Marriage Is What It Is

“And some Pharisees approached Him, to tempt Him, saying, ‘Is it permissible for a man to put away his woman for any cause at all?’  And He answered, saying, “Are you not aware that the Creator from the foundation of things [arche] made them male and female?’ And He said, ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his woman, and they two shall be one flesh.’  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  So what God has yoked together, let not man put asunder.”

They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command that a letter of divorce [apostasiou – cf. English “apostasy”] be given, to put her away?”  He said to them, “On account of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed it, but from the foundation of things it was not so.”

I beg the reader to forgive my painfully literal translation of the passage from Matthew’s gospel.  It was necessary, to make as clear as possible the radical nature of what Jesus is saying here about marriage.  In English, the word “begin” is inceptive in meaning.  The first inning is the beginning of a baseball game.  The letter A is the beginning of the alphabet.  Then the innings and the letters go on, and what follows may have little to do with what came before.  But that is not the case with the Greek arche.

That word is more than inceptive.  It is ontologically foundational.  As the head is the “first” or primary member of a body, the arche is the first and governing principle, and is not limited to a specific time.  That fits well with what Jesus is saying about marriage.  He does not say that, once upon a time in a world far away, men and women did not divorce.  He’s saying that the indissoluble union of man and woman is built into the order of the world, as it was and is and shall be.  

Notice that He is not appealing to a “previous” law, one that pre-dated Moses’ permission of divorce.  That’s not the point.  There is no reason why an old law should be preferred to a new law, simply on the basis of age.  The point is that this law is ageless.  It may be abrogated or ignored, but it can never be altered or discarded, no more than we can discard the very nature of mankind.

The Pharisees were expecting a rabbinical commentary on the Torah, and instead they are advised to attend to the meaning of creation itself, of being-male and being-female.  This meaning applies to all men, not only to Jews. Jesus reaches back behind any division of mankind into the chosen race and everyone else.

         The Marriage at Cana by Marten de Vos, c. 1596

Therefore any Christian who believes that “church” marriage is one thing, and “civil” marriage another, is denying the full import of the words of Christ.  We do not believe that, if we happen to be Catholic, we may not divorce.  We believe that the law against divorce applies to people generally, as in some measure the blessings of marriage are bestowed even upon a man and woman who marry and who do not know the Gospel or the name of Christ.  When Adam took Eve to wife, there was in their awareness no other Church than they two, their union, and the God above.

It follows that every attack upon marriage must necessarily be a rebellion, an apostasy, against the Creator, and an attack upon man himself.  The violence of divorce is suggested by the barely submerged metaphors in the Greek verbs: to get rid of, to tear apart, to rise up against.  It is all the more deplorable when the attack comes from a supposedly Christian society; but it is an evil wherever and whenever it occurs, and, like all evil, it brings its own punishment upon the people who practice it, encourage it, or condone it.

We do not have to wait for the whole world to profess the name of Jesus, and to see the enchantment of all creation, including the majesty and divinity of man, male and female.  That enchantment, that majesty and divinity, already exist.  There already is something sacramental in the union of man and woman in marriage, even among the pagans.  I am not saying that their wedding is a sacrament in the strict sense; but I am affirming the holiness of what they are doing, even if it is encrusted with human errors and ignorance and folly.

It’s wrong for us to detach Jesus’ statement about marriage from His expressed context – the foundation of things, the Creator’s intent – and relocate it in some neo-Mosaic law.  That would turn us into Pharisees; marriage for me, and who cares what for thee.  Oh, we would be Pharisees of a more affable (and cowardly) sort, since we’d mainly keep our sense of moral superiority to ourselves, so as not to bruise any pagan feelings.

We must be absolutely clear about this.  We can no more countenance divorce, much less fornication or sodomy or other aberrancies, than we can countenance theft, murder, or depraved indifference to human life.  We may tolerate it in one context or another, because attempting to get rid of it will embroil us in worse evils; but we can never assent to it permanently.  It is a grave evil, and there’s an end on it.  To be “pluralistic” about it in principle is no more permitted to us than to be “pluralistic” about murder.

Nor should we hug ourselves, we Catholics, when we see that our Christian brothers have fallen into madness and incoherence on this and the other sexual issues. That would be like cheering to see our brothers catching typhus.  In this fight we need all the allies we can find.  And we must fight.  Truth and charity demand it.


Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.