Homily by Father John Jay Hughes, delivered in St. Louis, MO on October 7, 2012
I am one of the dwindling number of people able to remember the Model T Ford car. Henry Ford produced 15 million of them between 1909 and 1928, the year of my birth. There were still Model T’s on the roads in my early childhood. There was only one model. And you could have any color you wanted as long as it was black. The Model T made Henry Ford an enormously rich man. On his fiftieth wedding anniversary Henry Ford was asked his secret for marital success. His reply was simple: Just the same as in the automobile industry: stick to one model. Jesus says the same thing in today’s gospel.
We all know, however, how common divorce is today. Few families today are untouched by it. Divorce is always painful even the so-called friendly divorces we sometimes hear about. The reason for this pain is rooted in what the Bible says marriage truly is. Jesus reaffirms this teaching in today’s gospel when he says that when two people marry, they are no longer two but one flesh. The rending of this one-flesh relationship is inevitably painful as painful as the cutting off of an arm or leg. People who have experienced the pain of divorce deserve our sympathy and support.
To understand Jesus’ teaching about marriage we must know something about the male dominated world of Jesus’ day. Women were considered the property of men. Girls belong to their fathers until they married; and marriage made her the property of her husband. The commandment, Thou shalt not covet, lists a man’s wife along with his other property. From childhood to old age, the Hebrew woman belonged to the men of her family.
This subordination of women to men was reflected in the Jewish law of divorce, which was normally available only for husbands. Asked about this in today’s gospel, Jesus replies that divorce was not part of God’s original plan in creation. It arose, he says, because of the hardness of your hearts in other words, as a result of sin. It was this sinful hard-heartedness which had created the whole male-dominated world in which Jesus lived. With this world, deformed by sin, Jesus contrasts the good world created by God.
Jesus is referring to the Genesis creation story that we heard in our first reading. It opens with God’s statement: It is not good for the man to be alone. The first thing that God looks at in creation and says it is not good is loneliness. Therefore, God says, I will make a suitable partner for the man. The man has no part in her creation. God casts the man into a deep sleep to create his suitable partner a phrase connoting woman’s equality with men. Through a story simple enough even for children to understand the Bible is telling us that God created the two sexes to complete each other. He did not make men and women for rivalry: domination on the one hand, manipulation on the other. That rivalry was a result of the fall the choice of both woman and man, recounted in the next chapter of Genesis, to sin by disobeying the God who had made them.
In the gospel Jesus affirms this partnership between the sexes intended by God in creation, and hence the fundamental equality of man and woman. His teaching about marriage and divorce is a strong condemnation of the double standard which prevailed in his world yes, and too often still today: a strict law for women, and a more indulgent one for men. If men and women are partners, equally loved by God, there can be only one standard for both.
The scene which follows in the gospel, in which Jesus welcomes little children and blesses them, makes the same point. We are all God’s children, all equally dear to him. The same social and legal system that assigned women a lower place than men also considered children inferior. This explains why Jesus’ disciples thought they were doing him a favor by keeping children away from him. Jesus rebukes them: Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Jesus’ point is that God’s kingdom is especially for those whom society considers of no importance: people who are overlooked, thrust aside, pushed around, imposed on. Hence the importance of women for Jesus, and of children.
Behind both parts of the gospel the seemingly legalistic teaching about marriage and divorce, and the scene of Jesus with little children is the message of God’s universal love. The world of God’s making reflected that love. The world of our marring has perverted this love into lust, which means using others for selfish pleasure.
We betray God’s universal love when, instead of welcoming children as God’s gift, we resent them as burdens that interfere with our comfort. This is the attitude which has produced, all over our world today, laws permitting the killing of unborn children for any reason whatever, often merely for convenience. Already we are witnessing the next logical development: the direct killing of the newborn, during the process of birth itself (partial birth abortion), or through starvation, when they have some physical or mental handicap. Is it any wonder that Pope John Paul II, spoke of a culture of death?
In the face of these and countless other horrors the church proclaims Jesus’ timeless message of God’s universal love for all he has made: not just for the able-bodied and fit, not just for those of good moral character, but for all. In a special way, Jesus tells us, God loves the weak, the defenseless, the neglected. He loves every one of us just as we are, in strength and weakness.
We all remember the last years and months of Pope John Paul II, how he soldiered on in great weakness and serious illness. What an encouragement to people all over the world who are weak, handicapped, gravely ill. The Pope showed us, by his example, that life is still valuable, and is still worth living, despite weakness and pain. No merely human organization could long survive with such weakened leadership. From the point of view of administrative efficiency the Pope’s continuance in office was little short of a disaster. The Church, however, lives by a higher law than efficiency. It lives by the law of God himself: the law of love.
God did not make us for rivalry, for exploitation, for strife and war. He did not make us to be thrown away when we get old and weak. God made us to support one another. He made us to be partners. He made us for love. In the world of God’s making that love was as natural as breathing. In the world of our marring the power to love must be given us afresh, from outside. The One who gives us this love is the One who is love himself. He is the one, our second reading tells us, who is Anot ashamed to call us B every one of us B his brothers and sisters.
His name is Jesus Christ.
Scripture: Gen. 2:18-24; Heb. 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16