Throughout Jesus’ public ministry, a significant theme that runs under much of his teaching is a sense of placing the demands of the Mosaic Law into perspective. He dismissed accusations from the Pharisees that he and his disciples did not observe the strictness of the laws on purity, eating instead with ritually unclean hands. He cited an event in the life of King David to explain why he was not interested in how his disciples were picking grains of wheat on the Sabbath, violating the law against working on the Sabbath. He directly challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees in the synagogue as he healed the hand of a disabled man on the Sabbath, this after they warned him against doing so.
Yet Jesus also criticized the Pharisees for placing within their interpretations of the Law (Halaka) certain loopholes to excuse them from following the Laws they found inconvenient to follow. This picking and choosing of Laws demonstrates a tendency toward antinomianism or, at least what we call euphemistically “Cafeteria Catholicism.”
At the same time Jesus tells us that he has come not to abolish but rather to fulfill the Law. So a sense of the significance of the Law remains in the consciousness of Jesus and his disciples. Certainly the early community, as attested both in the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline letters, struggled with if and how to enforce the Gentile converts to observe the Jewish law. The answer, settled first at the Council of Jerusalem (50 AD), was that the totality of the Law did not apply to the Gentile converts.
It is interesting that in the Gospel account we hear this weekend Jesus not only emphasizes the observance of the Law, he makes the demands of the Law even stricter than was the common practice. He also rejected the usual excuses given on why the Law was not followed.
Jesus, when confronted by the Pharisees on the legitimacy of divorce, responds with a coherent and powerful “no.” Why would Jesus take this strong of a stance on this law?
The Jewish Law on marriage is ancient, certainly reflecting the time of Moses, and in essence, even before then. Influenced by the other ancient cultures as well, marriage was a way of cementing contracts and covenants with other families, clans, tribes and nations. The exchange of a son and a daughter offered a sense of protection and guaranteed an association in blood when children were born to the couple. This is why marriage is always seen and expressed in covenantal language throughout the Scriptures.
The Jews allow for divorce in certain circumstances. It is not something that they would do easily because the breaking of an agreement carries important societal ramifications and is a rejection of what God intended for these two people.
Jesus calls us to a deeper sense of the covenantal relationship.
Although marriage in Western world no longer carries the same political and economic implications that it did even just a few hundred years ago, it still carries the covenantal meaning that was intended by the Mosaic Law and strengthened by the teaching of Jesus.
The complementarity of male and female, already expressed in the Book of Genesis, is expressed and fulfilled in a covenant of intimacy. This intimacy reflects the relationship between God and humanity.
We are created in the image and likeness of God and are called to intimacy with him and this is expressed in the covenantal relationship which binds us to God. As we express sacramentally what is real ontologically, marriage then becomes a visible sign of this intimacy.
Hence, the permanency of the marriage bond is reflective of this intimate union with God. To break the marriage bond is akin to cutting off the relationship with God, hence not something that we should do lightly, or certainly not at all.[[In-content Ad]]
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.