In today’s Gospel Our Lord teaches us about marriage in response to some sticky questions posed by the Pharisees about divorce in order to trip him up. Marriage was a complex issue back then, and in today’s society it has not grown any easier. This is one of the few Gospel passages where Our Lord sees the need to correct an interpretation that Mosaic law made; usually Our Lord exhorts a more profound observance of the Law, not a correction to it. He teaches in today’s Gospel that marriage is something established between a man and a woman, but it is also bond forged by God. As a bond forged by God the married man and woman also receive spiritual help in remaining faithful to each other. The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were debating whether divorce was allowed for either a serious reason or a less serious reasons, as two Rabbinical schools at the time were contending, trying to interpret Mosaic law’s concession of divorce in some cases.* Jesus responded that neither school was correct: divorce was not part of God’s plan “from the beginning.”
Jesus qualifies this by speaking of an exception for the marriage being “unlawful.” A lot of ink has been spilt regarding the meaning of this phrase, especially since the more literal translation of the expression is “fornication” or “sexual immorality,” so it gives the impression that divorce would be permitted in cases of adultery. Given what Our Lord had just said, it’s unlikely this is what he would have meant. “Unlawful” here could refer to a union in marriage that would be incestuous (relatives, such as cousins, marrying each other), and therefore they shouldn’t have been married due to consanguinity. Catholic teaching on this clause is that a faithful spouse can separate from an unfaithful one who has fallen into sexual immorality: it refers to separation, where the marriage bond continues but the spouses live apart, as opposed to dissolving the marriage bond through divorce.*
Let’s pray today for all marriages, for those spouses who are suffering from a separation, and that marriages experiencing difficulty may receive the grace, counseling, and insight they need in order to resolve their differences and be faithful to the bond God has forged between them until death do them part.
Readings: Joshua 24:1–13; Psalm 136:1–3, 16–18, 21–22, 24; Matthew 19:3–12.
* See Jones, A. (1953). “The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to St Matthew” in B. Orchard & E. F. Sutcliffe (Eds.), A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. Toronto;New York;Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, p. 885.