Scripture and the Liturgy

What God Has Joined Together: 27th Sunday of OT

You don’t need to read a lot of news to realize marriage and family in the United States and Western culture generally are really in a bad state and getting worse.  Marriage and birth rates in the US are at historic lows and continue to decline.  The average age a person gets married in the U.S. has sky rocketed in recent years, reflecting the fact that fewer are getting married, and they wait longer before they do. COVID was catastrophic on both, delaying weddings and depressing the birth rate 8% in one year, truly a horrific figure when the year-over-year differential tends not to be greater than 1%.   Divorce rates both inside and outside the Church remain high. Only one-third of all children in the United States will spend their whole growing up with both biological parents in the home.  The vast majority grow up with just their mother, mother and step-father, or some other mixed situation.  Does this have psychological and social effects on children?  You bet it does, but no one is too concerned about the kids these days, unless faux concern for children can be used as a proxy battle to advance some identity-politics ideology. 

Frankly, though, for most of human history marriage and family have been a mess.  American culture in the mid-twentieth century experienced an unusual period of the flourishing of the Christian model of the family, with 95% of Americans being married by age 30 and divorce rates in the single digits. But it has since succumbed to sexual ideologies that go back to Freud, Kinsey, Marx and other thinkers, and most Americans will now grow up in psycho-social misery and continue to experience it throughout adulthood.  Going even further back, marriage and family were a mess in antiquity, too, including in the lifetime of Our Lord.  That makes the teaching of Our Lord on marriage and family all the more pertinent and relevant to us today, because the attitudes towards marriage and family life in antiquity bear certain similarities to attitudes in our own day.

Our First Reading is Gn 2:18-24, the foundational passage for the theology of matrimony:

The LORD God said: “It is not good for the man to be alone.
I will make a suitable partner for him.”
So the LORD God formed out of the ground
various wild animals and various birds of the air,
and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them;
whatever the man called each of them would be its name.
The man gave names to all the cattle,
all the birds of the air, and all wild animals;
but none proved to be the suitable partner for the man.

So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man,
and while he was asleep,
he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.
The LORD God then built up into a woman the rib
that he had taken from the man.
When he brought her to the man, the man said:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called ‘woman, ‘
for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother
and clings to his wife,
and the two of them become one flesh.

There is a lot going on in this very beautiful passage.  “It is not good for the man to be alone,” points to our creation for the purpose of communion. Each of us is a person made for communion with other persons.  In particular, since God himself is a communion of persons that share a nature, it was necessary that Man be created as a communion of persons that share a nature: so God creates Man as both male and female, and when they unite as “one flesh”, a third person comes into being.  This is a natural icon of the Trinity.

“I will make a suitable partner for him.” The Hebrew is an ‘ezer k’negdo, “a help or helper corresponding to or complementing him.” It’s a phrase that stresses ideas of complementarity or reciprocity—it’s striking that the sacred author didn’t say, “I’ll make a servant (or a handmaid) for him.”  The term “help” or “helper” (‘ezer) is never once used in the Bible for help provided by a subordinate. It is usually used of help provided by God or a neighboring king–often military help in a dire situation. This points to the woman as a divinely-appointed aid to help the man out of the distress of his solitude.

God makes the animals and brings them to the man for the man to name them.  This is the first time in the creation account that someone other than God has named anything.  Naming was an authoritative act.  The man is essentially being deputized with divine authority to speak the name to each creature made by God.  This authoritative speaking on behalf of God is a kind of prophetic role, and so we see that Adam was the first prophet, the first to speak on behalf of God. 

No helper suitable is found among the animals—and God knew it would be so, but this is a pedagogy for Adam.  For the “suitable partner” to come forth, Adam is going to have to co-operate and even to suffer.  So, in a typological foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on the cross, Adam falls into a deep sleep and must give his flesh and blood for his bride to come forth.  God takes Adam’s flesh from his side—like Jesus’ pierced side—and literally “builds” (Heb banah) the flesh into a woman.  The woman is “built” in Hebrew, rather than formed or made, because she is a temple.

When Eve the bride is brought to Adam at last, he burst out into the first recorded human words in Scripture, as well as the first poetry in the Bible: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of her man.”  This is covenant-making language.  A covenant is the family relationship formed by an oath.  These words of Adam constitute an oath. “This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” is a performative utterance declaring Eve to be his family member.  The subsequent change of her name (in this case, giving of a name) is common in covenant rituals, because covenants create a family, and one often gets a new name when joining a family, to denote the new relationship that you now have with the other members of the family. 

The sacred author stresses that this is the foundation of matrimony: “This is why a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife…”  Notice that it says, “wife,” and not “wives,” because monogamy is the original divine ideal.  “The two of them become one flesh”—both in the marital act and in the child that results.  The resulting children can never be undone, one of the indications that the union is permanent.  Also notice it is “one flesh”, not “many fleshes”, pointing again to lifelong monogamy as the divine intention.

Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6:

R. (cf. 5) May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives.
Blessed are you who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
R. May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your home;
your children like olive plants
around your table.
R. May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion:
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
R. May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives.
May you see your children’s children.
Peace be upon Israel!
R. May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives.

