What God has joined together, man must not separate

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: October 4, 2009
Gen 2:18-24; Ps 128:1-6; Heb 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16

In my last semester in the seminary, we were told that there was something that we should expect on the first day that we arrived at our new parish assignment. They said, after we were ordained, and arrived at the new parish, and our pastor showed us to our desk, we should expect to find three or more file folders already sitting on it: three or more couples that we were to begin preparing for marriage. And so, they told us, we needed to have our marriage preparation plan in hand, ready to go, when we walked in that first day.

And they explained to us that those 6 months of marriage preparation is getting more and more important. When a couple walks in today, they have had 25 or 30 years to absorb our culture’s ideas about marriage, which are getting more and more off-track. How much have they absorbed the idea that marriage is about self-indulgence, self-fulfillment? That a big wedding is what really matters? What models of living out marriage have they been surrounded by, for 25 or 30 years—good models or broken ones? How much will we be attempting to strengthen and correct in just 6 months of marriage preparation sessions?

So, I walked into St. Mary’s with my marriage preparation plan, and the number of couples I have had to prepare is: zero. We just don’t have that many weddings at this parish.

So let me do something today that I’ve thought of doing during marriage prep sessions.

These two figures stood on my grandparents’ wedding cake in December of 1945. You may be able to see that the figure of the groom is wearing his World War II Navy uniform. They stayed faithfully married for more than 52 years, until my grandmother died—until “death did them part.” My grandfather died a few years after that, and these figures came into my hands. I treasure them as a symbol of persistent faithfulness and love. I know that there are couples in this parish who have outdone my grandparents’ record by many years; and I thank you for your fidelity and your example.

Jesus’ teachings about marriage are not popular in our culture today. Many may object to the Church’s teaching on marriage and say that it should change; but we need to recognize that these are Jesus’ own words, and they are clear. How can we claim to follow Christ—any one of us—if we reject our Lord’s clear teaching on marriage?

Jesus’ teaching on marriage was already at odds with his own culture. The Pharisees asked him, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They knew full well that it was lawful in Jewish law, right in Deuteronomy chapter 24, the one place in the five books of the Pentateuch that addresses it; and they seemed to know already what Jesus would say, and to be hoping to expose this to the crowd, to provoke disapproval of him. And Jesus shrewdly replies, “What did Moses command you?” because he knew that Moses didn’t command it; he simply assumed it, as he regulated a particular case, saying “if this divorce happens, and this divorce happens, then this other thing must not happen.” And so the Pharisees would have to reply, “Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.”

The commentators tell us that this must have been an advance over a rough tribal system in which women were treated as mere property. By requiring that a bill of divorce be given, the men were at least somewhat restrained—and the women were given the minimal protection of having legal proof that they could remarry. But it was still a situation in which the men could divorce or not divorce at will. The scholars of the time debated about what qualified as a just reason for a man to divorce his wife. The stricter school said, only something like adultery; the looser school allowed almost any reason, including—and I’m not making this up—”even if she spoiled a dish for him” [School of Hillel, in the Mishnah]. For such trivial reasons man would presume to separate what God had joined together.

And for such trivial reasons, our society today regularly breaks marriages apart. Since the spread of “no-fault” divorce laws throughout the states in the 1970s and early ’80s, it has become possible for either a husband or a wife to break up a marriage at will—and hard for the other spouse to resist this. And with this, since it seems that the state no longer has an interest in preserving the marriage relationship, courts began to accept prenuptial agreements—which they had previously rejected, since how can you plan the divorce before the marriage had even taken place?

Jesus points his society, and ours, back to the beginning, back to what we heard in our first reading, from the Book of Genesis. 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. Jesus points to God’s act of creating human beings, and his intention in creating us male and female. It is not enough to follow some restrictions that Moses placed upon divorce. Jesus draws us back to marriage as a lifelong union of self-giving, fruitful love, which God intended from the beginning.

Is this good news that Jesus is preaching? It certainly didn’t sound like it to the disciples. In the Gospel of Matthew [19:10], the disciples responded to this same teaching by saying, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” They could see that Jesus’ teaching about marriage took away the prerogative they enjoyed as men to exit a marriage at will, by simply writing a bill of divorce, and they didn’t like it. It sounded like restriction; it didn’t sound like good news. But Jesus knew that, before he could lead them forward to the beauty of marriage as a sacrament and a vocation in him, in which their love becomes a channel of grace, a participation in the love of the three Divine Persons of the Trinity, an image of Christ and his Church—before this, he had to strengthen the foundations of natural marriage—even though this meant cutting back on the privileges and freedoms that their society had been giving them as men, and which they took for granted.

As followers of Christ, we find ourselves in a similar situation today, needing to proclaim again to our society the foundational truths about natural marriage. For our society has also been undercutting these foundations—and indeed going further, in ways that Jesus’ society never dreamed. With recent moves in the District of Columbia to alter the legal definition of marriage, Archbishop Wuerl has asked all priests to preach “about the meaning of marriage for our Church and our society.”

And when we do speak up in the public square, what will we say? As the Church has long taught, we can speak in a way that can be understood even by those who do not believe in the Catholic Church, or in Christ, or in Divine Revelation, or even in God. What we can present are truths that are apparent to anyone who wants to know the truth and uses their observation and reason.

It is apparent to any observer that, biologically, only the union of one man and one woman can conceive a child. No other physical combination of human beings can do this: not two men, not two women, not any polygamous grouping. This union of one man and one woman is something inherently special and different. A man and woman are physically different in a complementary way; and this is matched a similar difference but complementarity psychologically and emotionally. This is a natural and human reality that persists throughout all history and in every culture. It originates in natural law and cannot be redefined by any society or any social group.

And this marital union of one man and one woman that conceives a child, is also the father and mother that that child needs, and has a right to. We heard that Jesus welcomed the children to come to him, and said they were not to be prevented; and we also must look out for what children need. We know that mothers and fathers are not interchangeable. With the same love, mothers and fathers relate differently to their children and teach them different things. Research in the social sciences confirms that the best environment for raising children is a home with a biological mother and father married to each other in a caring relationship. While there have always been sad circumstances in which some children didn’t know their mother or father, it has never been the case that a society intentionally deprived children of their right to a mother and a father. Until now.

My brothers and sisters, this must not be. Marriage matters. It is more than just two people who love each other. It is more than just a contract, a civil union. Marriage is a personal relationship with a public significance. It is the union of a man and woman open to creating and nurturing children, with their unique and complementary gifts.

And so, like our Lord, we must call our society back from its hardness of heart to the foundational truths about marriage. Like his message, our message sometimes doesn’t sound like good news, because it seems to cut back on the privileges and freedoms our society has been giving out. The Church has a long history of supporting civil rights, equality and respect for all people. But redefining marriage is not about civil rights. So we join our Lord in calling our society to strengthen marriage back to what God intended, back to what it is by nature; and so, ultimately, it is good news.

For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. May every one of our young married couples reach the 50-year mark that my grandparents did. And may every one of our children be raised in such a loving marriage of father and mother.

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