This coming Sunday is the 27th in Ordinary Time of Year B. The gospel is taken from Mark 10:2-12 and involves a question about divorce whose real intent is to bring Jesus into conflict with what the Pharisees regard as the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. Jesus has answered the real question that the Pharisee had asked: not one about divorce, but one about authority. The disciples apparently did not pick up on the nuanced answer, and so “In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:9-11)
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Under the Fig Tree

Today is the Feast of the Archangels with a reading from the Gospel of John in which Jesus encounters Nathaniel under a fig tree. It is only at the end of the reading that angels get a mention: “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51) Otherside, Jesus is involved in the calling of the disciples, having found Peter, Andrew and Philip at work. He finds Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree. Micah 4:3-4 and Zechariah 3:10 suggest that “under a fig tree” may be a place of contemplation. It may be that Nathanael was a “thinker”. He wouldn’t accept anything at face value, but he would question and contemplate everything until he was sure of its truthfulness. On the other hand, sitting in the shade, eating the free figs, might indicate that he was just a lazy bum. Continue reading

Into the heart of the storm

This coming Sunday is the 27th in Ordinary Time of Year B. The gospel is taken from Mark 10:2-12 and involves a question about divorce whose real intent is to bring Jesus into conflict with what the Pharisees regard as the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. Jesus has answered their questions. The Pharisee do not seem to question the distinction Jesus makes, indicating that they understood that the real question is whether they are able to truly discern God’s will.

Thus, Jesus moves the dialogue to deeper question and asks about what God intended in the creation:  “But 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.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” (Mark 10:7-9)

Jesus has posed a question to the Pharisees that puts before them a choice between preserving the Law as they understood it or discerning and doing God’s will. The former is a legislation that is based upon fallen human history. But is there something that precedes that history that will reveal God’s intent? Jesus is also appealing to the Torah in his reference to the creation account in Genesis. Many scholars have offered that the Law given to Moses was part of a covenant with the people of Israel for a specific time in history. That covenant was broken and “subsumed” into the larger Davidic covenant. But the covenant in Genesis is timeless and is revealed in Creation. Paul seems to make the similar argument that the Mosaic law was but an ‘inset’ into God’s earlier purpose and covenant of grace, which is eternal (Gal. 3:17).

Jesus clearly has two passages in mind:

  • God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)
  • That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body. (Gen 2:24)

Jesus describes the union of husband and wife as a bond rooted in the very nature of Creation, one that takes priority over the other divinely intended relationship: family. As close as the parent-child relationship is, the husband-wife relationship is closer. They are not to act as though one, they are to become one. And this union is the action of God, therefore, humans are not to separate what God has joined. Jesus’ final pronouncement grounds the sanctity of marriage in the authority of God himself. This is consistent with the biblical perspective, which never considers husband and wife alone but always in the presence of God, subject to his commands and aided by his grace.

At one level, Jesus’ is repeating his charge against the Pharisees for substituting human tradition and understanding for the commandment of God (7:9–13). Perkins [643] writes: “The conclusion Jesus draws from the Genesis passage is consistent with the picture of Jesus and the Law already presented in the Gospel. God intended men and women to be permanently joined in marriage, so no human tradition can claim the authority to override that fact (v. 9). Jesus exploits the metaphoric possibilities of Gen 2:24, ‘they become one flesh,’ to exhibit the absurdity of thinking that divorce ‘law,’ whatever conditions it sets down, represents God’s will. Divorce would be like trying to divide one person into two.”

A Note About Annulments. If the Divine intent was that husband and wife become one person, then on what grounds does the Catholic Church consider annulments. The most common question asked: isn’t an annulment, just “Catholic divorce?” While not attempting a complete answer (and not close to it!), let me point out a few things for consideration.

Marriage as a sacrament was instituted by Christ; nothing changes that, but what changes in time is the Church’s plumbing the depths of the meaning of the sacrament. It is easily seen in the context, legislation, and language the Church has used during different times in its history.

In the first three centuries the marriages of Christians were not legislated in any official manner; people married according to the customs of the place they lived. The fourth and fifth centuries saw legislation enacted by local Church councils that addressed pastoral problems associated with marriage. It was in this period that the blessing of the marriage by a priest began to replace the blessing of the father of the bride. In this same period, St. Augustine began to work out a systematic treatment of marriage – but one colored by his view that there were inherent dangers in sex that were compensated by the “goods” of children.

