What Did Jesus Mean?

Well, you can imagine the fun I had today at Mass. Given the conservative bent of my parish, I was treated to a thinly veiled reminder of what “true marriage” amounts to rather than that “thing” which is nothing more than the whims of the day, to be replaced no doubt by something else tomorrow.

Following that I got the old “marriage is forever” and the appropriate readings of today which “prove” that. We ended with a reminder that nothing could be finer than a trip through natural family planning which is a-okay with God, while contraception leads to abortion and promiscuity.

Let me straighten out this mess if I can.

First it might be useful to understand the history going on here. (Mk 10: 2-16)

In Jewish law, in the time of Jesus, marriages were not entered into voluntarily by men and wome. They were arranged by a set of parents who put forth their child and as did the family of the other child. The resultant “marriage”  was a union of whole families, not the two actual children. These chosen “spouses” were considered to be God’s choice through the parents. Since these families ere now bound together, no PERSON had the right to separate the internal union.

But the people were unable to abide by this law, so through Moses, God allowed divorce. However it was only the man who had the right, and he had the right to divorce his wife for ANY reason whatsoever. This worked, as you might expect great hardship upon women who might be turned out for simply not being good-looking, or not  being a good cook, and very often for not being sufficiently fertile.

Jesus first rectifies the inequality of divorce by saying that men have no more right to summarily dismiss a spouse, and further than either spouse who initiates divorce and marries again is committing adultery. This was contrary to the social world of the time, where no woman could, by definition, shame another woman.   Jesus equalizes this and moreover, makes brings shame upon the man who “commits adultery” which  thereby brings shame to his entire male family.

Since this shaming would lead to feuding and often bloodshed, divorce must be avoided at all costs. They were simply too devastating to the families and the small communities involved.

Jesus did not speak to the issue of marriage when it breaks down or where divorce is desired by both parties.  Today,  people make their own choices, often at young ages and without due thought. Marriages don’t involve the larger families either in today’s world, where families are often spread out over many states and sometimes countries.

When we read these passages, who should be sure to remember that they are joined to the act of creation (in Genesis) whereby God made it clear that he wanted his creation to experience an openness and closeness that required a similarity of being. Adam could not relate in that intimate way with the creatures that God created for him to name and care for. A creature of similarity (woman) was created that Adam might share that sense of open-hearted intimacy that he could not enjoy with any of the other creatures.

Similarly, Jesus reminds us that Moses allowance of divorce was the result of a hardness of heart that the people evidenced. Jesus thus calls us to relationships that bring about that openness of heart envisioned by God’s creation.  Jesus speaks to the misuse of power rather than to the denial of divorce in our time.

In addition, I would argue that Genesis should not be read as some definition of marriage as between a man and a woman only but rather that it acknowledges that human relationships of mutual openness are what are desired by God.

It is especially painful as I stated last Sunday to see folks who avoid communion out of a belief that they are unworthy based on current Catholic teachings on these subjects. I am left with the wonderful words of John Kavanaugh S.J. who stated:

We Catholics have our liturgies, our communions, our Eucharists. Some of us attending are divorced and remarried and place it all before God, not knowing really whether we have put asunder what God had once joined in us. Some have annulments, a human judgment offered only after long analysis and painful remembrance. Some of us weep in the back, not approaching the altar of union. Some trust God and abstain. Some trust God and partake.

Few, thank God, judge. For no matter what our rightful relationship to our church, its laws and traditions, we all pray in an assembly of believers who are sinners; and, most assuredly, we all stand before our good and great God as children.

Amen

**I am deeply indebted to the remarks of Joyce Ann Zimmerman, John Kavanaugh S.J., and John J. Pilch in The Sunday Liturgy of St. Louis University. My remarks reflect my understanding of their thoughts and reflections.

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