I recently heard a Thomist I respect tell priests that they need to plan non-Biblical “doctrinal” homilies, because the Lectionary doesn’t hit the important points. I think he’s wrong about that. Especially this past Sunday.
Our Gospel was on marriage. It is shocking how directly Jesus speaks into our current “issues”—and how much more deeply he speaks than anyone else. (It is not sufficiently noticed that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is nothing but a meditation on Scripture: and it hits everything.)
The Lectionary’s choices for first and second reading are fabulous. The first reading, naturally, is the passage from Genesis that Jesus quotes: Adam says, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . . . That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.” (The ancient Hebrew doesn’t have quotation marks. Today, we tend to assume that “That is why” is the narrator commenting on Adam’s words. Traditionally, they thought those too were Adam’s words: his prophecy about marriage.)
The Second reading is the beginning of the seven-week tour of Hebrews with which we fill finish this Year of Mark. It is not about marriage. But it is about flesh: Jesus “was made lower than the angels” so that he “might taste death for everyone,” and become “perfect through suffering,” and thus call us “brothers.”
What is important about these readings is how they portray family as a matter of both “flesh” and relationship. When Adam calls Eve “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” he is using an Old Testament expression that has nothing to do with sex. It is what Jacob’s uncle Laban calls him (Gen 29:14), what Abimelech says to “the house of his mother’s father” (Judges 9:2), what the tribes of Israel say to David (2 Sam 5:1, 19:13), etc. It means “she is my sister,” family.
So too when in the very next verse “the two of them become one flesh.” That’s not a euphemism for sex. It’s an enduring state of relationship. And it is a relationship that is both flesh and person. They become entirely one: family. So too Jesus becomes one of us: family, our “brother.”
In the Gospel, there are three things to note. The first, of course, is the prohibition of divorce. “The two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Again, it’s not talking about sex: that fleshy union doesn’t last long. Rather, it’s talking about becoming family. Once that is joined, there is no breaking it.
Catholics don’t just “oppose” divorce. We don’t believe in it. It isn’t possible. You can’t stop being married any more than you can stop being brother and sister, or father and son.
But second, notice that Jesus goes beyond the prohibition. “Because of the hardness of your hearts he [Moses] wrote you this commandment.” Lately there has been a lot of talk in the Church about mercy and divorce. In fact, Moses’ mercy was to let them divorce and remarry, slowed down a little but not much by the “bill of divorce.” Moses couldn’t do anything about their hardness of heart, and when hearts grow hard, marriage becomes impossible: because it’s not just “flesh,” it’s a relationship.
But Jesus is God. He can do something about our hardness of heart. Human mercy can offer external helps, but often all we can do is give up. Jesus, “made perfect by suffering,” can give us the strength to get through our struggles. He can soften our hardness of heart. That’s what grace means.
Marriage is a central issue for Christian faith because we see this softening of hearts “take flesh.” It’s for real. Jesus can actually help us.
And that might be (third), why the next paragraph has Jesus saying, “Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Children are in a state of becoming. They have begun the path to adulthood, but they still have a long way to go.
The only way to live marriage is to realize that God isn’t finished with me yet. He is still at work, transforming me, building me a natural heart, teaching me to love. Marriage, and all of family, is a life-long project of being transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ. It is, in fact, the most tangible, fleshly example of how Jesus has made himself part of our family, and ourselves part of his family, and is sharing with us his sacred heart.
The failure of liberals and conservatives both is to think that the way we are now is the final word. Unless we realize that we are still children, we can never grow up to the kingdom of God.
What transformations is family demanding of you?