TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR B
October 04, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Genesis 2:18-24 Hebrews 2:9-11 Psalm 128 Mark 10:2-12
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
This week’s lectionary is very tempting for a preacher to condemn divorce and justify the traditional position of the Roman Church that those who divorce and remarry should not receive Holy Communion. It is also very tempting for a preacher to rely on it to justify the continuing subjugation of women and to condemn same-sex marriage as done in the Roman Church and elsewhere. I am not going to “go there” this morning.
Using scripture to hit people over the head is not part of my tradition. That’s more like what the Pharisees were doing when they tested Jesus in today’s Gospel, just as they did in the question about whether it is lawful to pay taxes. Here, the Pharisees already knew that the law as given by Moses allowed divorce. Once again, they were daring Jesus to say something unorthodox so they’d have an excuse to speak ill of him and turn his many followers against him. The Pharisees were jealous he had so many followers.
Jesus responds by telling them that what God did in creation goes before any human law. The second story of Creation in Genesis, which is from what scholars call the Jawist, or “J” Source, contrasts with that of the first story, from what’s called the Priestly, or “P” Source. The “J” Source story shows us a God in touch with things on earth, who creates from earth, rather the “P” Source image of God in the first story, where God was a remote transcendental being who created the earth and all upon it out of nothing. The second story recognizes the intimate closeness of God, humanity, and creation, presenting a God who recognizes the need of humanity for companionship with one another. By retelling that second creation story, Jesus illustrated to the Pharisees was that God is more concerned with human relationships, in and of themselves, than about laws. It’s a mistake to read this story literally. The truth is really in the meaning of the story.
When viewed in light of the overall context of scripture, the traditional position of the Roman church on divorce makes about a much sense as expecting the ground to not get wet when rain falls from the sky. Reality is the undisputed facts are that relationships between humans do not always work as planned because humans are by nature are imperfect. That imperfection was first manifested when Eve and Adam succumbed to temptation in the Garden of Eden. Relationships sometimes fail due to our inherent imperfections. That is, like it or not, an objective fact which neither scripture nor tradition can change, just as one cannot stop rain from falling from clouds onto earth. Quite simply, that is “what is”. The ideal world is not always the real world. Hence, reading this scripture literally on the divorce issue doesn’t recognize this reality. It misses the real kernel of truth contained in the story.
When I grew up, lifelong marriages were the rule rather than the exception. That is the tradition of the Church, and I agree with that tradition. But sometimes, we don’t always find the right person the first time around. We make mistakes, we make unwise choices. We are human. The Church has to recognize that reality.
When we read scripture, we have to look at the real world in which the story was set, and the real world now. We cannot just consider the words alone, and apply the words literally to today’s situations in the way those words are used in today’s culture. To ascertain the true meaning of what we read, we have to interpret scripture in its historical and social context. We have to keep in mind that God speaks to different people at different times in different ways. Inapplicable comparisons do not produce truth in interpreting scripture.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus referred to what Moses said concerning marriage and divorce. Therefore, in understanding what Jesus was teaching here, we have to begin with what Moses said, in Deuteronomy, chapter twenty four, verses one through four. That passage says that if a man marries and his wife displeases him, he can write her a certificate of divorce, and she’s gone. However, the certificate frees her to marry another man. But if that second man doesn’t like her and writes her a divorce certificate, the first man who divorced her can’t take her back. According to Moses, that would be displeasing to God. That’s what Jesus was really opposing.
What is significant here is that divorce could be for any reason, kind of like the law of at-will employment, where a company can fire an employee, or an employee can quit, for any reason or no reason. In the days of Moses, if a man found another woman more attractive than his wife, he could simply give his wife a piece of papers and the relationship was over.
Important also was that, in the days of Jesus, one did not go to court to get a divorce. Thus, if a divorce occurred, whether initiated by either husband or wife, the woman did not get a property settlement or spousal support. She was left with nothing. Jesus recognized that reality. By teaching that marriage should be indissoluble, Jesus was protecting women so they wouldn’t be left alone and penniless. The desire of Jesus to protect women from the negative results of the social norms of his day can be seen from His overall interactions with women.He raised Peter’s mother in law and the daughter of Jarius from the dead. Jesus healed women as well as men. The teachings of Jesus used women as faith models, such as the widow Elijah visited at Zarephath, and the Parables of the Ten Virgins, the Persistent Widow, and the Widow’s Mite. Women were among his followers, including Mary and Martha of Bethany, and of course, Mary Magdalene, known as “The Apostle to the Apostles”, who in John’s Gospel informed the other apostles of the resurrection of Jesus.