From the fifth century on there was an increasing stress upon the ecclesial dimension of marriage. In this age, theologians debated what constituted “marriage:” consent, the blessing of the Church, or consummation. It was in the 12th century, along with the rise of standardized “canon law” or “ecclesial law,” that the idea of a marriage “contract” arose – pointing to rights, duties, and obligations. There were several other major categories that arose, but it was “contract” that prevailed until the 2nd Vatican Council, where the Church Fathers insisted on a return to a more biblical and intrinsic understanding of marriage as covenant (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, §48) . In that understanding, what is key is consent of the man and woman. (Foster, 38-41)

Today, people marry according to local customs, there is the presence of a civil contract, but the Church’s concern is to ensure that unburdened consent is present in both parties to the covenant. Where the consent was burdened, there are possible grounds for considering an annulment because what is in question is was the covenant bond of marriage was formed. (Disclaimer: I am not a canon lawyer, do not play one on television, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn express last night) No doubt I have not done justice to the topic of annulment, but if you want a one sentence summary: “Did the couple share in the divine intent of the Creator?”

A reason for Hope

Today includes an optional Memorial in honor of St. Wenceslas of Bohemia (which today we would understand as modern Czechoslovakia). The first reading for the memorial is from 1 Peter 3:14-17 and has what I think is one of the most foundational of Biblical and life commands, especially for these times in which we live: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…”  In various and sundry ways people have asked me that question. Often it comes from a family member in the ICU waiting room, a loved one hovering between life and death. The surgeons come to say, “We’re doing all we can.” What is the reason for hope at that moment? Continue reading

Into the Storm of Controversy

This coming Sunday is the 27th in Ordinary Time of Year B. The gospel is taken from Mark 10:2-12 and involves a question about divorce whose real intent is to bring Jesus into conflict with what the Pharisees regard as the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him. He said to them in reply, “What did Moses command you?”  They replied, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.” (Mark 10:2-4) Continue reading

Random Thoughts on Purpose

Sometimes there is a nexus of events that seem random or perhaps purposeful – usually hard to discern the difference. Many years ago when leading a Bible study on the Book of Revelation, one of the participants told me that every evening when driving home from the session (it was summer), he saw a black crow sitting on a fence. He asked if it was a sign. Could be…. or since it was farm country and the fence was bordering a corn field, it might have just been a crow. I have to admit there is a part of me that operates out of the old maxim: if you hear hoofbeats don’t assume zebra, it’s probably a horse. At least it’s a good maxim for the United States. Continue reading

Controversy: the gathering storm

This coming Sunday is the 27th in Ordinary Time of Year B. The gospel is taken from Mark 10:2-12 and involves a question about divorce whose real intent is to bring Jesus into conflict with what the Pharisees regard as the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. As typical of this section of the Markan gospel it follows the pattern of public engagement (vv.2-9) followed by a more thorough teaching for the disciples in a private setting (vv.10-12). 

Our Sunday gospel takes the form of a controversy story in which the Pharisees’ intent was clear: they were testing (peirazo) Jesus. When this word is used in Mark, it is either Satan (1:13) or the Pharisees (8:11; 10:2; 12:15) who are “testing/tempting” Jesus. Their question begins, “Is it lawful…?” However, they aren’t really asking Jesus to tell them what the law says. They already know what the law says: “When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and therefore he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house” (Deuteronomy 24:1) Continue reading

Everyday Prophets

Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!” – so said Moses to the people of the Exodus.  And did you know that at your own baptism you were anointed with the Sacred Chrism to share in the prophetic ministry of Christ? Were it that each one of us would know that we are prophets of the Lord and would live accordingly….. Of course, that raises the question of what it means to be a prophet.  When I ask around there are a couple of ideas that seem to be popular: Continue reading

God and the Scientist

god-and-scientistAt a recent inter-disciplinary meeting of scientists,  after the days’ meetings a group of men and women got together at the convention center bar. Encouraged by their own inquisitive minds and a drink or two, they came to the conclusion that humanity had come a long way and were at a point where humanity no longer needed God. So, they deputized one of the scientists to let God know. Continue reading