Today’s gospel isn’t a very easy one to talk about. “Divorce” is just one of those things that makes some of us uncomfortable. I’m sure most of us here know someone whose life has been touched by the experience of divorce, whether a parent, a brother or sister, a son or daughter, or perhaps a friend. Even in my classes, when this particular gospel passage has to be talked about and when marriage and divorce are discussed, you can tell people suddenly become uneasy.
After one of my theology classes at university a number of years ago, I remember talking to one of my students who was trying to make sense of the uneasiness that he noticed seemed to just fill the entire room. He said he was really surprised to discover how many of his friends and classmates came from families touched by divorce.
This Gospel passage in fact belongs to what are called the “hard sayings” of the New Testament. [Included among them for instance, is the command to cut off one’s hands if they lead us to sin, the reminder that one who wishes to follow him must "hate" his father and mother, brothers and sisters.] But that’s Jesus. He never shied away from talking about important things, even if they’re tough. And he never backed away from talking about the “hard stuff”, and sometimes even using very strong language if only to get an important point across.
This isn’t because he wanted to hurt or offend people, but because by talking about hard and uncomfortable things, he called their attention to important things they often forget.
"From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female," he tells us. “And the two shall become one flesh, so they are no longer two but one”.
Hidden beneath Jesus’ words on divorce in the gospel though, is an even more important teaching that is often overlooked. And that is the equal value and importance he gives to both parties in a marriage: husband and wife, man and woman.
While the Jews of that time valued marriage immensely, their rules on divorce were quite unbalanced and unfair. They always favored the man who sometimes simply had to write a short note dismissing his wife. Women couldn’t do that; and they could only leave their husbands if they became lepers.
There were in fact, two interpretations of the Law of Moses on divorce. One interpretation, taught by the followers of the Rabbi Shimmei, interpreted the law very strictly. Only an act of adultery by the wife gives the husband the right to divorce her. She may be the worst kind of woman there is, but unless she is caught in adultery, she may not be sent away.
The other interpretation was taught by followers of the Rabbi Hillel, who interpreted the law in a much looser way. A husband could dismiss his wife for the flimsiest of reasons. In fact some went as far as saying if the man was no longer satisfied with his wife and finds another woman more attractive, he could simply write her a note of divorce and dismiss her.
In both cases, the woman was always at the losing end: she was the one to be dismissed, never the husband.
And since it was the much looser interpretation of the law that prevailed, some husbands simply dismissed their wives at any moment and often for the slightest reason. Women, on the other hand—even if they were battered and abused—simply had to bear it.
Today’s gospel is therefore not only about Jesus’ tough teaching on divorce and the sanctity of marriage; it’s also about Jesus raising the dignity of women, and the right relationship between those who call themselves followers of Christ.
And so, beyond the teaching on divorce, beyond Jesus’ words that marriage is indissoluble, is an even more important teaching: man and woman are equals, partners who have the same dignity given to them by God.
Man and woman have to treat each other fairly, equally, respectfully. One isn’t superior to the other. Man and woman “are no longer two, but one flesh”.
Jesus in today’s gospel wasn’t simply telling married people to stick together, he was showing them how to stick together, how to make it through those rough patches every married couple, every person, goes through: equal love, equal respect, equal care. Equal in all things; it’s a partnership, a friendship.
And so St. Paul tells us: “In Christ there is no male or female, no gentile or Jew, no servant or free.” In Jesus we are all one. In the eyes of God, we are all equal; man and woman alike.