Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for Twenty Seventh Sunday (4 October 2015)

Gospel for Twenty Seventh Sunday (4 October 2015)

Some Pharisees came, and to test him 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.” (Mark 10:2-12 – NRSVCE)

Introductory notes

The teaching about divorce is also found in Matthew 19:1-9. The story of Jesus with the little children is found in Matthew 19:13–15 and Luke 18.15–17.

The issue of the grounds for divorce was one of significant debate among the Pharisees at this time.

The Greek word – here translated as “divorce” – is apolysai (ἀπολῦσαι). It is more commonly translated as “release” or “set free”. However, in the context of marriage it is normally translated as “divorce”.

The reference to the Law of Moses is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4: “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession.”

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is the only passage in Torah that deals with divorce. So when Jesus says to the Pharisees: “What did Moses command you?” The answer is: “Moses actually gives no command about divorce”. One scholar writes: “Rather, in Deut 24:1–4 (the only passage in the Torah that deals with divorce) the possibility of divorce is taken for granted. What is at issue there is the case of a man who divorces his wife and wants to remarry her after she has been married to some other man and divorced by him. According to Deut 24:4 the first husband is not allowed to take her again as his wife. In the Torah and elsewhere in the Bible (even in the case of Joseph and Mary in Matt 1:19) it is assumed that divorce is the husband’s prerogative.” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, D. J., The Gospel of Mark, The Liturgical Press, 2002, 293.) The Pharisees are put on the defensive and say “Moses allowed ….”

Clearly the cultural and historical context implied here is very different from our own. That context pertained however in Jesus’ day. One scholar writes: “Marriage and divorce were in Jesus’ day, as they are in ours, matters of great interest and controversy. In ancient Judaism, marriage was not regarded as a union of equals for the mutual benefit of both husband and wife but rather as an institution whose chief purpose was the establishment and continuance of the family and whose chief enemy was childlessness. Mark’s placement of Jesus’ teaching on marriage at the beginning of this section signals the importance of the marital union in the kingdom of God. In Judaism the foremost responsibility of an observant Jewish male was knowledge and mastery of the Torah, under which he was expected to order the necessities of life, among them marriage. Jesus, however, teaches that marriage is not a male-dominated institution but a new creation of God, to which both husband and wife are equally responsible to practice discipleship in lifelong obedience.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Eerdmans, 2002, 297-98.)

Jesus says that Moses’ allowance was in view of the “hardness of heart” of the people and not what God had intended from the beginning. He cites Genesis 1:27 (and 5:2) and 2:24.

It is worth noting that this text about marriage and divorce is followed immediately by the text on Jesus receiving and blessing the little children – see Mark 10:13-16. See also Matthew 19:13–15 and Luke 18.15–17.


I am not sure if it was planned, but the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod on the Family – follow up to the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Bishops on the Family (2014) – begins on this Sunday when Mark 10:2-12 (or 10:2-16) is proclaimed.

The teaching of Jesus is more about a vision for marriage than a law about divorce. He is reminding his listeners about the way things were intended from the beginning. We should not attempt to avoind this fundamental structure of the way things are.

However, we should not assume there is a rigid law intended here, that the vision of Jesus must be enforced as lkaw, come what may. How often, in fact, is the vision of Jesus – the reality of the Kingdom –  left precisle as that, a vision? And that is as it should be. In the human situation we must make allowances. More often than not it is the application of mercy and compassion that is required, rather than the enforcement of law. This cannot be left to the individual to simply “do as they think/feel”, it must become the culture of the Church. This is one good reason for having gatherings like the General Assembly that is beginning in Rome on October 4.

In 1972 Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) published an essay entitled “On the Question of the Indissolubility of Marriage”. He began that essay as follows:

“The attempt to make a dogmatic statement in the question of the indissolubility of marriage, as in all problems of dogmatic theology, can succeed only by looking at the entirety of the Church’s tradition, striving to recognize its driving factors, to explain its tensions, and thereby to arrive at a distinction between primary and secondary tradition, which can at the same time establish criteria for further development.” (Click here for complete essay.)

Ratzinger summarizes his thoughts at the end of the essay as follows:

“The result may be summarized in two theses.

“1. The marriage of baptized persons is indissoluble. This is a clear and unambiguous directive of the faith of the Church of all centuries, a faith nourishing itself from the Scriptures. It is a categorical directive, that is not at the disposal of the Church, but is given to the Church to witness and to realize; it would be irresponsible to give the impression that anything on this point could be changed. The “yes” of marriage in the Church participates in that definitiveness that in the definitive decision of God for man at the same time has become visible as human possibility. It continues the “decisive decision” of God for man in the decisive decision of man for man. Marriage is one of those fundamental decisions of human existence that can only be made completely or not at all, precisely because therein man as a whole is involved, as his very self, unto that depth where he, touched by Christ, transformed, is taken into his “I” opened on the cross and open for us all. This is what is meant when we call marriage a “sacrament”.

“Marriage does not remain in the “law”, but is incorporated into the Gospel as the reality of the decisive decision, and is structured by this decision: as Christian. But this means that two fundamental tendencies of modern thought prove to be just at this point incompatible with the Christian faith, or that marriage is exactly the point where fundamental anthropological decisions become concrete and have to be determined one way or the other. First, the reduction of being to consciousness, in which only that which is present in a man’s consciousness is what is truly valid for him (which practically means a throwback to the pre-Christian-Roman consent theory: if the consent ceases to exist, says this theory, then the marriage has ceased to exist). Theories such as these, that a marriage can be just dead and so no longer exist, are forms of this Phenomenologism, which reduces man to his consciousness, thus concealing from him just that depth that faith wants to open up to him.

