Jesus says ‘from the beginning of creation, male and female he made them.’ The Pharisees ask a question about how to regulate family life and social stability. Jesus goes beyond all of that because he is not a social reformer aiming to ensure that society is better regulated. He is bringing about a new creation which will heal the wounds of the first and open new possibilities for a renewed humanity. In the beginning God created them male and female. Adam and Eve were no longer two but one flesh. They were joined together in a loving, intimate union by God’s own design.
The Pharisees’ question suggests that this original purpose was difficult to sustain. They ask about severing the ties that bind a man and a woman. How can this one flesh be separated? Jesus says that the practice deriving from Moses was a response to their ‘hardness of heart.’ He uses a word which comes into English as ‘sclerosis’. When we become sclerotic we become less flexible, less supple, less accommodating. Life becomes narrower for us. Jesus says that Moses was responding to this increasing sclerotic pathology which affects not only the life of individuals but also their social and religious life. What Moses devised was a temporary remedy. He could not heal the original wound but found a way to limit its negative effects. It was an expedient.
Jesus is not interested in finding expedients. His mission is to heal the original wound suffered in the garden by that first couple. His is a mission of restoration and elevation. He comes to heal and to raise us. A consequence of original sin was the fracture in the relationship between God and humanity. It resulted also in the damaged relationship between man and woman. When challenged about his disobedience, Adam’s first reaction is to accuse his wife. He refuses to accept responsibility. He denies the relationship which exists between them, blaming God for giving her to him in the first place. The Lord then turns to Eve and says ‘your husband shall reign over you.’ The break in the bond of unity which results in the gender wars begins in the garden. Jesus says this is not how it was meant to be.
The restoration of creation, as St Mark shows us in this part of his Gospel, involves the healing of relationships; the fundamental relationship of husband and wife and also the proper treatment of children as the blessed fruitfulness of their union. Moses’ treatment of marital difficulties contained, but did not heal, the fracture resulting from the original sin. This policy of containment came at the cost of perpetuating the dislocation in the relationships between men and women, with the ones lording it over the others. It kept a certain kind of peace between genders, but only the kind that comes by way of subordination and subjection.
This is why Jesus broadens the meaning of adultery. Jewish Law defined adultery in such a way as to make it more applicable to women than to men. A man could commit adultery against another married man by seducing his wife, and a wife could commit adultery against her husband by infidelity, but a husband could not commit adultery against his wife. Jesus may seem very exacting in extending and developing the meaning of adultery, but it is largely with the intent of making it so that men and women are treated more equally. Jesus is elevating the status of the woman to the same dignity as her husband and puts the man under the same obligation of fidelity as his wife. They are two in one flesh, each bound to the same form of life. This is how it was meant to be. What had unfolded instead was a consequence of the selfishness and urge to power and independence which were the source of the original struggles in the garden. We continue to see those play out wherever marriages get into difficulties.
Jesus does not come to reform but to renew. He’s not commanding a few adjustments in the legal niceties of marriage law. No, he is offering men and women a radical new beginning.
In the beginning, the union of man and woman was seen as God’s last and greatest creative action. God does not give up on what he created. Men and women might, but not God. Jesus is the new beginning who comes to restore the first beauty of the creation, including the human creation. This new form of life is visible in the life of his bride, the Church. Christ, the new Adam, embraces his bride the Church, the new Eve. Damaged beauty receives a new design. They are two in one flesh, the body of Christ. Similarly, with marriage between a man and a woman, what God has joined together man must not separate because nothing can separate us from the love of Christ who came to make all things new.