People of a particular ‘vintage’ will be familiar with a response received from our parents when we asked if we could participate in a particular activity or go to a certain place with friends or classmates; we had to go, we would tell them, because everyone else was going, and we wanted to be ‘just like everybody else’. Often this was met with the response, ‘and if everybody else jumps off a bridge, will you too?’ This response was given because our parents were looking out for our best interests – perhaps the activity or place was not conducive to our well-being, our safety, or our health. It was meant out of concern and love. But the one thing I recall from this response, was that they never apologized for it. They never apologized for expressing their concern and love.
Our readings today, particularly the Gospel and first reading, deal with marriage, with the union of man and woman on a number of levels; it is from these readings among others, that the Church receives her understanding of what marriage is all about, particularly as a Sacrament, and what Church teaching is based upon. The Gospel, for example, seems to deal specifically with the question of divorce, and how Jesus speaks on the permanence of marriage – the connection St. Mark makes in relating Jesus answer to the question of divorce and in the example of openness of little children to the Kingdom of God is easily recognizable and obvious in the connection between the sanctity of marriage and the family.
But as with every passage of Scripture, there is always a greater depth that we can explore – a better understanding that each of us can take from the Living Word of God that speaks to our hearts and minds and helps us better appreciate what Jesus tells us through the teachings of our Catholic faith. Today we have a culture of disposability; we are bombarded by the media and a popular cultural myth that the way to happiness and fulfilment is to do what you want, when you want; enter into relationships without worrying about permanence or commitment because if things don’t work out the way we want them, then we can just bail out or walk away. Our faith tells us that the Sacrament of Marriage is a lifetime commitment; the intent when we enter into it, is an intent to a lifetime commitment; a permanence; a covenant – that’s what the Church teaches; yet our culture of disposability questions that; even sometimes ridicules it as an outdated or old-fashioned unrealistic concept; and often many Catholics feel (for some reason that I personally can’t understand), that they somehow need to apologize for the Church’s teaching on marriage, a teaching which comes directly from Jesus Himself.
The Pharisees in today’s Gospel passage ask Jesus about divorce based on a ‘permission’ that was handed down by Moses; they say to Jesus ‘Moses said a man could divorce his wife given certain conditions – what do you have to say about that?’ First off, they hold Moses as the great lawgiver, so they want to see if Jesus will contradict someone who handed down most of the laws on which their whole tradition is based; their question is not so much to understand really what Jesus teaches; their question is designed to ‘trip’ Jesus up – not so much a desire to honestly learn on their part, but to ridicule Jesus or discredit his teaching; to diminish his mission, and show that they know better. We see this time and again in the gospels; and we see it time and again in our society, even amongst Catholics who want Church teaching on faith and morals and the Sacraments to bend in their favour. This is the hardness of heart Jesus talks about.
The permission that the Pharisees speak of is from the book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses is trying to keep the children of Israel on track with God’s intent that they live righteous lives and remain pure and dedicated to him. But they live amongst numerous pagan cultures, cultures which embrace divorce as just another phase of relationships. The children of Israel, even after all that God has done for them, show their hardness of heart; they say to Moses ‘we want to be like everyone else…okay, granted God has given us alot; has blessed us abundantly, but that’s not enough…we want that and more, and we want it our way – just like everybody else.’ The truth is though, as God’s chosen people, they’re not like everybody else; but in order to diminish this demand to a lesser evil, and to give time for people to think before they act on a divorce, MOSES gives them permission, saying that they have to write up a writ or a legal document of divorce; and the grounds for this are ‘if the woman fails to find favour in her husband’s eyes’; the more conservative or orthodox groups interpret that as solely on the grounds of adultery – the more liberal groups, which were prevalent in Jesus time, interpret that to mean if she doesn’t please her husband for whatever reason, then he can divorce her.
Jesus totally rejects this, calls the Pharisees and the people on it, saying it was because of their hardness of heart that Moses made this provision in the law. Jesus tells them from the beginning, reflected in our first reading from Genesis, God created man and woman for each other; that they were intended by God to be united in a complementary relationship of mutual support and self-giving and caring; the words God uses for woman in relation to man as husband and wife in this creation account are helper and partner; REMEMBER this is before the fall – before humanity made a mess of everything and disrupted the purity and order that God established; before there was a need for the salvation brought by Jesus: even in this relationship, God gave humanity everything, and it still wasn’t enough; humanity displayed again this ‘hardness of heart’ and even damaged this mutual sharing partnership of marriage that God had established.
But Jesus reminds the Pharisees of God’s original intent in marriage between man and woman; and he reminds them, and us, that what God has united, people must not divide; He states the ideals here that God set out and makes no apologies for them. He uses the little child to tell the Pharisees, and us, that it is not in hardness of heart, but in opening our hearts to trust in what God has stated time and again through Scripture and through His prophets; that’s what being childlike is all about; that accepting what God has taught in open trust and wonder like a little child is how we enter into the Kingdom – not by demanding that we can be ‘like everybody else’ – not just on the question of Marriage, but in everything God has set out; everything that Jesus has passed onto His Church in the areas of faith and morals.
The great irony in this whole exchange is that, the Pharisees consider Jesus to be a product of his culture – a Galilean from a region where pagan culture may have polluted His ideas about God; that this carpenter’s son thinks he can interpret Moses’ teaching better than they can.
The reality that they don’t realize (and many in our own society overlook) is that Jesus is God; He is the second person of the Holy Trinity, and as God, He knows the mind of God; He knows what God intended; and when He speaks of what God meant from the beginning, He is speaking as the One in the beginning through whom all things were made. And it is from this exchange that Jesus, who is God, emphasizes the ideal of marriage between a man and a woman (as helpers or partners) and raises or elevates it to a Sacrament, not just a civil union or a contract. He made marriage sacred; he made it a sign which grants special graces from God; that He- Jesus-God – is present in the Sacrament of Matrimony; that’s why we celebrate the Sacrament of marriage in a Church; that’s why the Church teaches the ideal of the permanence of marriage; that’s why the Church teaches the family is sacred; and it is with the openness of a little child’s heart that Christ invites us to trust in the wisdom and the Divine intent of this teaching; handed down through His Church; He invites us to be open to the graces He gives to uphold this ideal, to live and support and proclaim this ideal, and like Him, like Jesus, to make no apologies for it.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!