed from the start. Viewers know weeks ahead how things are going to turn out.
There's no need to exaggerate their influence, but in their own trivial way, these things set up their own example, and their own precedents. And the emphasis on emotional violence, spite, and elaborate schemes of revenge obviously runs counter to our Christian value of faithful, generous, uncalculating love.
So Christ's answer to the Pharisees' question about divorce isn't meant to be hard-hearted or legalistic. It's not meant just to make life difficult. It's a call to maturity, to self-knowledge and to sacrifice. We're not born with those qualities. They only come after a lot of mistakes and wrong turns which hopefully we learn from.
It goes without saying that in the journey we all make towards emotional and moral adulthood, which involves our relationships with other people at every level, marriage and family life is one area where we're liable to make serious mistakes - mistakes with consequences that can last for the rest of our lives.
This is certainly true when a married couple split up, especially when they've already had children. That situation, which is hardly uncommon now, can obviously be a cause, not only of feelings of bereavement and loss, but also long-lasting anger and the repeated opening of wounds.
We would be very wrong to interpret Jesus' teaching in today's gospel as shallow or lacking in understanding towards men and women in that predicament.
Jesus was well aware that human beings are often selfish, often take advantage of others in all sorts of ways, and that we often fall victim to the predatory designs of others. But his constant theme was it's never too late to change, never to late to reflect on our past behaviour, to un-learn selfish habits and start behaving thoughtfully and generously - lovingly - towards others. This is the essence of salvation.
No matter what awful things we've done - or whatever awful things have been done to us - there's never a point in our lives where we're cut off from God.
Men and women who have been brought by circumstances to make contact with God and to open themselves to God's influence, realise that they're not fated to remain either "users" or victims in their close relationships or in the patterns of their emotional lives.
Growth and spiritual development are always possible. God brings good out of evil if we allow him, and genuine contact with God changes us: it makes broken people whole and sinners holy. This is the reassurance the gospel message gives to men and women who have become separated or divorced - and many Christians who have done so know it from personal experience.
So this aspect of Jesus' teaching is a huge area and it's not possible to cover every angle in one sermon. He was talking about a number of things.
One, God's nature and the nature of God's love. Two, the rights of women in a culture that tended not to recognise them as equal with men. Lastly, the power of God's grace to heal us of our selfishness and immaturity and rescue us from all the wrongs and hurts that we tangle ourselves up in.