Today we see two examples of both the blessings and responsibilities of marital fidelity: one from the book of Genesis and the other from the Gospel of Mark. Both readings are particularly signifcant in light of discussions concerning marriage, divorce, remarriage, and strict fidelity to law versus compassion for God's people.
There are two creation stories in Genesis. The narrative of today's First Reading is the second account. In the first (Genesis 1: 1-2:4), the man and woman are created in one act - they are called 'Adam.' But in this second account, the man is created first. The woman is created from the man's own body. This is not a creation story of subordination by sequence and priority - the man first, then the "lesser" woman. Instead, this is a story of deep intimacy between the two. She is not created from his foot so that he would dominate over her, nor is she created from his head so that she would rule over him. She comes from where his heart is. They are "one flesh" which, in the original language, suggests a new personality. In marriage a new personality is being formed. To achieve this unity while still respecting the uniqueness and even the idiosyncrasies of each, is a feat of great love and labor.
In Mark, it is important for us to capture the spirit of the times in which Jesus lives to help get an understanding of what is going on in the story. In Jesus' world, marriage was a way of binding together two families - the families arranged the marriage of their children. The couple remained children of the parents and docile to their decisions.
Just as children did not choose their parents, neither did they choose their spouses. The view was that through the parents, God chose the partners in marriage. This is why divorce would not have been acceptable - it separates two families. In a culture where honor and shame play such important roles, a divorce would bring shame on the bride's family and the men in her family would be shamed. In this world view, a divorce would not shame the wife, but her male family members. They would have to avenge the insult with resulting feuds and bloodshed. To avoid this tragedy, divorce was forbidden.
The discussion with the disciples that follows adds a complication - the divorced couple might remarry. Mark highlights the situation in which the woman (or her family) might initiate the divorce. The shame on the husband's family would have dire consequences. And since a woman could not live alone in this society, a divorce necessarily meant another marriage.
Jesus refers to the Law of Moses in response to the Pharisees who claim that Moses permitted a "man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce his wife." Jesus does not agree. He says Moses "commanded" that such a letter of divorce be written "because of your hardness of heart." Moses required this procedure at a time when men could send their wives off for any reason or for the smallest domestic infraction - such as boredom, her old age, or his falling in love with another woman. Moses was dealing with an almost illiterate society, so a "written decree" would require a lengthy procedure. And that is what he wanted, a lengthy procedure to make divorce more difficult. Moses was actually protecting the rights of women.
The Pharisees tell Jesus, Moses "allowed/permitted" a decree of divorce. Jesus disagrees and tells them Moses "commanded it." Here Jesus is adding his own teaching. A woman cannot be cast aside so easily as if she were a commodity, once used to bear offspring, now no longer useful. He says their relationship is much more sacred. "The two become one flesh" and no one can separate them because God has joined them.
Jesus presents the ideal today of a permanent loving relationship that reflects God's intentions for humans from the beginning. As it says in our Genesis reading, "the two become one flesh." They are inseparable. But we humans are weak, ignorant, make rash and immature decisions and our good intentions sometimes fail miserably. While Jesus holds out the ideal, he also recognizes our human incompleteness. Our hearts are not fully turned to him, nor do we give our hearts fully to one another.
The Gospel presents the vision of a whole new way of acting and being. Whether we are married, divorced, single or celibate, we all know how far we are from fully embracing that vision of new life. We struggle to live the Gospel ideal in all walks of life, including marriage, but we fall short. Yet, the Lord comforts us with the realization of how much we are loved by our God and the assurance that this love is unbreakable.