Gen 2: 28-34
Heb 2: 9-11
Mk 10: 2-16
Our Gospel this Sunday begins with a legal question asked of Jesus by the Pharisees: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Being somewhat of a loaded question as it always was by the Pharisees, Jesus in typical Jewish style responds with another question: “What did Moses tell you?” Then the debate begins.
Now, our first reading from the Book of Genesis is a beautiful one put in context. “The Lord God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.” (Gen 2: 28). So we are presented this week as we begin Respect Life Month with two pictures. Genesis states that from the moment of creation, our God who creates purely out of love creates a being to love and to be loved. The suitable partner for the man was of course one created from the same substance as him – a woman; a partner with whom to share equally and to be seen as equal in nature and purpose. So, we interpret this as the foundation of the married state from God himself – two equal partners, created with dignity, not only for each other but together to be loved by God himself. Those two equal partners would be given a great privilege – to bring new life into the world and to do so motivated by selfless love because that is how they were created by God who can only love selflessly. And that union was not intended to be broken once joined together. It was a life-long bond that would be ended only at the time of death.
Now, we may see such a lofty idyllic image as more of a hope than a reality in light of what we see today. So, the Pharisees question in the Gospel may be closer to our lived experience. The whole question of divorce comes in, something that everyone of us in familiar with either in one’s family or maybe in your own personal experience.
With our present day sensibilities and properly correct language we may be a bit uncomfortable by this Sunday's Gospel. Jesus' commentary on marriage, divorce, and adultery is a challenge to the present day cultural experience of the 50% divorce rate, single parent households, the same-sex "marriage" debate, the not all uncommon infidelity we find in marriages, the silent monster of sexual abuse, the lower number of couples being married in a Church ceremony, the not uncommon number of unmarried couples living together (male/female) with an undecided sense of whether to ever marry, the number of children that are born out of wedlock, and the general acceptance of alternative lifestyles. Now that’s much closer to our world than it was to the time of Jesus.
Those of you who have children in any level of school know well that your children's friends more often come from "broken" homes and second marriages. But, for all the numbers which may paint a gloomy picture of marriage and family life, there are still thousands and thousands of healthy, not perfect, marriages and families throughout the world. Yet, the problems are daunting. We are faced these days with enormous challenges to what has been coined "traditional" marriage and two parent (male/female) households.
So, what is Jesus saying in the Gospel? His commentary essentially goes to the first reading from Genesis about the equality of man and woman and God’s original intent. God created us in his image not to be subservient or to dominate one another but to share life equally and to be complete before him. Yet in Jesus' time a husband could divorce his wife with barely a reason. All that was essentially needed was a "bill of divorce" and the marriage would be over with the women sent off. So, it’s really two approaches to the marital union we hear today – one a reflection, as Jesus says, on our own human stubbornness. Moses allowed divorce because you were stubborn and unwilling to hear a higher purpose to marriage, that of God’s intent.
And the words of Jesus which has become and must always be upheld by the Church about the nature of the marriage covenant – that is a permanent bond of mutually shared life and love between two equal partners of male and female out of which is produced new life. And that God is inviting himself to every marriage which then can become a union of three.
So faithfulness, respect, equality, openness to life, and a spiritual dimension in which faith is not just words but a lived experience in family life is our ideal. As one writer put it: “A vision of what God’s people can be when they choose, by God’s grace, to live in God’s kingdom.” (David Fleer: Preaching the Sermon on the Mount; 2007). Jesus sets before us lofty ideals that are rooted in God’s intention. But, he does not expect the impossible of us so what he states about the nature of marriage is not impossible.
What may be missing in some marriages is essentially that faith dimension. While there is no magic bullet for those who share faith and live it out in family life the odds are far more in their favor for success than they would be otherwise. The problems in married life are real and they may well go beyond merely Church attendance, even Church goers do scandalous things, but a return to the ideal and inviting God into one’s marriage as the third member, along with the support of a faith-filled community, can be a medicine to heal wounds.
In the next week, the second synod of Bishops begins in Rome to examine this very issue. With an open heart and mind to the movement of the Spirit we can only pray and hope that the ultimate outcome will do good for many.
The Church offers a pastoral solution for those caught in a marriage they feel should maybe have not happened in the first place. Or a marriage that even after a number of years may now show what was indicated in the beginning, called the “annulment” process. That’s a whole other discussion but an important one. In the best but not the impossible world, both spouses must be invested in the relationship in a way that supports the other, that shares mutually in life and concerns around parenting, and that can grow to the great ideal Jesus reinforces in the Gospel: “They are no longer two but one flesh.” Like a child, trusting and open, we are invited to live and accept the teaching of Christ - it is ultimately, like all things of God, for our own good.
Almighty ever-living do,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask
(Collect of Sunday)