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A reading from the book of Genesis 2:18-24

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 127. R/. v.5

A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 2:9-11

A reading from the holy Gospel according to St Mark 10:2-16

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THE first and third readings today are paired together to emphasise that in the Old Testament and in the New Testament divorce had no place in Jewish or Christian living. We cannot expect that two short extracts from our Holy Scriptures will provide all that is said or all that needs to be said on such a human tragedy as divorce. I have never met anyone who is in favour of divorce yet I know of few families, including my own, that has not been afflicted by such a calamity as the failure of love.


Since our Holy Scriptures stand over us as the benchmark of our faith, the source of our beliefs, and the arbiter of our behaviour, we need to explore what we find there when we contemplate a matter as serious as divorce.

Old Testament Dilemmas

A couple of rhyming couplets:

King David and King Solomon led very merry lives,
With very many concubines and very merry wives.
And when they both grew older, and they were full of qualms,
King Solomon built the Temple and King David wrote the Psalms.

Not entirely true but not too far off the mark. With our first reading today from the Book of Genesis and Adam and Eve echoing in our ears, we read on to come to Abraham, our father in faith, and his brother Nahor. The brother, we are told, is the father of eight children by his primary wife and four children by Reumah, his secondary wife (Genesis 22:20-24). King Saul had a secondary wife whose name was Rizpah (2 Samuel 3:7). Then we move on to read of David’s army general, Joab, who had harsh words for the King when David was mourning the death of Absalom who had revolted against him. David the King should have been thinking of the soldiers who died to keep him safe and on his throne:

Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, “You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life and the lives of your sons and your daughters and the lives of your wives and your concubines, because you love those who hate you and hate those who love you”. 2 Samuel 19:5-6.

King Solomon, in this matter at least, surpassed his father:

King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 secondary wives. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.
1 Kings 11:3-4

Make what you will of the Song of Songs and its glowing praise of Solomon and his harem (Song of Songs 6:4-9).

Perhaps more serious attention should be paid to the solemn proclamation of Israel’s covenant law in the Book of Deuteronomy. This book emerged long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and long after Saul, David, and Solomon, probably during the days of King Josiah (640 - 609 B.C.). The very existence of the people of Israel as God’s people demanded their total obedience to God’s Torah, God’s Law. Chapter 23 of Deuteronomy sets out in detail who a man may marry. Chapter 24, continuing this reflection on marriage, has this to say:

When a man takes a wife and possesses her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man's wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4

A man is permitted to divorce his wife (and marry another woman) but a woman is not permitted to divorce her husband. This remains the law amongst some Conservative and Orthodox Jews to this day. Disputes concerning this text are as old as the hills. The chief dispute concerns the phrase “because he has found some indecency in her”. In the time of Jesus and to this day, what “indecency” might include or exclude has been a matter of dispute. At the time of Jesus there were two schools of thought. One said that it might be any upsetting matter such as spoiling the soup. Other rabbis held that the matter must be of considerable importance, mainly some serious sexual misbehaviour. The words of Jesus must be weighed against the serious discussions on the matter that preoccupied rabbis of the time. Words of Jesus on the matter must also be weighed carefully when they appear in Gospels intended mainly for ex-pagans who had become Christians. And we must tread carefully as we engage with words written by Mark for seriously depressed Christians in the city of Rome. We must be aware of Roman imperial law on marriage and divorce.

Before leaving the Old Testament I would like to take you to two beautiful passages, often overlooked in the heat of debates. While polygamy is witnessed again and again in our Old Testament, it is important that monogamy is an ideal held before us in the idyllic Garden of Eden. But that is not the only standard bearer upholding the blessing that a man “should cling to his wife, so that the two become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Here is a passage from the Book of Proverbs and remember it is poetry. So read with your heart as well as your head:

Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.
Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?
Let them be for yourself alone,
and not for strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated always in her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son,
with a forbidden woman
and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?
For a man's ways are before the eyes of the LORD
and he ponders all his paths.
The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him,
and he is held fast in the cords of his sin.
He dies for lack of discipline,
and because of his great folly he is led astray.
Proverbs 5:15-23

There are beautiful thoughts in the last of the prophets recorded in our Bible. The prophet Malachi is bemoaning those who come before the LORD in the Temple to a make an offering that is tainted by their misdeeds:

And this second thing you do. You cover the LORD’S altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favour from your hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.
Malachi 2:13-16

We who approach the discussion on divorce Jesus has with Pharisees and with his disciples, know that we carry our arguments in vessels of clay. The ancient Scriptures of our Jewish brothers and sister, now our Scriptures too, speak in apparently contradictory voices. And note especially, that these texts speak of what men can do or not do. Women do not have any part in the debate. To this day the strictest Jews maintain that a woman cannot initiate divorce. This is as true in Golders Green as it is in Galilee.

