A rewarding part of my ministry over the years has been helping couples prepare for marriage. I often begin our conversations with some rhetorical questions. My goal is to help couples think about marriage in a deeper and more reflective way. One question I almost always ask is this: Given what we read in Genesis, does this mean that marriage is naturally permanent? I choose these words carefully. Some people respond by saying, “why, yes.” But then, I point out two difficulties arising from a ‘yes’ answer. The first is a practical one. If marriage is naturally permanent, then why do they come apart? Given that they do, isn’t it better to recognize our fall from Grace? So, even if God created marriage as gift that was meant to be permanent, our exile from Eden has surely altered God’s created reality.
Second, if we believe that marriage is naturally permanent, then why do we have sacramental marriage as a liturgical rite? For it symbolizes a grace-enabled transformation. Acknowledging this about the marriage rite, and recognizing the effects of the Fall, leads us to a further insight. Permanent marriage may have been the Creator’s original intention for us. And so, we can still see a reflection of God’s purpose even in our fallen state. For we yet have an inclination to seek enduring marital relationships, even if we cannot—on our own—achieve permanency. These three observations, first, about the Creator’s intentions; second, about the effects of the fall upon us; and, third, about the sacramental remedy for our fallen condition, fit together to shape our Christian view of marriage. Recognizing these three components helps us live toward and into the beauty of God’s hopes for us, in a world still marked by our fall from Grace.
These observations can help us appreciate an important Gospel episode. Pharisees come to test Jesus with a question: “Is it lawful,” they ask, “for a man to divorce his wife?” Their question has layers of meaning. The varied circumstances of human life in this world are often more complicated than God’s revealed law can completely cover. So the Pharisees would recognize that human law even when it is based on divine law often goes beyond it. They make this clear when they refer to how Moses granted permission to divorce. As we know, not every aspect of God’s revealed law has proved everlasting. Think, for instance, about dietary laws in light of the Gospel. And so, when the Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is lawful, they are not necessarily asking about the Creator’s intentions, nor about God’s abiding will for Israel. Instead of inquiring about what is good and beautiful, they ask about what is permitted. And this is why Jesus’ response to them is so important.
That is, Jesus does not accept, nor does he feel bound by, their narrow assumptions. His way of responding to them helps us recognize a central principle within Christian ethics, and Anglican Moral Theology. When someone asks if something is “allowed,” notice the limitations of the question. Asking if something is legal, or if it is permitted by custom, is different from asking if it is right. And sometimes, it is little more than asking if I can ‘get away with it.’ Therefore, when the Pharisees ask if divorce is ‘allowed,’ Jesus steers them back to the better question, which is this: What does God want of you? What choice best reflects God’s will, and God’s hopes for you?
We should always remember how Jesus challenges our inclination to fall back upon what is familiar and known, and upon what is socially accepted. The latter may give us insight. But it may also mislead us and keep us from aspiring to the beauty of what God hopes for us.
This post is based upon my homily for October 7, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The above images are once again by James Tissot, from his series of images covering the Old Testament, many of which are preserved in the Jewish Museum, in New York City. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.