It is instructive to see what Jesus actually says about divorce. We expect a thunderous denunciation, because that’s what we have heard from the church but (as usual) Jesus is a bit more nuanced. He says that the reason for divorce is not sin or evil but sclerocardia.
This is a word people with even passing knowledge of heart disease will be able to figure out. We’re familiar enough with arteriosclerosis the scarring/hardening of arteries to know that sclerosis means “hardening” and most folks can figure out that cardia means “heart.” Taken together, these mean the condition known as “scarred/hardened heart” is the reason for divorce.
Jesus then describes the goal or ideal toward which marriage reaches: each person leaving their family and clinging (older translations say “cleaving”) to their spouse. He goes on to point out that this clinging, this cleaving, makes them one flesh, one being, created new by God with the admonition that what God puts together ought not be divided by humans.
To an extent this does make sense. In marriage God makes a new being, a new creation, a new creature so the idea that humans would perform a vivisection on this creature is shocking. But we do these vivisections at a rapid clip these days. So where does that reality meet Jesus’ words? It’s in the sclerocardia.
You see, Jesus puts the “blame” for divorce on hardened hearts, on hearts so covered over with scar tissue (scars which may have had nothing to do with the marriage by the way) that they cannot unite in the union God makes. Hardened hearts that cannot open to each other, that cannot join together, that cannot reach for the new life and hope which is present in marriage. Hardened hearts that stay closed.
There’s another reason that these hard hearts do not open to each other, it has to do with leaving home. To an extent, we will always bring our families with us into marriage. We are a product of that family, we are part of the system of that family. We have heart habits which grew in our families and we carry those habits and ideas with us into marriage. To be healthy however, we need to leave our families.
The person we were before marriage, with all the childhood habits and connections, is not a person who can actually be deeply opened to someone who is not a family insider. Family habits make sense to and reinforce family but they are not open to outsiders. If someone wants to come into the family, they are supposed to change and be exactly like the family.
The problem then is that two people expect the other person to change completely and become “just like my family” this way lies madness and tears. Some marriages work where one person gives up their family and becomes like the other’s family, but there will always be a division within the one who conformed. Others find a way to work around each other’s family assumptions, leaving unchanged the heart habits of childhood. Both of these systems (and most of the variations thereof) are unstable because somewhere, someone is still clinging to their family and not their spouse.
It would make sense then, that a marriage built on unscarred hearts by people who leave their family in order to cling to each other would be the most stable and likely to succeed. But that sort of marriage is unlikely because we pick up heart scars early and heart habits are part of the nature of growing up in a family. This suggests that true and healthy marriage is impossible, a dream of perfection beyond the reach of mere mortals. But Jesus is in the ‘impossible’ business.
He is the one who says “behold, I make all things new” (things like scarred hearts). He is the one who proclaims liberty to those captive in old family systems. He sets people free from weakness, and raises the very dead. In his power, sclerocardia can be cured and with his help we can leave our family to make something new, to be someone new, with someone who is also being made new by that same Jesus.