New Testament Debates: Matthew

Saint Matthew’s Gospel is always listed first of the four Gospels. But it was not written first. Mark invented the idea of preaching Jesus through the medium of story and Matthew and Luke are heavily dependent on Mark’s text. Today there is a movement to include John’s Gospel among Mark’s children. But I want to quote Matthew’s text first and to imply that Matthew was editing and changing the text he read in St Mark’s Gospel. There are two texts in Matthew relevant to our discussion and remember Matthew is talking about a man divorcing his wife, not a wife divorcing her husband. Two quotations:

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. ’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery
Matthew 5:31-32

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What, therefore, God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Matthew 19:3-9

There is much to discuss here but the central issue that concerns us is that Matthew does not rule out divorce in every circumstance. Divorce is permitted to a man where there is “sexual immorality” of some unspecified kind. The difficulty is to identify what Matthew meant. The phrases he uses are not identical in every word but the meaning is the same. I need to quote the Greek here, so please bear with me.

Matthew 5:32 παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας,
(parektos logou porneias)
This is translated as “except on the ground of sexual immorality”. But that tells us nothing much. The word porneia is a very broad term.
Matthew 19:9 μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ
(mē epi porneia)
The same word porneia is used again by Matthew in a slightly different phrase but the meaning is the same.
The problem in this: what does Matthew mean by porneia?
The word is used by some ancient Greek writers to mean “fornication”. A noun pornē means a prostitute and there are a host of pornē related words that refer to brothels and the activity of prostitutes. Many Catholic and other Christian commentators translate the word as “unchastity” which is not much help, especially if you believe what I was taught, that the slightest “immoral thought” was a mortal sin and that when it came to sexual matters there was no such thing as a venial sin.
The Jerusalem Bible (published 1966 and the text in our Lectionary) is of interest in this matter if we trace its various editions. The Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, in the Year of Matthew, includes the reading on divorce and reads “except for the case of fornication”. The New Jerusalem Bible (published 1985) has “except for the case of an illicit marriage”, and adds a note explaining that this means “marriage within the prohibited degrees”, and there is a long note on 19:32 offering further clarification. The same translation, with a similar note, is given in the Revised New Jerusalem Bible (2018). This understanding is based on an article written in 1978 by a very distinguished American Jesuit biblical scholar, Father Joseph Fitzmyer. Other Catholic (and Jesuit) scholars do not agree. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., writing in 1991 and dealing with porneia notes that “The two most common explanations are (1) sexual misconduct on the woman’s part and (2) illicit marital union within the degrees of kindred proscribed in Leviticus 18:6-18 (see Acts 15:20-29). The first explanation is more likely.” Without complete confidence as to the exact meaning Matthew gave to the word, we can have no great certainty as to what his exception to the general divorce rule envisaged in his text. It may be that Matthew added the “except for” clause to clarify matters for his Gentile Christians, aware that he was clearing up for them what was obvious to the many Jewish Christians in the congregations he was addressing in Syria. That is not much help to us.
We must bear in mind that Matthew twice rewrote Mark’s text to exclude the possibility of a woman divorcing her husband. Mark clearly teaches that neither a man nor a woman may divorce their partner in marriage. What is clear is that both Mark and Matthew are editing the words of Jesus and applying them to Christians living in very different environments, in the case of Matthew, Syria, and in the case of Mark, Rome.
New Testament Debates: Mark
It is important to realise that Mark was writing for Roman Christians who had just undergone the most horrific tragedy of state aggression and internal betrayal. In his Gospel Mark everywhere shows that he is writing for a dispirited people whose faith has been sorely tested. He set out to rehabilitate that faith. He knew that he was dealing with a “them versus us” situation and he is concerned to make clear the cost of discipleship in the hostile and volatile city of Rome in the dark days of Nero. He was well aware of divorce legislation governing every Roman citizen in the Empire. His understanding of Jesus’s words is that divorce for whatever reason is forbidden both to men and women. This does not agree with St Paul, with whom Mark had once been a close associate (see below, p.23).

A reading from the book of Genesis 2:18-24

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
The word of the LORD.

Here is the examination question I never had the courage to set:

The Book of Genesis is exactly that - a book of beginnings, a book of first principles and a collection of stories that form an epic embodying those principles.
The very first commandment given in God’s Bible to men is this:

Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth …
Genesis 1:29

Does the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on clerical celibacy violate God’s first commandment? Discuss.

Seriously, we must read the Book of Genesis, especially the two creation stories, with reverence and care. Chapter 1 is a magnificent piece of writing. The whole of creation from light to Sabbath is laid out in a week of days, ending in God’s rest on the day of rest. It is a hymn that brings us from darkness (1:2) to the light of the Sabbath. It has delighted and intrigued its readers down through the ages. It is an account of a new creation every day. Indeed, Jewish people have told me that Tuesday, the third day, is the best day to get married. For on the third day there are two creations, and so two blessings. So marry on a Tuesday - if you are getting married you need all the blessings you can get.

Of course the six days of creation leading to the seventh day of the Sabbath is a thing of poetic beauty. But its power is not lessened if we acknowledge it to be what it is: a literary fiction. What God created was good and, indeed, everything that was made “was very good”. What we learn is that God created earth and sky; there is no scientific “how” in Genesis and we must treat what we read there as idealistic, for the Garden of Eden is as fictional as the serpent. Eden soon turns into the realities of human existence.

