Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Oct 4)
Homily for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Oct 4)
Every once in a while we are awakened into seeing Jesus, the loving shepherd, the paragon of peace, the kindest of the merciful, in another paradigm in which he is very challenging, expectant of perfection, and demanding the impossible. Today is one of those paradigms or shifts of perception. To fully understand today’s Gospel we need a little background and Hebrew history. Jews have always been realists and had always accepted the concept of divorce. Generally Jews feel that it is better to be divorced than to be in a constant state of agitation or pain. That said, they also took marriage very seriously and generally made it hard to divorce. The laws were intricate and complex and even following them placed obligations on the couple. So we have a double sided attitude to divorce.
On the one hand, it was very much to the favor of the man who could divorce a wife without her consent for even a small thing, like not having his dinner ready on time, or because he found himself in love with another woman. In fact, he was forced to divorce her, even if he didn’t want to if she committed a sexual act away from him. So the laws favored the men mostly. Except for adulterous wives, the men would have to pay a monetary fee to the woman and could never remarry her.
To divorce a wife, the man would have to issue what is called a “get” which states that this woman is free to marry another man. Without that “get” a woman could do nothing, and even with it, there were some Jews who were forbidden to marry her. If the husband went off to battle and died, but there was no proof of his death, the woman would still be considered married and without a get.
These rules were so difficult for the woman, that throughout the years the rabbis would put addenda to the law which softened it and even allowed in some cases for the woman to be divorced, if the husband were unable to fulfill his duties because of being paralyzed, for example, or if he refused to carry out his marriage commitments. But that didn’t happen very often in Jesus’ time.
Jesus’ comments on divorce today then reflect his understanding of the inequality of the marriage laws of his time, but also the bar of perfection that he brought to every issue – expecting us to be perfect as the father is perfect.
The reading from Genesis today is central to Jesus’ understanding of marriage. Jesus understands that the woman was created to be a partner with a man and a helper. Finding this one person who can fulfill that partnership is what we call a marriage. There is no mention here, by the way, of procreation, but only that that partner who was called “Woman” would become one with the other partner. Only later, in the Psalms do we read that that oneness expands to create children, and many children and fruitful wives were seen to be an ideal.
The Gospel then finds Jesus being tested again by the Pharisees. Apparently the test was to see if Jesus knew what was the Mosaic command regarding divorce. Jesus’ answer to them is simply to quote the Mosaic rule, to show that he knew the Law, but then, as he had so many other times, raise it up a notch and attach it to the conscience, to the intent of the act and to to demand even more than the law offered. He says in essence that if God had joined the couple together, no human being should interfere with that.
In private with the Apostles he is asked again about what he said because even in Jesus day this would be a contentious subject. His words to the Apostles are the ideal: whoever divorces and marries another commits adultery. In Mark, the earliest Gospel, there is not an exception to this as there appears in other Gospels and in Paul’s writings. Immediately on this pronouncement the talk changes to ‘children’ and perhaps this juxtaposition is really what Jesus was concerned about. In a divorce in Jesus’ time, the woman was the one most hurt, and if the women were hurt, especially financially, so could be the children. Jesus in his concern for the poor and outcast could see the results of divorce acted out in poverty and oppression, and it was for their sakes that he found divorce a bad thing.
From the very beginning, though, apostles and church leaders began finding exceptional circumstances and reasons where divorce might be allowable. In the present day, the Roman church issues annulments to get around the idea of divorce, though they still make it difficult a process to go through, which is hopefully under Francis, soon to be more simplified. We agree that the process should not be easy, and we hope couples will try the ‘perfection’ root and fight for their marriages.
I did a wedding a few month ago where I preached on the line “the two shall become one flesh” and commented that being one flesh did not mean “one personality” and “eradicating differences”. I used the image that to make a salad one mixed oil and vinegar which really don’t mix unless you shake them up. In a good marriage the couple has to always work at it, work at being one, no matter how long the marriage. I asked the bride and groom to make sure they kept working at it, shaking it up. I think people go the message because all through the reception people would come to me with the line “Shake it up!” I believe that marriages are hard work and that we need to commit to working at it. For those of you who are married, that is perhaps my simple message today: Shake it up! and for those who are not married, know that in choosing to do so, you really need to work at it constantly to achieve that perfect state that Jesus talks about. Something to be aiming for – the perfect marriage.
And that is the Good News I suggest to you today around Jesus’ difficult words on a difficult subject!
Bishop Ron Stephens
Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA
The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)
[Just published! Prepare for next year! Volume 3 (Luke) of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, is available from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year Cycle C”]