Not What They Wanted to Hear

SCRIPTURES & ART: Catholics owe the world greater clarity about what marriage is. Jesus didn’t mince words. Why do we?

James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Pharisees and Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Pharisees and Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus” (photo: Public Domain)

Jesus today rejects divorce. His position and the text is clear. It’s repeated in all three Synoptic Gospels (see Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:2-6; Luke 16:18). 

Yes, it’s a “hard saying” — even the Apostles recognized that. It would divide the Church and, paradoxically, give birth to Protestantism, which otherwise claims its fidelity to Biblical teaching. Try as one might, through “pastoral accompaniments” and other accommodations, the core of Jesus’ teaching is clear: divorce is not for his followers.

Jesus didn’t “dialogue” about God’s intention “in the beginning,” any more than he chose to water down his teaching on the Eucharist we heard this summer — even though some of those who would otherwise have followed him but for that teaching threatened to walk away. He didn’t call them back and propose a “pastoral accommodation” of his teaching. He let them go because truth can’t be compromised.

Divorce is a pastoral problem, although one would be challenged to think it is, given the infrequency one hears about it from the pulpit. Catholics will this Sunday, but only because it’s difficult to evade the Gospel’s central point. 

Divorce is a pastoral problem, but not in the way many commentators want to frame it. The pastoral problem is not the Band-Aid some in the “field hospital” want to apply after Catholics succumb to the spirit of the age, living essentially in no wise different from the rest of society. The pastoral problem is understanding the theology of marriage.

Some will say that the “worst” of the divorce plague is beyond us: divorce rates were higher in the 1980s and 1990s than today. But, as Mark Twain observed, the three main falsehoods are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” 

Perhaps the numbers of divorces have come down a little from their peak, but marital stability in America is very much a class-based phenomenon. Divorce continues to wreak havoc among working-class, low- and middle-income families (in tandem with the erosion of marriage as an institution, especially one within which children are born and raised). Upper-middle class and upper-class folks, i.e., many of our elite opinion-makers, continue to peddle the social toxin of lifestyle libertinism while themselves living otherwise generally tame and traditional married lives. 

The Pharisees once again try to force Jesus into a corner by identifying with one camp while alienating the other. (As contemporary voting patterns often show, taking a position on sex is like grabbing the third rail.) Those who held with Rabbi Shammai interpreted the Mosaic Law to allow divorce only for adultery. Those who held with Rabbi Hillel allowed divorce for reasons other than adultery.

America has nothing on Pharisaic Judaism.

The Pharisees at least admitted there had to be a “cause” for divorce. The American social debate has abandoned the effort to justify divorce (like abortion) for any reason other than self-will. While Shammai and Hillel were debating whether there was one or multiple “causes” for divorce, American society since the late 1970s has been oh-so-“faultless.” No cause needed: just live apart for a stipulated period of time, then go to a judge, claim “irretrievable breakdown” and voilà! — a Caesar sunder! The truth is your contract with the plumber is more sacrosanct than marriage. Try not paying because of “irretrievable clogs.” 

The Pharisees want to put Jesus in a bind, siding with one rabbinic school over another. Jesus rejects the terms in which they frame the debate. The question of divorce should not be settled on the basis of the law of Moses, which tolerated some divorce because “of the hardness of your heart” (a nice way of saying “sinfulness”), but on the basis of God’s design in creation, which did not admit of divorce. Jesus does not consider it “pastoral” to “accommodate” what the Mosaic Law allowed; his pastoral solution goes back to God’s Design.

This text is important for two reasons. Not only does it teach us what Jesus thinks of divorce, it also teaches us who Jesus is. For Jesus to go over the Mosaic Law and appeal to what God intended “in the beginning” is to claim his divinity because (1) Moses delivered God’s Law to Israel and Jesus is clearly claiming to change it and (2) if Mosaic divorce was a concession to “hardness of hearts,” then something has changed with Jesus. That something is the capacity, through grace, to live as God intended “in the beginning.” Today’s Gospel is as much about Christology as it is about morality.

We need to say these things, and we need to say them plain. We need to say them because most Catholics are married or at least thinking about it. We owe them clarity of what we understand marriage is. Jesus didn’t mince words. Why do we?

The scene can be illustrated using 19th-century French painter James Tissot. We’ve featured him a lot this year, but that’s because he depicts events from the life of Christ so prolifically. In the last decades of his life, when he focused on Biblical themes and visited the Holy Land, he produced more than 350 paintings of Jesus’ life.

“The Pharisees and Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus” is perhaps not directly about divorce, because both Matthew and Mark mention that it is the Pharisees who came to Jesus arguing over the scope of the grounds for divorce. We know from Matthew 22 that Jesus is assaulted by both groups trying to trip him up, the Pharisees over whether to pay taxes to Rome (vv. 15-22), the Sadducees over whether there is a resurrection of the dead (and who winds up with the levirate bride, vv. 23-33). Perhaps that is why John the Baptist addresses both as a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7-10).

(Note: Remember that it was John the Baptist who got into trouble for defending the integrity of marriage against taking another’s wife in the case of Herod and Herodias — Mark 6:17-29. Those who would follow God’s plan for marriage have always had to pay a price.)

Tissot’s painting, then, can lend itself to numerous occasions where Jesus disputes the religious establishment, including today’s Gospel on the question of divorce. The contending sides are arrayed against each other. Jesus and, presumably, his Apostles are seated along the wall. His opponents are standing opposite them. 

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the painting is the body language. Jesus, in white, strikes an irenic pose: his hand gestures are those of a teacher explaining a point to students. His opponents are much more agitated: the main in brown opposite Christ has his hands on his hips, his head thrust forward, and his feet in something of an attack stance. Another man, mostly in brown and third on his right, has a similar posture and a somewhat hostile face. Jesus’ answer is clearly not what they wanted to hear.

Is it what we want to hear? Where am I on this painting? With Christ? With his Apostles who are learning, recognizing it’s a “hard saying” but open to what the Teacher says? Or am I with the opponents, incredulous at the demands out of Jesus’ mouth and convinced that my way is what I should follow? 

At least the Pharisees didn’t pretend their way was Christ’s.