“Besides that – in much the same sense as what has just been said – is the reduction of being to time, which knows only the sequence of becoming and loses what is beyond it, the constancy of being. In contrast to this sale of man to “Chronos,” to the changing gods of the moment and to immediacy stands “Pistis” as fidelity, which in trusting [or in marrying: im Trauen] keeps man for the abiding and thus breaks open the circle of the recurring, gives man the possibility of growth, of going ahead, which has fidelity as its condition …

“2. The Church is the Church of the New Covenant, but it lives in a world in which the “hardness of heart” (Mat 19:8) of the Old Covenant remains unchanged. It cannot stop preaching the faith of the New Covenant, but it must often enough begin its concrete life a bit below the threshold of the scriptural word. Thus it can in clear emergency situations allow limited exceptions in order to avoid worse things. Criteria of such action must be: an act “against what is written,” is limited in that it may not call into question the fundamental form, the form from which the Church lives. It is therefore bound to the character of exemption and of help in urgent need – as the transitional missionary situation was, but also the real emergency situation of the Church union.

“Thereby arises, however, the practical question, whether we can name such an emergency situation in the present-day church and describe an exception that satisfies these criteria. I would like to try, with all necessary caution, to formulate a concrete proposal that seems to me to lie within this scope. Where a first marriage broke up a long time ago and in a mutually irreparable way, and where, conversely, a marriage consequently entered into has proven itself over a longer period as a moral reality and has been filled with the spirit of the faith, especially in the education of the children (so that the destruction of this second marriage would destroy a moral greatness and cause moral harm), the possibility should be granted, in a non-judicial way, based on the testimony of the pastor and church members, for the admission to Communion of those who live in such a second marriage. Such an arrangement seems to me to be for two reasons in accord with the tradition:

a) We must emphatically recall the room for discretion that is built into every annulment process. This discretion and the inequities that inevitably come from the educational situation of the affected parties and from their financial possibilities should warn against the idea that justice can in this way be flawlessly satisfied. Moreover, many things are simply not subject to legal judgment and are nonetheless real. The procedural affair must necessarily limit itself to the legally provable, but can for that very reason pass over crucial facts. Above all, formal criteria (formal errors or conscious omission of ecclesiastical form) thereby receive a preponderance that leads to injustices. Overall, the transferal of the question to the act establishing the marriage is indeed legally unavoidable, but still a narrowing of the problem that cannot fully do justice to the nature of human action. The annulment process provides a concrete set of criteria to determine that the standards of marriage among believers are not applicable to a particular marriage. But it does not exhaust the problem and therefore cannot claim that strict exclusivity that had to be attributed to it under the reign of a certain form of thought.

b) The requirement that a second marriage have proven itself over a long time as a moral greatness and have been lived in the spirit of faith in fact corresponds to that type of forbearance that is palpable in Basil, where after a long penance Communion is granted to the “Digamus” (= the one living in a second marriage) without terminating the second marriage: in trust in the mercy of God, who does not leave the penance unanswered. If in the second marriage moral obligations to the children, to the family, and so also to the woman have arisen, and no similar commitments from the first marriage exist, and if thus for moral reasons the abandonment of the second marriage is inadmissible, and on the other hand practically speaking abstinence presents no real possibility (magnorum est, says Gregory II), the opening up of community in Communion after a period of probation appears to be no less than just and to be fully in line with the Church’s tradition: The granting of communio cannot here depend on an act that is either immoral or practically speaking impossible.

The distinction attempted with the mutual relatedness of thesis 1 and 2 seems to be in accordance with the caution of Trent, although as a practical rule it goes beyond it: the anathema against a teaching that wants to make the Church’s fundamental form an error or at least a custom that should be overcome, remains in full vigor. Marriage is a sacramentum, it stands in the irrevocable fundamental form of the decisive decision. But this does not mean that the Communion community of the church does not also encompass those people who accept this teaching and this life principle, but are in a special predicament, in which they especially need the full communion with the Body of Christ. The Church’s faith will also thus remain a sign of contradiction: That is essential to it, and precisely by this fact it knows that it is following the Lord, who foretold to his disciples that they should not expect to be above the master, who was rejected by the pious and by the liberals, by Jews and by Gentiles.

What will be the outcome of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Bishops? I expect there will be no change to the doctrinal substance of Church teaching on marriage-divorce-remarriage or homsexuality. However, there will be vigorous debate, opinions will vary and those variations will be known to the world. Under this Pope we will avoid the destructive process whereby all disagreement is kept under wraps and a faux unity is represented tot he world. This will in turn give further impetus to the very serious doubts about current Church teaching and practice on these vital issues. The debate will continue long after the General Assembly of the Synod. At the heart of this situation – which will, I believe, be healthily very messy for a long time to come – is the ineradicable tension between doctrine and pastoral practice. For many generations in the Catholic Church the emphasis has been heavily on the former – doctrine and law. Pope Francis is redressing the balance and that is bound to have effects – perhaps profound effects – on the way we understand the teachings of Jesus and articulate doctrine and law.