To say that the Church’s teaching on marriage has caused more happiness than sorrow is an understatement.
In the Gospel this Sunday, the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Pharisees come to Jesus, and challenge him on the question of marriage.
In his responses to them, Jesus unleashes a teaching on marriage that would change the world and bring happiness to countless families for centuries.
We aren’t used to thinking of marriage as freeing, but it is.
The Pharisees’ question to Jesus is all about whether or not married couples can be divorced. Pharisees are legalists, and they want to treat marriage as a legalism from which they might get a legal out.
Jesus doesn’t give it to them. Instead he tells them about the beauty of marriage. By doing that, Jesus sparked a revolution of love that came to the rescue of women in the ancient world who were treated as property— and rescued couples to this day who would otherwise treat their marriage as their own property.
To say that the Church’s teaching on marriage has caused more happiness than sorrow is an understatement. Divorce doesn’t free us from unhappiness; the refusal to divorce frees us to be happy.
Research studies that follow married couples for decades find that most people experience periods of dissatisfaction, even “great dissatisfaction,” with their spouses. Those who stay married, however, usually begin reporting “satisfaction” again. But those who divorce often find themselves, soon enough, dissatisfied with someone new.
To weather the storms of marriage, the Church gives us three freeing rules. The first is indissolubility – the permanence of marriage.
There is no greater unity than what Jesus describes in the Gospel: “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
A marriage isn’t just a couple; it’s a unit. Two wills begin to work together. Two lives meld into a single reality. If that sounds easy, then you’ve never seen a marriage up close.
Jesus’ relationship with the Church is often compared to marriage and vice versa. The pain we feel in becoming one is like the pain Jesus felt becoming one with us: He had to push through our betrayal of him, even our crucifixion of him, to stay united to us.
But, as the Second Reading says, Jesus was “made perfect through suffering.” Likewise, the only way our love becomes perfected is through the suffering that comes with, for and even because of our spouse.
The Church’s second rule for marriage is fidelity — exclusive commitment to your spouse.
Jesus Christ stays faithful to us despite the pain of our infidelity to him because he knows what the alternative is: Without him, we would be all alone for eternity. And, as God says in the first reading, “it is not good to be alone.”
The pain of infidelity is loneliness. My infidelity isolates my spouse such that she feels abandoned and isolated. And my infidelity isolates me such that I betray my very identity, my marriage, to be alone with someone else.
This is because, as the first reading reveals, husband and wife are not complete without each other. Adam recognizes that Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” and clings to her, never letting go.
The Church’s third rule for marriage is openness to children.
The last secret to a happy marriage is children, as Sunday’s readings repeat over and over again.
May “your children [be] like olive plants around your table,” we pray in the Psalm. Jesus’ sacrifice is “bringing many children to glory,” says the Letter to the Hebrews. And the Gospel says, “Let the children come to me, do not prevent them.”
This is the full glory of Christian marriage, that it brings many more souls into the world to love and be loved.
In fact, the Church’s teaching on marriage is all designed not just to make you a better spouse, but to make you a better Christian.
What is the essence of the Christian life?
Jesus summed up the Ten Commandments this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
What better way to do that than to stick with your marriage — in obedience to God — and learn to love your spouse, the neighbor in your bed, as yourself?
Jesus’ Golden Rule is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That is exactly what we do in marital fidelity. We refuse to cheat on them — in any way, including flirting, pornography, or intimacy — because we would not want them to do that to us.
And children force us to work on improving ourselves and improving our world in order to improve them — in other words, they are the channel for faith, hope and love.
The Church’s teaching on marriage can change each of us, and change the world, if we let it.