Our Scripture readings for Mass today come from a period in history where the understanding of human sexuality and gender was vastly at odds with the rapidly changing understanding we have of them today. For instance, most societies traditionally have recognized only two distinct, broad classes of gender roles, masculine and feminine, that correspond with the biological sexes of male and female. Now there are up to 76 terms for gender identity including gender fluid, hermaphrodite, polygender, asexual and two-spirit person. Consequently, gender is no longer about men versus women, Mars versus Venus or male versus female but where people feel they belong on the spectrum between the two.
In the ancient world in which Jesus lived, there was only male and female. So if He was to say today, as he does in the Gospel, that God simply made people ‘male and female’, He would, in all likelihood, be castigated or even taken to law by someone who was offended by his statement.
Furthermore, the understanding of marriage in first century Palestine also was poles apart from how marriage is defined today. Then marriages were arranged between families and not between freely consenting individuals, as is the case for us today. Marriage was to bind two families together, thus forming them into one stronger unit. Children in this culture could not choose their marriage partners, just as they could not choose their parents. The belief was that as God chose one’s parents, through one’s parents God chose your marriage partner. Hence Jesus stating “What God has united, man must not divide”. (Mk 10:9).
Consequently, divorce in such a world would mean not just the separation of the two partners but, rather, the separation of two families and the breach of a strong family unit. In such small communes or hamlets where a number of families lived side by side, divorce would cause irreparable damage and, therefore, had to be avoided at all cost.
However, in Jesus’ time divorce was allowed. (In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses made provision for it.) While there were disputes about how difficult or easy it should be to get one, divorce was an accepted part of Jewish life. However, only husbands could divorce their wives: wives could not do the same as women had no rights in Jewish law. So it would have come as a shock for men to hear Jesus say: ’the man who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her.’
Asked for his opinion about how easy or difficult it should be for a husband to divorce his wife, Jesus sidestepped the question. Instead, he said that divorce was never part of God’s plan for people – the breakdown, suffering and distress it caused was something God never intended for people that He had brought together in a marriage.
It is said that you marry the person you love – or think you love – and then spend the rest of your life trying to love the person you married. In the real world in which we live today, however, many marriages do not work out. According to recent divorce statistics, 42% of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce. The latest statistics show that 108,421 couples divorced in 2019. Of these, 107,599 were opposite-sex couples, and 822 were same-sex couples – double the number of same-sex divorces in 2018 (428 couples). Divorce, as we know, happens for a variety of reasons – people make mistakes and make disastrous choices; some people change after they marry; some are incapable of sustaining a loving and life-giving relationship; some become irresponsible, unfaithful, alcohol or other drug dependent, or acquire a gambling addiction; some become unstable, abusive, violent or just cold … The sad truth is that whatever their good intentions at the outset, because of the hurt and damage their relationship causes, some people have no choice but to divorce.
The Church is not against divorce where it is necessary. We accept now that when things go badly wrong, couples may have no choice but to part, either for their own good or the good of their children. And it’s important to note that divorced people are no longer second class citizens in the Church (as they were in the past) … and neither are gay, lesbian or transgender people. However, we have to understand that the Church, in trying to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel, is struggling to come to terms with the rapidly changing dynamics of human sexuality, marriage and family life as it is experienced today, not least where divorced people go on to remarry and create happy and loving homes for themselves and their children.
Were he alive today, how would Our Lord respond to all these developments? And how do we apply Our Lord’s teaching in a world so vastly different from His, a world in which people can no longer be categorised simply as male and female; where a woman in a legal marriage can be her partner’s husband or a man can be his partner’s wife; where people prefer to be referred to as ‘they’ rather than he or she; where a baby can have three parents; and where there are arguments over whether you have to be biologically female to use female changing rooms in public buildings?
However we respond, it is worth remembering that whenever Christ met someone who could not live up to the ideals of his kingdom, He treated the person with gentleness, understanding and compassion. As far as I know, he never excluded or turned anyone away. And, surely, this is the primary obligation he sets upon us and our Church as we try to come to terms with the phenomenal sexual, social and cultural changes that surround us?
Holy Name, Jesmond
3 October 2021