by Br Julian McDonald cfc
The man exclaimed: This at last is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh! This is to be called woman, for this was taken from man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body. Genesis 2, 18-24
“It was because you were so unteachable that Moses wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. This is why a man must leave father and mother, and the two become one body…So what God has united man must not divide.” Mark 10, 2-16
In reflecting on today’s gospel reading, I come to the conclusion that, what looks to be a categorical statement about divorce and marriage, is as much about protecting women and children as it is about preserving the stability of marriage. As a devout Jew, Jesus gave much time and attention to learning about and reflecting on the meaning of the Jewish scriptures. In today’s reading he quotes directly from the second story of creation recorded in chapter 2 of Genesis. Scripture scholars tell us that this creation story predates the story in Chapter 1 of Genesis by approximately 400 years.
In the earlier creation story (today’s first reading), human sexuality is not primarily associated with propagation. It is described as a gift for humanity so that they might live in companionship and not be lonely. The basic elements of this story’s theology of sexuality are companionship and goodness. Sexuality is basically good in that it enables human beings to be more complete, more as God wants them to be, not alone and isolated but in companionship, a kind of companionship which the birds and the beasts do not provide. Sexuality is a gift from God.
Yet for hundreds of years, right up to the time of Jesus, wives and children were regarded as property belonging to the man who was head of the household. The Book of Deuteronomy (24,1) records that a man could divorce his wife for “impropriety”. Now that’s a word that is open to multiple interpretations, if ever there was one. It could be open to everything from marital infidelity to not getting the children bathed and put to bed early enough. In law, a woman was her husband’s property, with right neither to protection from physical violence nor to sue for a divorce herself.
So, Jesus’ unqualified statement about marriage in today’s gospel is as much about protecting vulnerable women and children as it is about criticising men who rid themselves of their wives and families on the basis of mere whim.
What Jesus says about marriage is his response to a trick question designed by the Pharisees who ask it to catch him out. He responds by quoting the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman, which stresses that husband and wife are equal partners in the marriage contract they make together: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and the two become one body (Genesis 2, 24). The relationship between a man and his wife is intended, in the mind of Jesus, to mirror the loving covenant that God has for the people of Israel. This was bound to upset and alienate the Pharisees who questioned Jesus because they were able to support their position in favour of divorce with a clear statement to that effect from Deuteronomy. They could then easily conclude that Jesus was acting as a self-appointed authority on the Law of Moses.
That does not mean that Jesus had no sympathy for those whose marriages end in divorce. While Christian marriage, which is clearly more than a civil contract, is meant to be a sign of God’s loving presence manifested in the love between husband and wife, and to demonstrate that true love is about giving rather than taking, freeing rather than stifling, liberating rather than controlling, it sometimes ends up becoming less than the partners intend it to be, because of their human frailty and inability to reach the ideal they set themselves. Sometimes partners drift so far apart that they can no longer stand being in one another’s presence. They become irreconcilable. That does not mean that as individual people they are no longer able to reflect to others the goodness, compassion and love of God. Sometimes, for reasons about which none of us has the right to judge, they remarry and continue to find a place in a parish community.
In November 1965, Pope Paul VI promulgated the Second Vatican Council Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. It invited lay women and men to take a more active role in the life of the Church. In 1980, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of that Vatican II decree, the United States Bishops Conference published an extraordinary document entitled Called and Gifted: The American Catholic Laity. Among other things, this document states that lay people are called to adulthood, holiness, ministry and community. It then adds this remarkable statement: “Adulthood implies knowledge, experience and awareness, freedom and responsibility, and mutuality in relationships. It is true however, that the experience of lay persons ‘as Church members’ has not always reflected this understanding of adulthood.”
How different our Church might be if we all chose to exercise our adulthood as Catholics. We might even dare to read and interpret today’s gospel reading in light of our knowledge and experience of our human frailty and the frailty of others in our community, as we and they struggle with relationships. Life is rarely a matter of black and white. Human relations are complicated and coloured by all kinds of emotions and motives for acting. As we try to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we have to keep reminding ourselves that we are adults in our Church, that we have an obligation to act responsibility, to exercise our freedom and to be aware of the mutuality of the relationships in which we engage.
As human beings, we make vowed commitments, with the best of intentions, to marriage and religious life. Commitment is an expression of intention not a prediction. We protect our commitments by living them with integrity, and consciously renewing them day after day. To achieve that, we have to know who we are and to live each day true to who we are. That does not give us the right to judge those who seemingly fail to be true to themselves. Neither does it allow us to conclude that we are better than those who fail to measure up to the standards we arbitrarily set for them or imagine that Jesus is setting for them. If we could bring ourselves to stand before our God as children, we might be able to recognise that, in so much of what he says, Jesus appeals to the child in each of us. But we have to be careful to listen to him with the ears of our heart. Holding in harmony within one’s self the mature wisdom of the adult and the open simplicity of the child does not come easily. Yet, it’s that delicate balance which Jesus welcomes.