We’re all aware that Jesus calls some people into ministry or, as the Catholics would say, into religious life. But have you ever considered how Jesus looked upon married life? Actually, his vision of marriage is magnificent. Let’s look at Mark 10:1-12 to learn more.
Divorce and Marriage
Jesus is in the area of Judea, near the Jordan River. Crowds gather around. As was his habit, he teaches them. Some pharisees approach, looking for a way to trip him up. They ask him about marriage. They ask whether divorce is permissible.
It’s interesting they ask this. At some point, Jesus must have said something to make them think that he might have different views from the accepted Mosaic teaching on divorce (Cf. Dt 24:1). They would have been well aware that, since the time of Moses, divorce was permitted among Jewish people.
As ever, Jesus responds to a veiled attack with patient teaching. First, he calls their attention to the law.
“What did Moses command you?” he asks them.
They reply: “Moses authorized a husband to write a decree of divorce and to send his spouse away.”
A lesser rabbi would have stopped right there because, at the time, this was accepted teaching. But Jesus was not a lesser rabbi. He responds to them:
“It is because of your hardness of heart that Moses wrote this commandment.”
What Jesus does here would have been unthinkable to his hearers. He is interpreting – with authority – the intent of the Mosaic law. He’s saying that he knows Moses’ intention in formulating this law. The ears of his listeners must have perked up. The ire of his enemies would have been piqued as well.
Jesus continues: Moses permitted divorce, he says, but “from the beginning of creation, God created them man and woman. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Therefore, they are not two but one flesh. And what God has joined together man ought not separate.” (Mk. 1:6-9, quoting Gen 1:27 and Gen 2:24).
Note that with these verses Jesus moves from the Mosaic Law to the divine principle upon which that law rests. He is moving his hearers into deeper waters.
This is a bold move that only one with transcendent authority would make. He’s saying Moses allowed for divorce, but from the moment of creation there was a deeper divine intent for marriage. And divorce is not part of that intent.
Jesus is showing a kind of magisterial authority over Scripture here. It may not be obvious, but he is quoting, in succession, from two different accounts of creation in Genesis. He’s weaving them together into a single thread.
In Mark 10:6, he quotes from the first account of creation; then in verse 7, he skips straight to the second account of creation. Thus he is weaving the two accounts seamlessly into one, in a way we will discuss later:
As moderns, we might quibble with the lack of scientific specificity in these two creation accounts, but Jesus is clearly affirming their theological truth. He is saying that a man and woman joined in marriage are no longer two but one flesh. He then repeats the one flesh phrase, saying that what God has joined together man must not separate.
Thus Jesus counters the Mosaic law allowing for divorce. He is saying that there is a unity and dignity in marriage, willed by God at our creation, which should overcome the tendency toward division that marks every human relationship. Which should argue against divorce. Jesus doesn’t outlaw divorce but he does seem to claim that it runs against the will of the Creator. This a perspective worthy of consideration.
But I want to look at one phrase in particular. “One flesh.” Jesus quotes this phrase from Genesis 2:24, and then he repeats it in his own words. It’s clearly important. What does he mean by it?
It’s obviously not meant to be taken literally. A husband and wife do not literally become one flesh. In the act of marital communion, there is a physical unity but this unity is not permanent. A husband and wife clearly remain two people.
So what does Jesus mean when he invokes this phrase?
Homo-ousios and the Communion of Persons in the Trinity
As I prayed about the phrase “one flesh” as a description of marriage, the phrase homo-ousios came to mind. This is the term the early Church used to define the relationship between Jesus and the Father. It was coined in 325 AD at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea and it appears in the Nicene Creed. It means one in substance or the same substance (homo meaning same in Greek, ousios meaning substance). It defines the understanding that Jesus is distinct as a person but the same in substance with the Father. Father and Son share a unity of substance such that they desire, will, and act toward the same ends in perfect concord. With the Spirit they form three persons in a communion of substance, a unity of ousios. Or something like that. I speak only as much as I can understand these things.
