In case you think I'm about to wuss out of controversy, those words didn't come from me, but from that arch-liberal 6th-century Pope St Gregory the Great. Yet it's funny how in every generation the popular truths of Christianity seem to echo the moral preoccupations of our grandparents. They're often sold as "Christian values," a handy way of agreeing with the bits of Christian teaching that happen to accord to one's particular prejudices without having to go to the intellectual effort of thinking about all of that supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
But Christianity isn't a list of values. The Bible isn't a Haynes manual. It's the God's life-story, and life's more complex than a clapped-out Anglia. Imagine if someone tried to take your life, the relations you've had, everything you've said and done, and extract from it a set of values, take it as the blueprint for social conventions. If it won't work for us relatively simple organisms (I speak for myself), then it won't work for God, and definitely not for the God we know in the life of Jesus. If we want to find truth in him, we need to know him as a person, not as a textbook.
So imagine him: Yeshua, his name later Latinised as Jesus, a Jew living in Roman-occupied Palestine, and with his people that occupation rankles. Never mind that the Romans are relatively sensitive, that they've grudgingly allowed worship in the Temple at Jerusalem: their soldiers don't want to be in this sandy armpit-of-the-universe posting among these peasant fanatics. They can't even ogle the girls, because they're all covered up. And as for the natives, their prophets have been banging on about how unfaithful they are to their God, how adulterous and sluttish they have been to him, and they're convinced this Roman imposition is a punishment for their sins. So when their God, the only God, is just about tolerated, given a little slot among Cloaca, goddess of sewers, and Verminus, god of cattle worms, they are not best pleased. Nor do they like the way these Romans throw their money around, the way they put their slaves into the pits and pay to watch them kill each other for a laugh, the way they share their wives and children at extravagant orgies, the way their culture uses people and throws them aside when they're done. Minor acts of terrorism ensue, followed by public executions; tensions rise. Think of us as the Romans and the Jews as Afghans or Iraqis, and you've got the idea.
This is the environment Jesus came to preach in. He wasn't the only one. There were other teachers: some attacking their brethren for being too accommodating to the Roman way of life, some exhorting a return to absolute obedience to the Law of Moses, one getting people to wash themselves of their sins in the River Jordan.
And some of these, Pharisees, come to test Jesus' mettle. They've heard he's broken the sabbath, he publicly keeps company with women and untouchables: is he some kind of anarchist? Let's test him. Let's give him a tricky question that's been vexing us of late: Moses' Law allows divorce, but the Prophet Malachi said God hates it. So which is right?
In Mark's version, Jesus barely touches on the Law of Moses. He goes straight back to Creation, to Genesis 2, and says that men and women are meant to be together, and if God has joined them, we should not split them. Genesis 2, by the way, is a separate story of creation from the more familiar - and contradictory - one in Genesis 1. It's older, mostly Babylonian, with God acting in a much more crudely physical and human sort of way, so don't get too hung up on the idea of Eve being created from Adam's rib. It's not meant to be historically true in the modern sense, and Genesis 1 is a corrective to it. But Jesus is quoting it for its spiritual truth: the one God wills oneness, and separation goes against his design.
His disciples want to know more. It gets difficult here, because Jesus' reply differs depending on whether it's Mark, Matthew or Luke who reports it. In Mark, uniquely, Jesus speaks out against both men and women divorcing. But in Jewish law, women had no power of divorce. Roman law, though, did allow women to divorce their husbands. The Gospel here is meeting the contemporary situation of Roman readers, but is unlikely to have come from the lips of Jesus.
Matthew and Luke's accounts are more likely, because in them, Jesus assumes that only men have the power to divorce: and he says that they shouldn't. Why? Well, bear in mind that it was only towards the end of the 19th century in this country that we stopped treating women as legal property. It would be a bit much to expect 1st century Palestine to be leaps and bounds ahead of their time. In Jesus' time, it was easy for a man to dump his wife whenever he got bored of her because she was too old, too ravaged by multiple childbirth, or because he'd found someone more interesting. And once they were dumped, they were soiled goods. As Jesus says, if you divorce your wife, it's as though she's an adulteress. Nobody would want her. Women didn't have jobs in those days, so divorcing your wife basically condemned her to poverty, slavery or prostitution. You're treating her like the Romans do. So, Jesus says no.
There's no doubt that Jesus condemns divorce, but there is another text, in Matthew, where he makes an exception (those in the trade call it the 'Matthaean exception'): "except on the grounds of adultery." Now, if we are going to take Jesus' words as a hard and fast law, logically we have to say that divorce is sometimes legitimate, but only when there is adultery. Wife-beating, physical or mental abuse, abandoning the family - you've just got to put up with those. Barmy - but if you think that the Bible is a kind of infallible Haynes manual, then that's the only conclusion you're left with. So I put it to you again: the truth is to be found in the wider story of God's life in Jesus, not in the jot or tittle.
And truth can be found. Good grief, we know, in today's throwaway society, where people are just used and dumped when they're not interesting any more in a series of 'relationships' and that's seen as a good and normal thing, where divorce can practically be at the whim of one bored partner - we know that divorce is bad, it's horrible, damaging, and almost all divorced people will tell you that it's nothing to celebrate, however awful the marriage was. And in that damage and pain and more often than not anger, there is bound to be sin. Jesus might name that sin as adultery, but remember he said that anyone who even looks at anyone else lustfully commits adultery. He always takes the law to impossible lengths to show that we are all sinners. And also remember that when his fellow Jews were about to stone a woman to death for adultery, he stopped them and told her, "I do not condemn you." Sin is not the last word in Christianity. It's forgiveness. Yes, we must proclaim the essential good of marriage, the bond of unity, the antithesis of utilitarian relationships, the strength of loving even the enemy who shares our bed - but there may be worse sin continuing some marriages than ending them.
Let's end with a slightly juicy example from ancient Catholic tradition. It comes from another old liberal, St Jerome, 4th century polemicist and translator of the Bible. A lady he knew had a bit of marriage trouble: her husband was being very naughty with some other ladies - and their male friends. She asked Jerome if this justified her divorcing him. He said no, but she went ahead anyway - and remarried. Later, Jerome wrote to her saying that if Matthew's exception ('except adultery') applied to men, it should apply to women, too: and citing St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, he added that anyway, in such "a case of necessity," it was "better to marry than to burn." Now there's a Christian reading of the Bible. But then again, Jerome was once caught wearing a lady's blue dress. There are pictures. Google it.