Column: Jesus sidesteps critics with teaching on divorce

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Politics often involves trying to force your opponent to take a stance that will prove unpopular with a segment of the population.

Conversely, politics also involves avoiding taking sides, if at all possible. Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 10:2-16, provides a good example of how this can play out.

When the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce, it is possible that they were thinking about the controversy raging at the time in Jewish society. That controversy did not revolve around the question of whether or not divorce was permissible. Rather, it asked what grounds could be considered in making the case for a divorce.

One school of thought argued that divorce was permissible for the most trivial of reasons — for example, if the wife burned supper one evening. The other school of thought argued instead that divorce could be permissible only for extremely serious reasons, such as adultery or barrenness.

It is possible that the Pharisees that approached Jesus had these two possibilities in mind. They wanted Jesus to take sides. That way, the advocates of the other side would consider Jesus their opponent. But Jesus declines to walk into the Pharisees’ trap. Instead of choosing one of the two current alternatives, Jesus presents a third, more radical alternative. In effect, he undercuts their argument.

Jesus’ answer claims that there is no good grounds for divorce. But notice, in making that daring claim, Jesus does not give an arbitrary answer. He refers to Scripture: “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” (Gn 1:27; 2:24).

In other words, Jesus is pointing out that human beings are created in order to live together in a permanent union. Marriage is based on human nature. While it is true that some go against that nature by obtaining a divorce, that is not the way to arrive at true happiness.

Jesus clearly speaks against divorce. That teaching is found in all three synoptic Gospels — Mt 19:9; Lk 16:18; as well as Sunday’s reading. At the same time, it causes us to face a dilemma: How do we reconcile that firm teaching against divorce with Jesus’ mercy? What do we say to someone whose marriage has failed, despite his or her best efforts? Tough luck? You have made your bed, now sleep in it? That doesn’t sound very merciful or compassionate.

In the Catholic Church, we have developed the practice of annulment to deal with that dilemma. Where appropriate, the church court will rule that the marriage was not valid, that God had not joined the man and the woman together in a lasting union. The annulment protects the concept of a permanent marriage, while at the same time allowing the person to remarry.

It may not be a perfect solution, but it is a good faith attempt to deal with a difficult situation, to resolve a challenging dilemma: on one hand, a desire to remain faithful to Jesus’ teaching against divorce; on the other hand, a desire to imitate Jesus’ compassion, his willingness to forgive, to give people a second chance.

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