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?”