by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two individuals, but form a new unity…Unless you accept God’s kingdom with the simplicity of a child, you’ll not get in.” Mark 10, 2-16
Today’s second reading comes from the Letter to the Hebrews, which was seemingly addressed to a Christian community of Jewish converts. It reads more like a dense, heavily theological sermon now compacted to fifteen pages of print, with the following farewell message from its author: “Friends, I ask you to take these words of advice kindly; that’s why I have written to you so briefly” (my italics). That left me wondering about the tolerance level of the addressees, and the writer’s inability to appreciate just how much of his letter they could digest in one go. In today’s reading, the writer echoes the message of the latter part of today’s gospel-reading in which Jesus, in his welcoming the little children, stressed that the kingdom of God belongs to the lowly. The writer of Hebrews also makes what, for some of us, might be a puzzling statement when he says that “Jesus was made perfect through suffering.” We use the word “perfect” in the sense of complete, needing no improvement. Biblical writers used it to signify something like being able to cope with whatever challenges presented themselves; being fully flexible and adaptable to every situation. By enduring death, Jesus demonstrated his total solidarity with humanity. There was nothing with which he was not able to cope. In so doing, he modelled for us what it means to be totally dependent on God in our dealing with all the situations of our lives.
Today’s gospel-reading opens with another attempt by the Pharisees to trick Jesus into saying something out of place as he dealt with a question to which they already knew the answer. Jesus knew, every bit as well as his interrogators, that divorce was not forbidden by the Law. So, instead of getting into a legal debate, he took his questioners back to the first two chapters of Genesis. Everyone present knew that all human beings are created either male or female and are made in the image of God (Genesis 1, 27). They also knew the delightful story of how Adam set about naming all the other creatures God created to keep him company, and how he soon discovered that none of them turned out to be a “suitable partner” for him (Genesis 2, 19-20).
The clear message of these twin creation stories is that we are all made in the image of God – good, creative, loving and free – and that we are social beings who need to be in relationship in order to blossom into our best selves. An implication of being created in the image of God is that we are all equal, male and female alike. That’s the territory into which Jesus ventured in his response to the Pharisees. Moreover, in a culture in which women were treated as little more than property to satisfy men’s sexual appetites, to bear children and to do the cooking and cleaning, Jesus’ answer would have bowled his interrogators over. There’s also a slightly humorous touch to this encounter. In raising with Jesus the topic of divorce, the Pharisees were apparently making an assumption that this was an issue about which he had limited knowledge. However, he surely would have been familiar with the pain experienced by women of his day, who were so easily discarded by husbands who concluded that their wives had not measured up to expectations. Furthermore, the Pharisees may well have been ignorant of the fact that Jesus had been reared and taught his trade by a man who, struggling with Mary’s pregnancy, had seriously considered divorcing her quietly, to spare her from embarrassment (cf Matthew 1, 19). He certainly wasn’t shielded from the reality of divorce.
In order to underline Jesus’ point that all of us, from the greatest to the least, have equal worth and dignity, Mark attached the account of how the disciples tried to chase some children away from bothering their leader. Jesus was quick to put the disciples in their place, by stating that God’s kingdom belongs to all those who, like children, have no rights and who are regarded as insignificant.
In this context, it’s worth our noting that our and our society’s discriminatory attitudes still prevail. The homeless and unemployed are still often labelled as lazy, desperate refugees are turned away at immigration barriers, young women and children are traded for prostitution.
Created in the image of God, we are all made for love, whatever our state in life or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. While love always trumps legalism, law of whatever kind, from codes of conduct to road rules and civil statutes, are standards of behaviour to guide us in living with dignity and in respecting the rights and dignity of everyone we encounter. The “law of love” is the foundation on which all other law is built.