This beautiful psalm speaks of the blessing of family life that God bestows on those who love him.  “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine, and your children like olive shoots about your table.”  The natural good of fertility and children are extolled here.  Children should be cherished as a gift from God.  They are not a burden or an impediment to one’s career.  The kind of thinking that sees children as an obstacle to some other life goal rather than a goal in themselves is disordered.  It is not thinking as God does, not seeing the eternal perspective.

Infertility can be very painful for a couple, and we see that many famous Biblical couples struggled with infertility.  It’s regrettable, however, that so many today want to be infertile, because children take a second seat to other life goals.  Fertility rates in America and all developed countries around the world are below replacement and at historic lows with no sign of recovering. The next few decades will show huge social changes as schools close for want of children and there are too few workers to care for the huge numbers of elderly, leaving many to die in neglect and solitude.

Our Second Reading is Heb 2:9-11:

Brothers and sisters:
He “for a little while” was made “lower than the angels, “that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he,
for whom and through whom all things exist,
in bringing many children to glory,
should make the leader to their salvation perfect through suffering.
He who consecrates and those who are being consecrated all have one origin.
Therefore, he is not ashamed to call them “brothers.”

The Epistle to the Hebrews pursues a different theme than the other Readings, but we have this providential occurrence that our passage today mentions Jesus “bringing many children to glory.”  Love is diffusive of itself.  It give life and gives it abundantly.  Love delights in bringing forth new life, and resists saying, “No, this much life is enough. No more.”  God desires to bring many to salvation, to bring many into communion with himself.  That is why we need to be generous both in natural and supernatural procreation, both in raising children and in raising saints.  We need especially evangelistic zeal, to bring many to new birth in Christ through Baptism.

Our Gospel is Mk 10:2-16

The Pharisees approached Jesus 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 a husband to write a bill of divorce
and dismiss her.”
But Jesus told them,
“Because of the hardness of your hearts
he wrote you this commandment.
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.”
In the house the disciples again questioned Jesus 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.”

And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them,
but the disciples rebuked them.
When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them,
“Let the children come to me;
do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to
such as these.
Amen, I say to you,
whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child
will not enter it.”
Then he embraced them and blessed them,
placing his hands on them.

The Pharisees debated the situations that justified divorce.  Some schools of thought, like the school of Shammai, were very restrictive and only permitted divorce for some grave reason, whereas the school of Hillel allowed divorce for nearly any reason whatsoever. They approach Jesus to see what his views are.

Jesus teaches that Moses’ tacit permission for divorce in Deut 24:1-4 was a concession to the sinfulness of the people of Israel, but God’s intention was not so in the beginning.  Lifelong monogamy and fidelity are God’s plan.  The Pharisees had forgotten what Malachi the prophet said: “I hate divorce! Says the LORD God” (Mal 2:16). 

Jesus teaches the indissolubility of marriage; that is, a true marriage cannot be dissolved.  Therefore, if one divorces one’s legitimate spouse and remarries, it is a form of adultery. 

Of course, the technicality is: what is a true marriage?  In the Catholic Church, we have put so many conditions on what constitutes a true marriage that it has become relatively easy, should one wish to dissolve one’s marriage, to go to the Church and have one’s marriage declared null, that is, no true marriage ever existed.  Pope Francis has streamlined this process. 

The availability of easy annulments has conditioned the way people commit to marriage in the contemporary Church.  People marrying in the Church are well aware that if problems arise in the future, it will be possible to get a civil divorce and an annulment from the Church, so the marriage commitment doesn’t feel as serious and as binding as it should be, and young people don’t enter into the relationship with a mindset committed to lifelong fidelity no matter what.  And that, in turn, does not help the marriage thrive. 

I’ll leave to others to decide how the problem should be addressed, but please don’t shoot me for pointing it out.

I think it is not coincidental that immediately after teaching about the gravity and indissoluble character of marriage, Our Lord speaks of “letting the little children come to me.” 

Jesus was very fond of children, seeing them as a blessing, and as by their nature close to God.  “Let the little children come, and do not prevent them” seems a poignant message to we modern Catholics who typically contracept after two kids, if not before.  We don’t want the little children to come—it would be a downward force on our standard of living.  I’m sympathetic to that—it’s hard and expensive to raise children—but we have to keep in mind that they are eternal beings of infinite worth, good in themselves and of eternal value.  We need a conversion of mindset in regards to children.  All of us were children once, after all, though some seem to forget it.

The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like children, Jesus says—but what does this mean?  It is not that children are not sinful—they are.  But they tend to be free from the addictions to sex, pleasure, drugs, money, power, and reputation that pervert adults and prevent adults from admitting their wrongdoing and accepting God’s forgiveness.  Children tend to be more transparent, more willing to admit their need for help, and—to a certain extent—more willing to admit when they’ve done wrong.  We need to be like that.  Free from the addictions to the things of this world that we develop over time as adults.  Free to be simple in our relationship with God the Father and trust him, even in the midst of circumstances that shake that trust. 

Ironically, it takes childlike trust in God the Father in order to be open to having a child or having another child, as the case may be.  We need childlike parents who trust God the Father to provide for any more children he may send them.  We also need childlike spouses who are not so driven by their lusts for this or that pleasure in life that they break their bond with the one with whom they have become ‘one flesh’, in order to seek that other thing.    May God grant us all the spirit of children.

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