The second creation story (2:4-25), from which today’s reading is taken, is written by a hand different from the hand that had penned the first. It is altogether a more homely, and, indeed, far-fetched piece of fiction. The earth was like a poor farm in bad weather before the LORD God set his hand to the business of creating man. Or should one say “creating a farmer”. The land was not blessed with rain, so the LORD God made a garden and there he put “the man whom he had formed” out of the dust of the earth. The garden was, of course, a horticulturist’s dream, even having a tree of life and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The man was put in the garden “to work it and to keep it”, with, however, a warning “not to eat of the tree of life or of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”.
Our reading has the LORD God worried about the man being on his own and the LORD God then formed from the earth all the wild beasts and birds. The man named them all but no fitting “helper” emerged from the passing out parade. So then we have the rib story. Woman (ishah, in Hebrew) was taken from the man (ish, in Hebrew). From that piece of imaginative biology, we get a conclusion:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Genesis 2:24

Does this sentence obviously forbid polygamy and command a one man/one woman relationship “until death do us part”?
The sentence does not deal with the possibility of failure. Why should the writer be certain that the ideal in the text has universal application when the Bible is full of God-inspired men (Abraham, David, Solomon, to name but a few) who had more wives than you could count?


A Very Tentative Conclusion

All that I have written comes down to this. The Bible’s long story of marriage and divorce, of love and its demise, offers no clear guidance with absolute consistency. The Old Testament and the New Testament try to speak to a variety of ages, to the days of Abraham, to the days of David, to the days of exile, to the days when there were prophets in the land, to the days when wisdom spoke its name, to the days of Jesus, to the days of Paul, and so to our own day.

Paul said this:

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self- control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

To the married I give this charge (not I, but I the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
1 Corinthians 7:6-17

I think that our holy books and our gift of the Spirit are saying to our churches that we have got to work out how to live together in married contentment, how to repair marriage breakdown, how to go in peace when remaining fails, how to seek and to find love again when love is needed and love is offered. We have to pray that our failures may not become prisons, that God not become our gaoler, and that grace leads us in the way of renewed hope - and love.


Responsorial Psalm 127. R/. v.5

R/. May the LORD bless us all the days of our life.

Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labour of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. R/.

Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table. R/.

Behold, thus shall one be blessed
who fears the Lord.
The Lord bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
May you see your children's children!
Peace be upon Israel.

R/. May the LORD bless us all the days of our life.

Psalm 127 (128) has a title: A Psalm of Ascents. It is a song to sing as one makes one’s way to the Temple in Jerusalem. Ascending the hill of Zion to the very House of God is to make one’s way into the Presence, the very place where God dwells among his people. God is the source of every blessing to those who fear him.

It is a blessing to know what the Bible means by “fearing the LORD”. A few lines from Psalm 147 will instantly reveal what “fear” and “God” mean when you put those words in the same sentence:

But he LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who await his gracious favour.
Psalm 147:11

My Jewish Bible translates these verses in plainer words:

But the LORD values those who fear him,
those who depend on His faithful care.

Fearing God does not mean cringing in terror at the very thought of God’s demands. It means living in our dangerous world aware of God’s blessing, confident of God’s care. To be sure, dangers abound. But there is that hidden place in our hearts where we know that we are safe, where we know that all people will be safe. For we are all in God’s hands. And Julian of Norwich has spoken truth.


A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 2:9-11

We see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. The word of the LORD.


The letter to Hebrew (Jewish) Christians is the most beautiful, the best written, and theologically the most profound book in the New Testament. It reaches into the heavens and beholds our Lord Jesus still on our side, still pleading our cause at the throne, still utterly concerned with our welfare.

By dying, by offering his life so that we might be healed, Jesus assures our safety. Jesus enters the heavenly places and we are walking behind him in a procession of glory taking us to our eternal salvation. For we, through his life of obedience, have become his brothers and sisters, and we walk his way.


A reading from the holy Gospel according to St Mark 10:2-16

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. ’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. ’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them’
The gospel of the LORD.

I have said enough about the first part of this reading and it breaks my heart to turn to the second paragraph and listen to the words of Jesus. Notice the callousness and ignorance of these disciples, these learners, these future Church leaders. They rebuked the mothers and fathers who brought their children to this holy man and who wished him to touch them with the hand of heaven. They rebuked these parents as if they were to be cast out from the presence of Jesus. When we - today, in our time - hear such heart-breaking words from those who are our apostles (God help us!), how scalding are these words: Let the children come to me! Do not hinder them! Oh! How they have been hindered, these children of ours! Those little ones who belong to the kingdom of God. How they have been hindered! How dear to God are those children who have been robbed of Jesus. They have not been blessed in our Church by those who should have been a blessing. Pray the Lord this day that he may take them in his arms again, that they may feel the comfort of his love, that he may bless them with a blessing of healing, that he may lay his gentle hands upon their broken lives.

And may those who have “rebuked the children”, and those have aided in their rebuke, be brought to judgement, human and divine.

Joseph O’Hanlon.








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