Jesus on Marriage

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 made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one'? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." (Mt 19:3-6)

This is the only bible passage where Jesus speaks directly of marriage (with due respect to Mt 22:30). First point of interest: "Have you not read..." Jesus frames his explanation of marriage within the reference points of the Torah texts of Gn 1:27 and 2:24. Let's review starting with the first text:

And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds." And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day. (Gn 1:24-31)

God creates male and female. Then He tells them to be fruitful and multiply. The literal implication here is fairly clear: the purpose of male & female is for propagation. But the spiritual context here is that they were created in His image and likeness - this is a Hebrew genealogical expression implying that they were created to be God's children (cf. Gn 5:3 - Adam and his son, Seth). This is a covenantal image, establishing Adam & Eve as children of God. The covenant of God is the sharing of God's life with Adam & Eve, therefore the image of male/female/fruitfulness is iconic of that covenant.

So what can we conclude about Jesus' referencing this text? To start with, marriage is God's design, the work of “He who made.” "He who made them from the beginning made them male and female." Marriage is not a human construct, but a divine one. Whatever God intended of marriage, it is His to intend; it cannot be ours to do with as we choose. Like any other creature, our consideration of marriage is not one of definition, but of discovery. And we discover here that marriage is between male and female. Why? Because of fruitfulness, because of the propagation of life; this covenantal image is intrinsic to marriage. Marriage and life are essentially related. Thus, marriage requires openness to life; the human action which is most closely related to marriage – the sexual act – must be open to life, otherwise it is not an act of marriage, as it repudiates the very essence of marriage. If we Christians believe in this Christian notion of marriage, then we must live by it. Now let’s review the second text Jesus quoted:

The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man 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 which 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 leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Gen 2:20-24)

In this narrative, Adam names all of the animals, by which he forms his relationship with each one. But he can find no satisfactory relationship with any of them. This was God teaching Adam that, although created with animals, his place in the world is not with them, being called to a covenantal relationship with God. So God creates Eve, using Adam’s flesh as the start point. Adam can have a relationship with Eve, which he cannot have with any other animal. The purpose of this second creation story is to show, through the matrimony of Adam & Eve, that God’s covenant with us separates us from the other animals. Jesus quotes the final verse, that a man leaves his old family to form a new family with his wife. Again, the concept here is family, specifically the creation of a new family. And a characteristic of this new family is “they become one flesh.” How can a husband and wife become one flesh? Through the children born to them; the children are the combined flesh of the parents.

Yet, Jesus says the couple are one; no longer two, but one. So there is more to this oneness or one flesh than merely the procreation of children. The husband and wife themselves are united into one. Now, the nature of the covenant is to establish a kinship bond between two people who are not natural kin. This is what matrimony does. But matrimony is a common icon in the bible, used to reflect the covenant between God and us. There were other covenants in ancient Semitic culture – why choose matrimony among them to reflect God’s covenant? Because God’s covenant is based on love; it is this love that unites us to Him. Love has a particular unitive property, which is exactly why it is so important in our Faith. And among all of the forms of human covenant, only matrimony involves love. It is this love between husband and wife that unites them and makes them one; in the same way, it is Divine Love that unites us with God and makes us one with Him. Thus, matrimony is a true icon of our relationship with God, a relationship based on unifying love and which leads to sharing/propagation of life: grace. Marriage is, in the natural world, what grace is in the supernatural.

The final point of Jesus is that this matrimonial union is God’s work, not our own. God joins the couple together. A basic tenet of Christianity is that when God speaks, reality happens ("Let there be light," and there was light). If God joins together, then it is a real joining together; it is not a symbol, it is a reality. Let's remember that marriage is a creature of God, not itself a mere human construct.