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Marriage isn't contract you can just back out of, dissolve

Published: November 3, 2021   
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor

I’m sure most of us have had the experience of making a cake. When you gather all the ingredients and mix them all together, there is no going back -- you can’t separate out the eggs and sugar once they have been mixed with the flour and water.

You put the batter in the oven, set the timer and remove the finished product when the time is up. Now you have a cake. You can frost it or not; it’s still a cake. Even if it doesn’t turn out very well, it’s still a cake.

You can enjoy it or regret it, but there’s no going back. The eggs and the flour, what you have joined, no one can separate. The batter, the cake, is indissoluble. This fact of indissolubility may be part of the reason why the wedding cake is such a traditional part of our marriage customs. Of course, if you leave out one of the ingredients necessary to make the cake -- for instance, you forget the eggs -- you may end up with something, but it won’t be a cake. That’s where annulments come in -- something necessary for a valid marriage was missing, for instance, in situations of domestic violence or serial infidelity.

But back to the point Jesus is making, namely that what is true about a cake made with all the necessary ingredients is also true about a marriage that has all the elements necessary for validity: you can’t dissolve it. On this matter, Jesus’ teaching was as controversial then as it is now. The Pharisees in today’s Gospel tried to draw Jesus into an argument regarding the grounds for divorce. Jewish religion permits divorce, but in Jesus’ time, there was a great controversy regarding how serious the problem had to be before divorce could be allowed.

"Jesus tells them that marriage is not just a human contract; it’s a covenant before God. Like every other covenant, once it is ratified, there is no backing out."

One school allowed divorce only in the case of adultery, while the other school allowed divorce in any situation in which the wife had displeased her husband: she burns the toast, and she is toast. And Jesus tells them that both sides have it wrong. Both sides are viewing marriage as a contract, and all they’re arguing about is the question of what constitutes a breach of contract. They view marriage as only a legal matter, a human arrangement.

Jesus tells them that marriage is not just a human contract; it’s a covenant before God. Like every other covenant, once it is ratified, there is no backing out. You can be unfaithful to a covenant, but the covenant stands and the parties remain bound to each other even in their unfaithfulness.

Remember God’s covenant with Israel at the time of the Exodus: over the centuries, the Chosen People were unfaithful to this covenant time and time again. But the covenant never was and never will be dissolved. Today’s Jews still have a valid covenant with God. God remains bound to his people, and they remain bound to him forever. And the same is true for us. Through baptism, we entered into a valid covenant with God through Jesus Christ and through Jesus, we remain bound to God forever. It’s like that cake. In our own individual lives, it can turn out good, or it can turn out bad, but once the ingredients have been bonded together, once the covenant has been established, there’s no going back.

My friends, this is a very challenging Gospel. But in our hearts, we know that Jesus is right. When God joins a couple in marriage, the two become one -- there’s no going back. The couple can nourish that bond, care for their cake and grow in happiness. Or one party -- or both -- can be unfaithful to that bond, neglect their cake and cause them both to live in unhappiness. But the covenant is forever. “Let no one separate what God has joined.”

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Oct. 3.

Bishop Taylor wants you to know more about your faith and the Church: Read Arkansas Catholic's free digital edition.

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