I wonder if the one flesh union between man and woman on earth is meant to mirror the one substance communion of the Trinity in heaven.
A Single Gaze Upon the Mystery of Creation
This would help to explain why Jesus weaves a unity between the Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 creation accounts. He is drawing a synthesis between these two accounts of creation. He want his hearers to hold to the insights of both visions.
This might seem confusing but it’s not. To restate what I observed above: there are 2 accounts of the creation of man and woman in Genesis. Gen 1: 26-31 and Gen 2:18-25. These are like different Gospel accounts of the same scene. Each emphasizes a different angle of the larger truth that perhaps a single account can’t capture. We’re in the domain of poetry, not math. What Jesus does in Mark 10 is to weave both these accounts into a fundamental unity.
So in contemplating what Jesus means by the phrase “And the two become one flesh” in Genesis 2, we need look back at how this unity was described in Genesis 1.
Here is the full verse, including the one Jesus cited:
So God created humanity in his image,
In the image of God he created them;
Male and female he created them.
God blessed them and God said to them
‘Be fruitful and multiply…’ (Gen 1: 27-28)
In other words, humanity mirrors God’s nature precisely in the relationship between man and woman and in their fruitfulness in passing life on to others. Man alone does not mirror God’s image. Man and woman do, in the relationship between them.
This is why Jesus jointly ties the two verses – and the two accounts – together. He means to say that in the union of a man and woman in marriage – in the one flesh union – we see an image of God himself. God as Trinity, dwelling in consubtantial unity between Father, Son and Spirit. A unity that is fruitful. A unity that engenders life.
Mirroring the Love and Life of the Trinity
This holds the key for us. The physical unity that characterizes a husband and wife is more than a description of the marital act. It is a physical echo of the substantial unity that exists within the Trinity. As Jesus and the Father are homo-ousios, consubstantial, sharing a unity of substance, so a husband and wife are called to echo and mirror this unity and its fruitfulness on earth.
That echo is first felt physically, by the emotional union the spouses experience in the first stages of love. It is felt in the marital act. It is felt by the shared occupation of living space, common food, common pursuits. And it is felt in the union of wills for the family’s good, in the deep intimacy of listening and knowledge of the other; in the nurturing of young beings who share the common human traits of the unified humanity – the unified flesh – of their parents.
I’m straining to describe this. Here’s a final effort. What if we could make a heat map of two human lives, drawn together in love? I mean some kind time-lapse visual measurement of the existential and physical data of human action between husband and wife over the course of a lifetime. What would we see? What would such a life map show? We would see two points of light (the husband and wife), at one moment in time merged in marriage, actions intersecting closely from that point forward, a surge of fruitfulness when a child is born, many bursts of nobility through countless act of sacrificial giving; drips of sweetness and tenderness growing with the passing of time, a slowing of things as the year pass, an evolution into a fine togetherness of thought and sensibility. Think of all those times of feet locked in common stride (the long walks together), fingers interlaced as the couple walks. Think of the chest to chest embraces at the beginning and end of each day, the lips touching to express affection, cheeks next to cheek, whispered greetings and exchanges; seats next to one another at dinner tables, shoulders touching at baptisms, graduations, weddings, and funerals; eyes locked in earnest conversation so many times over the years, hearts beating in anticipation and longing during long absences and subsequent reunions. Think of the many times one spouse gives themself for the sake of the other or for the children. Think of the last moments, one spouse keeping vigil by the bed of the other as a final breath leaves the lungs and a final beat of the heart fades to silence.
If we could we ever gain such a distilled insight into the essence of marriage through some kind of single visual metaphor, what would we see?
I think it would be a flame. A single flame made brighter on the day two flames joined together. Two flames becoming one, giving rise, in time, to other flames. This fruitful flame being an image of the great flame in heaven that is the glory of the Trinity.
Father, you who are homo-ousios with your Son, you create us to mirror the image of your life in the Trinity. You call me and my spouse to mirror on earth your consubstantial unity and fruitfulness with the Son and Spirit in heaven. Amen. Let it be to us according to your word.