From this information, I think we can reasonably conclude that women were equally significant as men in the eyes of Jesus. Jesus, I think, therefore, would have a problem with dominance of one spouse over another. In the Gospel reading we will hear next week, Jesus says,“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.”
Jesus, always the realist, recognized that He lived in a patriarchal society, where women were not considered to be persons equal to men. Marriage, in His day, was a property concept. A man owned his wife, just like owning livestock. Married women could not own property and could not enter into contracts in their own names. Wives had a legal obligation to obey their husbands. Marriage in those days was notbased on romantic love like it is today in the United States, where we marry the person of our dreams who enfolds our hearts. Marriage by mutual choice based on love is a rather recent idea; until the eighteenth century, in most cultures, the families of the bride and groom arranged marriages. So in the marriage area, Jesus did what he could to protect women, as He did in other situations, like telling those wanting to stone a woman caught in adultery, “let those without sin cast the first stone.”
Because marriage in today’s society arises from an entirely different basis than it did in the days of Jesus, the question is what would Jesus teach us today, where a marriage based on love is the norm? And perhaps this pericope has a wider meaning for human relationships generally? And what does all this mean for the Church?
I don’t think Jesus would expect anyone to stay in a marriage where there is physical abuse of spouses or children and the perpetrator refuses to change that behavior. That is not a marriage. In that situation, an intent to have a marriage as such did not exist from the beginning of the relationship. You don’t beat up someone who is sacramentally one flesh with you. You don’t hit children, the flesh of your flesh. Jesus taught we are to love others as much as we love ourselves. Person-on-person violence does not fit that norm. Until the mid-twentieth century, in many cultures, husbands had a legal right to inflict corporal punishment on their wives. But nothing that Jesus taught authorizes one person to dominate or punish another person by physical force. Jesus preached peace. Jesus opposed the very concepts of retaliation and punishment.
The teachings of Jesus give us the means to accomplish the ideal of a lasting marriage. Jesus expects spouses who disagree to compromise and reconcile their differences. You will recall that Jesus taught us to reconcile our disagreements before taking our gifts to the altar. Compromise, however, is a two way street, a meeting of the minds between two opposing positions. Compromise recognizes the concept of self-sacrifice, where each party lets go of something important to validate what’s important to the other person. A marriage where both spouses do not want to compromise does not last. Compromise doesn’t mean giving up everything important to you, but it means recognizing that the priorities of one’s spouse’s are as important as yours, because you love your spouse as much as you love yourself.
Another thing Jesus would expect, is for spouses to forgive one another, no matter what the circumstances. Holding grudges and not forgiving your spouse obstructs the functioning of all relationships, especially a marriage. Jesus explicitly said we should forgive others at least “seventy times seven.” Jesus also said that if we expect God to forgive our sins, we must forgive the sins of others. Unlimited forgiveness for the sins of one’s spouse occurs shows the unconditional love that is absolutely necessary for a marriage to be truly permanent.
The overall theme of this Gospel reading extends beyond the marriage context. Jesus opposes the concept of kicking someone out of your life just like throwing away trash, as Moses permitted men to do to their wives. We live in a throwaway culture. We use things and dispose of them when they are no longer useful to us. But when we do this to the people in our lives, we disrespect that person’s dignity. As I have said many times, respect for the dignity of the human person is at core of all Christian teaching. Anything that doesn’t do that is not Christ-like. Ultimately, applying the throwaway mentality to human relationships, is a loser. In both our personal and collective lives, we have to learn to deal with people constructively rather than throw them out of our lives. It means accepting the faults of others and forgiving them. It means reflecting to others the unconditional love that Jesus showed us. For the church, it means a church of inclusion that cares for her flock with mercy, where there is no such thing as the silencing of dissenting clergy or excommunication of any kind.
Churches should take positive steps to improve marriage, not chase people away from Holy Communion if they get divorced and remarried. Nowhere does Jesus say that anyone should be excluded from a community or from dining at table with one’s fellow Christians if one divorces and remarries. That concept is not found anywhere in the New Testament. It is purely a human law, not God’s law. What churches shoulddo, instead, is offer marriage and family discernment programs, to help people make wise choices about whether or not to be married, and how to choose the right partner. And churches should offer marriage counseling by qualified people to help keep marriages together if reasonably possible. In other words, help, don’t punish. Be inclusive. Make people feel good, not bad. Love is always more potent than fear in getting things done. Try it, in marriage and everywhere else. It works. AMEN.