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God wants marriage as covenant, not a contract

Published: October 12, 2021   
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor

“The joy of the Lord is my strength.” That is the theme for this gathering of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, an annual gathering which always takes place on the weekend closest to the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, who is one of the patrons of your community. 

This year our gathering takes place in a year of pandemic when we are more aware of our weakness and vulnerability than we are of strength. And we are gathering on a much smaller scale than usual in this year in which we have all suffered losses, yet we still speak of our joy in the Lord. 

Our gathering this year takes place on a weekend when in the Gospel Jesus gives us a very challenging teaching on the decidedly non-joyful topic of divorce, and yet even here, “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” Here Jesus’ overriding concern is not only the sanctity and thus joy of marriage, but also his desire to protect women and strengthen their position in society. 

In this regard, two things stand out:

  • Marriage as a covenant. The Pharisees’ concept of marriage is that it is a contract between two parties, and in practical terms, in those days of arranged marriage, a contract between two families. And being a contract, it could be terminated for breach of contract; the only issue in Jesus’ day was under what conditions. 
"And it is the will of God from the beginning of creation that in marriage, the two become one flesh, such that there are no longer two parties, nothing to separate."

But Jesus answers by shifting the focus from divorce to marriage and focusing on the intent of God from the beginning of creation, God who only wants our happiness and welfare. Jesus understands marriage to be not a contract, but rather a covenant, like the unbreakable covenant between God and his people. And it is the will of God from the beginning of creation that in marriage, the two become one flesh, such that there are no longer two parties, nothing to separate.

Jesus’ elimination of the possibility of divorce in most circumstances -- so long as the marriage was valid (that’s the exception where annulments come in) -- is actually very freeing and a source of joy and strength in the Lord. After all, isn’t it true that in today’s world, every couple that gets married knows that divorce is legal in our country and so always a possibility? Indeed, not merely a remote possibility. Most people marrying today come from homes where divorce is a reality, at least in the extended family. This constitutes a distant cloud hovering over every wedding. And the same was true in Jesus’s time. 

Jesus wants to remove that cloud by reaffirming God’s will that marriage is a covenant, not just a contract, a sacrament in which two persons become inseparably one, a union marked by “joy in the Lord their strength.”

  • Jesus is not only concerned with the indissolubility of marriage as a theological concept. He is also concerned about protecting women from exploitation. In Jewish law, a man could divorce his wife, but a woman could not divorce her husband. In Greco-Roman law, as reflected in Mark’s version of this story, they could, but in Jewish practice only a man could initiate a divorce. Women had no recourse, even in situations of domestic violence. 

The only debate at the time was whether a man could divorce his wife “for any reason whatsoever” -- anything that displeases him? She burns the toast, and she’s toast. Or if she’s not as pretty as she once was, and he wants an upgrade. Or if there was a serious reason, mainly adultery. 

Jesus says not even for that. He wants mercy. He knows the usual fate of discarded ex-wives in those days, and it wasn’t pretty. So Jesus’ teaching about divorce is intended to protect women, and thus in that way, a source of “joy and strength in the Lord.”

I know that in our gathering today, we will have a number of receptions and professions, which is, of course, one more reason for us to rejoice in the presence of the Lord in our midst. And I know that most of you are married, so hopefully, our celebration today will serve to deepen your joy and strengthen your marital covenant with each other and with the Lord, who truly is our strength.

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Oct. 3 at Little Portion Hermitage near Berryville.

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

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