We have been reflecting on what God is saying to the Church today through the prophet Malachi. After reproving priests for their failure to teach, Malachi turns his attention to the state of marriage among God’s people, focusing on two problems. He asks,
Why then do we break faith with each other, violating the covenant of our fathers? Judah has broken faith; an abominable thing has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem. Judah has profaned the temple which the Lord loves, and has married an idolatrous woman. (Mal 2:10-11, NAB)
The prophet is referring to the men of Israel marrying foreign wives who worshiped pagan gods. Intermarriage was forbidden by the Torah (Deut 7:1-4), although it was commonly practiced. In fact this practice by Israel’s kings, including Solomon, contributed greatly to the nation turning away from God to idols and becoming subject to judgment and exile (1 Kings 11; 2 Kings 23:13). After the return from exile there was a concerted effort to avoid this sin, but in Malachi’s day the practice had crept back.
The second problem that Malachi addresses was an epidemic of divorce. The people of Judah noticed that God was not accepting their sacrifices, hearing their prayers or blessing their land, and they were asking why not.
It would be wise if we American Catholics reflected on the troubles of our Church, nation, and families and asked ourselves the same question. Is God is trying to tell us something?
Perhaps the Jews of Malachi’s day were surprised to learn that what displeased the Lord so much was divorce:
Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant….
And what does the one Goddesire? Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. (Mal 2:14-15, NRSV)
Two points are noteworthy. First, that the Lord takes marriage vows and the marriage covenant seriously—he calls himself a witness to marriage. He therefore judges the men of Israel for being “faithless,” i.e., for breaking their vows.
Second, Malachi reveals the divine intention that motivates God’s teaching about marriage: God desires “godly offspring.” Divorce or marriage to someone who doesn’t worship the Lord undermines the godly formation of the next generation.
The following stern words and direct address leave no doubt about God’s perspective on the matter:
For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless. (Mal 2:16)
Jesus strengthens Old Testament teaching against divorce (Matt 19:3-9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor 7:10-15) and the New Testament continues to teach against marrying outside the faith (1 Cor 7:39; 9:5; 2 Cor 6:14-16), although Paul gives advice to those who find themselves in this situation (1 Cor 7:12-16).
If marrying outside the faith and divorce was displeasing to the Lord in Malachi’s day, we can be sure the same is true in our day. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and Catholic marriages fail at almost the same rate as the rest of the society.
God judged his people for these practices in Malachi’s day, so it should come as no surprise today when individuals, the Church, and the nation experience troubles and suffering rather than blessing.
If Malachi were prophesying now, he would undoubtedly also denounce the premarital sex and cohabitation has become commonplace among Christians for nearly a generation. When my wife and I attended a marriage preparation retreat for engaged couples at a nearby parish twenty years ago, we were the only couple on the retreat that was not cohabiting. Premarital sexual relations and cohabitation have become a new social norm that faithful Christians require great courage and self-control to resist.
This disobedience to God’s teaching regarding the intrinsic link between sex and marriage ought not to characterize people who have the word of God, the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the sacraments. However, a vicious cycle has set in: premarital sex and cohabitation sometimes lead to marriage to unbelievers, sometimes to marital unfaithfulness, sometimes to divorce, and often to offspring who do not grow up knowing God or his ways, so the cycle continues.
Something has gone terribly wrong. Yet contemporary responses to sex and marriage problems among Catholics often echo the same two wrong responses that displeased the Lord in Malachi’s day:
You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, ‘How have we wearied him?’ By saying, ‘Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.’
Or by asking, ‘Where is the God of justice?’ (Mal 2:17)
Some give up on resisting societal pressures and offer false reassurance about the acceptability of disobeying God’s teaching. Others disapprove of how marriage is commonly approached among Christians but despair that anything can be done about it and wring their hands.
What can be done about the state of marriage among us?
First, we should deliberately reject the two responses that the Lord condemned in Israel: accommodation and despair.
Second, we should repent for the ways in which we are, or have been part of the problem, rather than the solution! God is very merciful and can bring good out of our past sinful choices.
Third, we should pray and repent on behalf of God’s people, asking that God have mercy on us. Prayer is powerful! Remember Elijah (James 5:17-18)! Remember Jesus’ extraordinary promises (John 14:12-14; 15:16; 16:23-26)!
Finally, we should learn, practice and faithfully tell others what God’s word says about marriage, sex, divorce, and raising children in the Lord (Deut 6:6-9, 20-25; Eph 6:4).
We should focus our prayer and our speaking on the people for whom the Lord has given us particular responsibility—friends, family, students, parishioners, etc. We should pray for wisdom about how we speak (see Matt 7:3-5; 18:15; Gal 6:1-2; 2 Tim 2:24-26), but then speak.
It’s not too late. Many will not respond, but some will. Our job is to proclaim God’s word “in season and out of season, [to] convince, rebuke, and exhort, [to] be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). Like Jesus, we are called to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). We plant the seeds; God will cause them to grow in people’s hearts, even if some reject the message.
In the next chapter of Malachi, the last chapter in the Old Testament, God declares that he himself is about to act. Among other things, Malachi says that God will respond to those who repent and have compassion on them. He will distinguish between the just and the wicked, between those who serve him and those who do not (Mal 3:17-18).
I’ll write more on the action God intends to take and the Lord’s call to repentance in the next installment.
To see the previous posts in this series, go to