Friday, February 24, 2017

Divorce, Remarriage, the Gospel, and a Leaking Roof

(Today at daily Mass, the Gospel concerned the question of divorce and remarriage. I was preaching to our students and here are some of the general ideas that I spoke about.)

There are certainly times when we hear our Lord utter words in the Gospel that cause us to say, "I wonder what he means by that?"  The parables are a good example of this.  One parable finds Jesus praising a man for cheating his boss out of money. Since we can trust that Jesus is not inviting his disciples to become embezzlers, we know that there must be some deeper meaning to be found in this parable.  Oftentimes, parables are effective because there can be layers of meaning.

Today's Gospel from the Gospel of Mark (10:1-12) does not lack in clarity. It would be difficult for anyone to honestly find ambiguity in this reading. Jesus is asked about whether a man may divorce his wife.  He says that it was only because of the people's hardness of heart that Moses permitted divorce but that divorce was not something allowed by God.  He says, "What God has joined together, no human being must separate."  Hmmm.....what does he really mean though?  Maybe we shouldn't be too strict in our interpretation of this passage. Maybe he meant to convey that "In an ideal world, somebody wouldn't cause a separation of a marriage, but that we have to take into account real life situations."  I guess we will never really know what Jesus meant. It seems just too ambiguous.

Oh wait! There's more!  It seems that the disciples were a little shocked by this statement of our Lord, so when they got away from the crowds they were like, "Hey Lord, back there it sounded like you were almost suggesting that marriages cannot be ended by divorce. What were you really trying to say, because it isn't too clear to us?" So Jesus clarifies it.  "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."  It seems to me that looking for a "deeper meaning" or a "more nuanced interpretation" would be a bit of a waste of time here.  Jesus is crystal clear.  

Now, when we hear these words, perhaps our minds immediately think of people whom we love who are in situations like what the Lord describes. Maybe even in our own families. And this can be upsetting to us, right?  Okay, let's not panic and let's not start looking for a way out or around Jesus' words. Let's not think that the best solution must be in finding a loophole.

Last week, somebody came and told me that the ceiling on our top floor was leaking.  I immediately had this annoyed feeling when they told me that.  I remember when I was a pastor, sometimes people would report to me that they found something broken or a pipe leaking and I'd feel annoyed at this person for telling me.  Now that's silly right?  It's better to know that the roof is leaking than to pretend it isn't.  I could decide, "Hmmm...maybe I will just shut the door to that room and pretend that it isn't leaking," but that is really not accomplishing anything.  

So it is better for us to know the truth about marriage and divorce than to try to "shut the door" and obscure the truth.  We love to look for loopholes.  I remember once feeling particularly betrayed by someone.  And when I'd get angry about it, I'd think about all those things that Jesus said about loving those who hate us and praying for those who persecute us.  I'd go through the bible trying to find that loophole!  I was hoping I'd find the passage that said, "You must love those who hate you and pray for those who persecute you unless they are really a mean person. Then you can do whatever you want."  Alas, Jesus was crystal clear.  No loophole.

I know that these days we see a lot of confusing headlines in the news about the Catholic Church and marriage.  Just to be clear, the Catholic Church cannot change its teaching on marriage because it is not "the Catholic Church's teaching on marriage." What we believe is "God's teaching on marriage." That teaching is revealed to us--crystal clearly--by Jesus Christ.  

So what about people who are in these difficult situations?  Not to be glib about it, but they have a leaky roof.  Knowing that is not a bad thing.  The only way we know how to act is if we first know the truth of the situation.  I wouldn't know how to fix the roof if I didn't know it was leaking in the first place.  All of the Christian life involves looking at the objective truth and conforming my life to that objective truth.  For example, on this hand I see that Jesus says that I must love those who hate me, forgive those who harm me, and pray for them. That's the objective truth. I have to look at my life, on the other hand, and determine if I'm doing those things or not. If not, then I have to conform my life to those things.

We all do this regularly in confession, right?  Here's the objective truth and here's my life.  There are a lot of leaks in my spiritual life. It is better for me to know that so that I can set about fixing them. This is called, "conversion." When Jesus tells us things that seem difficult like, "love your enemies," he's not doing it to make our life miserable! The Truth sets us free.  The Truth helps us to live in the world in the way that God made the world to be. If there's a leaky roof, it's better to know it than to ignore it or to find some philosophical argument that says, "It's really not leaking." That would just be silly.

We're not alone. God gives us all the graces we need to fix the leaks in our lives. We can help each other by supporting and encouraging one another to live in the Truth. All of us have leaks in our spiritual lives caused by our sins. It's tempting to close the door to the room that is leaking and forget about it, but that only makes the damage worse. Instead, let's allow the power of the Gospel to show us our leaks and allow God's grace to move us into action.  That's true for the divorced and remarried, but it's also true for all of us.  There is no need to fear the Truth or to desperately search for loopholes.  We have Jesus and He is infinitely better than any loophole.


  1. A few months ago, I got into a rather nasty argument with someone about this. She was a protestant who said Jesus did allow for divorce and quoted Matthew 19:9: "I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." She said I was ignorant and didn't know the Bible very well because according to her, divorce was acceptable if a spouse committed adultery. I didn't know how to defend my Catholic faith in light of what she said. Fr. Barnes, can you share your thoughts on this? Why does Matthew 19:9 appear to have a loophole?

  2. Let me see if i can save him a few minutes - that's a translation thing. You have to go back to the Greek:

    The RSVCE carries a note which reads: “unchastity”: The Greek word used here appears to refer to marriages which were not legally marriages, because they were either within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity (Lev 18:6–16) or contracted with a Gentile. The phrase “except on the ground of unchastity” does not occur in the parallel passage in Lk 16:18. See also Mt 19:9 (Mk 10:11–12), and especially 1 Cor 7:10–11, which shows that the prohibition is unconditional.] The phrase “except on the ground of unchastity” should not be taken as indicating an exception to the principle of the absolute indissolubility of marriage that Jesus has just re-established. It is almost certain that the phrase refers to unions accepted as marriage among some pagan peoples, but prohibited as incestuous in the Mosaic Law (cf. Lev 18) and in rabbinical tradition. The reference, then, is to unions radically invalid because of some impediment. When persons in this position were converted to the true faith, it was not that their union could be dissolved; it was declared that they had never in fact been joined in true marriage. Therefore, this phrase does not go against the indissolubility of marriage, but rather reaffirms it.