When is Marriage Built on Self-Giving rather than Self-Seeking?

Reflection for the 27th Sunday. Year B. 2018
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Archway, London 


A man and his wife quarrelled as they drove past a farm. Pointing at the animals in the farm; goats, donkeys and ass, the man sarcastically asked – are those your relatives? The wife replies ‘yes’ they are my in-laws.

This Sunday’s Gospel addresses divorce in marriage, a very sensitive and challenging reality of life in our time. Disturbingly, as many as half of the marriages end in divorce in some places today. And, apart from the divorces that have been determined, where couples go their separate ways, there are marriages that have long ceased to exist though the couples still hang in there.

Being in such marriages where people are neither in nor out could actually be worse. I know of a woman who looks forward to when she will become a widow and a man who keeps wishing that the world would come to an end.

For some, the pain of divorce is too great that they can’t contemplate another marriage. And there are the children who are the real victims; who will live with the knock-on effects of their parents’ marriage falling apart.

The Law of Moses as set out in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 clearly allows for a man to divorce his wife. It says: “If a man takes a wife, and after they are married she is unpleasing to him because of something objectionable in her, let him give her a statement in writing and send her away from his house. And when she has gone away from him, she may become another man’s wife.”

So, divorce is settled, the only thing that is debatable is what constitutes “something objectionable”. For some, it could be something as trivial as a woman mistakenly burning her husband’s food. For others, a woman doesn’t even need to be guilty of any offence; that the man simply no longer fancied her was enough reason to divorce her.

So, as the plotting Pharisees asked Jesus if it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife, Jesus went above the prescriptions of the Law to the mind of God as revealed in Genesis: “From the beginning of creation”, he said, “God ordained husband and wife to live in unity: Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate”.

In other words, aim for the ideal, which God has ordained for you. Why manage decline instead? Why look back? Why limiting or subjecting yourself to the minimal which the Law can offer? Why target minimum wage when you are destined for the maximum?

Another implication of this response is that Jesus treats the woman as a person as opposed to the Jewish tradition of the time that regarded the woman more or less as the property of the man to be disposed of at will.

In fact, his ruling that neither the husband nor the wife should seek divorce is the first time the idea that a woman could as well be the initiator of divorce was introduced in Jewish thought. In other words, Jesus treats the woman as a legal person too; of equal standing with the man.

Thus, Jesus affirms the teaching of the Church that a validly contracted (sacramental) marriage cannot be dissolved. A sacrament is defined as an outward sign of an inward grace. It expresses a deeper reality other than itself.

In the case of marriage, the union of husband and wife gives expression to Christ’s relationship with his bride the church. Hence, to appreciate the gravity of the bond of marriage, we have to look at the nature of the relationship between Christ and his church which marriage is meant to demonstrate to the world.

The nature of that relationship as demonstrated by Christ is that of total self-giving. Christ emptied himself unconditionally to his bride even unto death. That is the love husband and wife owe each other. Thus, it is a covenant where a husband says to the wife, my life is no longer about me but about you and the children that we have and the wife says the same to the husband.

Embraced in this way, marriage becomes a way of being united to Christ through love of the other – a real path to sanctification (holiness).

Only when approached in this way – living totally for the good of the other, can either of the parties find the fulfilment of marriage. That is what the characters in the TV series Desperate Housewives failed to realize. No one on the programme is really happy or satisfied with life in spite of their riches. Their lives are desperate and their marriages dysfunctional mainly because they do not realize that marriage is built on self-giving rather than self-seeking.

Meanwhile, marriages don’t just happen; they are made. As with everything that is meant to succeed, it begins with good preparation, the minimum being having quality courtship and marriage course. These should help parties to at least discern their compatibility for marriage.

Yes, it is said that opposites attract, that’s true, but do they live happily ever after? I doubt. Hence, parties for marriage should have appreciable degree of agreement on the core values of life; family, children, work, money, sex. Having a shared sense of humour also helps. You don’t want to be married to someone who doesn’t know when you are joking or when you are serious.

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