The District of Columbia City Council against the wishes of the majority of citizens today imposed a new definition of Marriage. Refusing to put the important issue to vote, 11 of the 13 Council members have used legislative fiat to force this redefinition of marriage.
It occurred to me to wonder what Jesus would say about the redefining of Marriage that is happening in this country of the last number of years? Many today insist that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality or so-called Gay Marriage. Such a remark of course distorts the understanding that the same Holy Spirit who inspired and authored the four Gospels also authored all the epistles and there is plenty of teaching against homosexual activity there.
However, even if we accept the limit imposed that we should find Jesus himself saying something, we are not without any text. In Matthew 19 Jesus does actually address himself to the confused understanding of marriage among the Gentiles. Let me first give the text and then some background and interpretation. I am using here the Catholic NAB translation:
[Jesus said] whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” (Matt 19:9)
Now the phrase, “unless the marriage is unlawful” translates a Greek word πορνείᾳ (porneia). The usual meaning of the word is “fornication” (i.e. sex between two unmarried people). However, depending on context porneia can refer to other forms of sexual contact which are illicit or irregular by biblical standards. For example many Greek lexicons (e.g. Strongs and also Thayer & Smith) define porneia broadly as “illicit sexual intercourse” and then go on to define porneia more generally to include, fornication, homosexual activitity, lesbian activity, intercourse with animals, sexual intercourse with close relatives ( as spelled out in Leviticus 18), or sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman. Protestants tend to include adultery in the definition of porneia more than Catholics. We do not since there is another Greek word (μοιχᾶται – moichatai) for adultery. We therefore do not consider adultery to be grounds for divorce based on either Matt 19 or Mat 5.
So, fundamentally porneia most often means fornication (pre-marital sex) but it can mean other illicit things as well. Why then does Jesus utter this “exception” to the otherwise air-tight prohibition of divorce? The answer would seem to lie in the mission to the Gentiles. As the Gospel left the Jewish-only world and reached out to the Gentile world it encountered a very sexually confused, even depraved world. All sorts of strange sexual practices were tolerated and even tied into some of the pagan religious practices. Gentile notions of marriage were often at wide variance from Jewish ones. Gentiles often called “marriage” what the Judeo-Christians would call incest. There were also difficulties encountered with homosexual unions and other arrangements that the Christian Church could not and would not recognize. (The most thorough discussion of this background that you will find is in the Navarre Biblical Commentary).
So, in effect Jesus is declaring that certain so-called marriages that featured porneia (some form of illicit sexual union) were not marriages at all and that his forbiddance of divorce should not be seen as applying to these illicit unions. The implication is that since such unions were not conisdered marriage at all, one could and should leave them without being guilty of divorce and they were free to enter a licit marriage. The bottom line is this: there was a defined understanding of Marriage which Jesus insisted on and he freely declared that just because someone called something marriage didn’t make it marriage.
We seem to have come full circle in our own day. Many have wanted to redefine marriage into something other than a man and a women in a fruitful (child-bearing) relationship until death do them part. I have little doubt, based on biblical evidence alone that Jesus would call such redefinitions “not marriage at all.” I also have no doubt what Jesus would say based on the fact that he still speaks through the living Tradition and Magisterium of the Church. Jesus said to the first Apostles, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). Hence, by faith, I have no doubt what Jesus would say since he speaks a resounding “NO” through his Church which stands so clearly against this attempt to redefine marriage.
Bottom line: Jesus would say “No” I have it on the best of authority: Scripture and Tradition speaking through the Magisterium.