As I read this Sunday’s gospel, I wondered how divorced people feel to hear what Jesus is saying. It’s no secret that all of our communities are made up of people who have for one reason or another, divorced or annulled their marriage. In many cases these people have remarried. I wondered if Jesus would sound harsh and unbending. Would what Jesus says stir up old memories or the guilt that some people feel about a marriage that fell apart. Some people may already feel inadequate or that they failed. Some of us in our arrogance may say, “marriage is hard but we stuck it out, why couldn’t they!?” It would be tempting to preach on something else this weekend or to change the gospel for this Sunday. Fortunately, I’m not allowed to, and so we are challenged to dig deep into ourselves to receive the message Jesus is sending.
When we look at the marriage situation today it can seem a rather sad state of affairs. With an American divorce rate of nearly half, it would seem that marriages just aren’t working. But also there are some success stories of people who live together for fifty or even sixty years together! Just a few days ago I blessed a couple from our parish on the day of their 65th anniversary.
Many people, however, have an aversion to Catholic teaching. Part of the reason is that they only hear the Church say, “No.” No sex before marriage, no pornography, no cohabitation, no adultery, no homosexual acts, no contraception, no in vitro fertilization, no abortion. They hear the Church say, “no,” but they don’t know the reason why.
Well, this Sunday we have the answer. Jesus lays out the basis for our teaching on human sexuality. Quoting the book of Genesis, he says, “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.” Then Jesus adds, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” No judge, no court has power to separate what God has joined.
This teaching surprised Jesus’ hearers-including the disciples. When they got inside, they questioned him. Jesus did not back away; he did not water it down.
In our contemporary culture we can see that more and more people are choosing to live together without making any formal commitment to each other. More and more babies are born out of wedlock and what we have understood to be the family unit has changed dramatically. More and more people are choosing to “play house” unwilling to commit themselves to the responsibilities of married life. So what do we do with all this? How can we find good news in what Jesus answers to the Pharisees?
Jesus places before us the ideal of a loving permanent relationship. He reminds us that we are called to take seriously the commitment that we make to each other. That marriage means joining ourselves to another person for life. For this reason, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.” Jesus is challenging us to strive for the ideal; to know that we have been created to be with each other.
The truth is this: God calls us to an exalted standard of fidelity and love. The union of a man and woman can never be casual-or recreational.
St. Paul, says they form a union that has eternal consequences. As Pope John Paul pointed out, the use of sex outside of marriage always contains an element of deception. The “language” of the human body expresses a total self-donation that is only honest within marriage, sacramental marriage especially, not the one in the woods or on the field. Because we believe that God brought us together, this is his call not just nature’s call.
This teaching, though difficult, continues to fascinate people. All of us, especially the young, desire a beautiful love- a love that gives oneself without reservation. Today many consider this teaching unrealistic. How can we ask a healthy young person to wait until marriage? And then tell them a single marriage act binds them for life?
It would be totally unrealistic – except for one fact: it’s what young people themselves are asking for. You hear it in their popular songs; you read it in their poetry. “You’re mine and we belong together. Yes we belong together for eternity.”
There’s never been a song, which says, “we belong together maybe ten years, then we’ll evaluate things,” Or, “we belong together – till something better comes along.” No, they speak about a lifelong, permanent commitment. As Pope John Paul says, “young people desire a beautiful love.” What the gospel tells us today is: the reason for marriage is the call from God; this is the principal in God’s plan.
Divorce was not in God’s plan. Divorce was never intended by God. Divorce tears apart the bonding and the union that love impels us to attain. Divorce is something that is the business of lawyers, and Jesus knew it was lawyers with whom he was talking in today’s Gospel account. They were trying to enmesh Jesus in their legal distinctions and in their appeals to Jewish laws. Jesus would have none of it.
Instead Jesus took them to radically deeper level, one with which they were perhaps unfamiliar and certainly uncomfortable. Divorce, Jesus says, has to do with laws. Marriage has to do with love. Moreover, what is in the mind of God when it comes to life, love, and commitment? Is life, love, and commitment all about when and how often we can divorce?
The focus, Jesus is telling us about, must be kept on what it is that God has in mind for us when it comes to love and marriage. Are not love and marriage sacraments of God’s love?
By saying this we have to recognize that this is the ideal we are talking about, something we long for, something that was intended by God, but as human beings we are weak and sometimes maybe even incapable of making this type of commitment. We are sinful and broken; we could be influenced by our culture and a bad example, addictions and abuse, immaturity, etc…
The church recognizes that. For a married union to be valid two people entering it, have to understand their call, build a mature union of self sacrificial love and commitment to each other. They have to have knowledge about marriage and desire to work together to achieve the ideal. As we all know sometimes it is very difficult or maybe even impossible to do that. This is when divorce happens. The church recognizes it. This is exactly why we have an institution of annulment. Jesus is talking about the ideal in today’s Gospel!
The truth is that:
No one can achieve lifelong fidelity without depending on God. Truth is we cannot do it a single day without him.
There is a remarkable study. It showed that couples who go to Mass together every Sunday have a fifty times greater possibility of staying married. If besides attending Sunday Mass, they pray together –even just grace before meals or kneeling with hands joined at their bedside – that marriage becomes practically indestructible. The reason is clear. Even if we sometimes fall – for example, by saying bitter words- if we stay close to Jesus we do not keep lying on the ground. We allow him to pick us up. In Jesus we find what we need – forgiveness, healing, and the reason to continue on.
That is what Jesus teaches – and, let’s face it, it makes many uncomfortable. People cohabitating sense that their relationship lacks something. Those engaged in promiscuity have a gnawing feeling –something is wrong. People drawn to a gay lifestyle wonder if they are really doing the right thing.
Heaven knows that all of us – especially in today’s society – have difficulty living Jesus’ teaching on sexuality. But out of love for others and for our own we continue to put forward the ideal of a beautiful love – a love that involves a total self-giving, a love that expresses itself in the life-long commitment of marriage.
So, by way of conclusion: The Church does say, “no,” to many practices – some of them widely accepted in our society. But we do so for one reason, to say, “yes,” to Jesus and, “yes,” to the beautiful love he proposes. And he knows what he is talking about. He was there when God created us male and female.
For those of you who are married, you know how difficult it can be. You know that sometimes the hardest thing to do is stay with your husband or wife. All married couples at one point or another realize that the ideal Jesus presents to us is really tough work. Work that can only be done with the help of others and the help we find from God here at the Eucharist.
As we reflect on Jesus words in the gospel today, I think it’s important that we look at them alongside his other teachings. That we are called to be merciful and forgiving. I’m sure that Jesus realized the challenges people face staying committed to each other. I believe he presented the ideal so that couples realize the need for self practice sacrifice. I think, Jesus presents the ideal of a loving permanent relationship so that couples work harder to forgive each other. The ideal presented is meant to motivate us, not to harm those of us who are unable to heal a broken relationship.
Let us ask ourselves this week to consider how we welcome the divorced and remarried in our community as well. I ask us to consider more prayer for each other to help the married couples we know. What more can we do to strengthen the commitment we’ve made to our husbands and wives.