Today’s first reading and Gospel speak to us of the miracle of marriage. If your marriage is even reasonably working, it is a miracle! We live in an age that is poisonous to marriage. Many people look for marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. Our culture says if it doesn’t work out, bail out. Thus, successful marriages today are a miracle. Likewise, marriages are also a miracle since they are ultimately, a work of God.
Today’s readings bring before us, some fundamental teachings on marriage. Lets look at the Gospel, in five stages.
I. Rejection–the Gospel opens with the Pharisees approaching Jesus and they asked, somewhat rhetorically, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” Jesus, aware of their hypocrisy, that they do not really want an answer from him on which to base their lives, asks them in turn, “What did Moses command you?” They gleefully respond that Moses permitted a husband to divorce his wife so long as he filled out the paperwork.
But Jesus will have none of it and tells them that Moses only permitted this very regrettable thing called divorce because of their hard hearts.
There was a tradition among the Rabbis of Jesus time that this seemingly lax provision permitting divorce resulted from the fact that Moses reasoned, that if he were to say to the men of his day that marriage was until death, that the men of his day might very well arrange for the death of their wives. Thus in order to prevent homicide, Moses permitted the lesser evil of divorce. But it was still an evil, and still something deeply regrettable. Thus God himself says in the book of Malachi:
And this again you do. You cover the Lord’ altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering…You ask, “why does he not?” Because the Lord is witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. “For I hate divorce says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of host. Yes…take heed to yourselves, and do not be faithless.” (Malachi 2:13–16)
Thus, in these opening lines of the gospel, Jesus spends time highlighting how the Pharisees, and many other men of his time, have rejected God’s fundamental teaching on marriage. Jesus is about to reiterate that teaching, but for now, note first, the rejection evidenced in the question of the Pharisees, a rejection which Jesus roots in hearts that have become hardened by sin, unforgiveness, and a rejection of God’s plan.
God hates divorce not only because it intrinsically rejects what he has set forth, but because it is also symptomatic of human hardness, and sinfulness.
II. Restoration–Jesus, having encountered their hard hearts, announces a restoration, a return to God’s original plan for marriage. The Lord quotes the book of Genesis saying,
But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. And 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.
Note that the line begins with the phrase, “but from the beginning of creation…” In other words, Jesus signals that, whatever may have happened in the aftermath of Original Sin, whatever compromises or arrangements, that may have emerged in the reign of sin, are now to be done away with in the reign of grace that will come as the result of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection.
On account of the grace that will be bestowed we are now able, and expected to return to God’s original plan for marriage, that is, one man for one woman in a lifelong, stable relationship, which is fruitful, bringing forth godly children for God and his kingdom. This is God’s plan, a plan which has no room for divorce, contraception, and anything other than fruitful, stable love.
We live in a time, in Western culture, when there have been many attempts to redefine God’s plan for marriage, and substitute something erroneous, something human, for God’s original and perfect plan. And while current attempts to redefine marriage as including same-sex unions are a particularly egregious attempt at redefining marriage, this is not the first or only way that many in our culture have sought to redefine God’s plan for marriage.
The first attempts began in the 1950s, when the first celebrity divorces began to happen in Hollywood, beginning with Ingrid Bergman and many others to follow. Many Americans, who love their Hollywood stars, began to justify divorce. “Don’t people deserved to be happy?” became the refrain. And thus marriage, which had its essential focus as what was good and best for children, began, subtly but clearly, to be redefined in terms of what was best for adults. The happiness of the adults, rather than the well-being of the children, began to take pride of place in most people’s thinking about marriage.
Pressure began to build to the 1950s and into the 1960s that sought to make divorce easier. Until the late 1960s, divorces had been legally difficult to obtain in America. Wealthier people, and celebrities, often went to Mexico to get divorces. But now, pressure began to build to make divorce in this country easier. In 1969 Gov. Ronald Reagan of California, signed the 1st “no-fault divorce law.” This legislation made divorce a very easy thing to obtain. Within ten years most of the 50 states had similar laws. Divorce rates skyrocketed, as we well know.
And this amounts to the 1st redefinition of marriage. No longer was a man to leave his father and mother, and “cling to his wife.” Now, at the sign of trouble men and women could easily sever their marriage vows. But this in direct contradiction to God’s plan which tells them to cling. Thus, we engaged in what amounts to a redefinition of marriage.
The second redefinition of marriage came when the contraceptive mentality seized America in its grip beginning in the late 1950s and continuing apace to current times. Though God had said to the first couple, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth… (Genesis 1:28), Now children become more of a way of “accessorizing” the marriage, then an integral and expected fruit of marriage. Thus, children, were no longer an essential purpose of marriage, only an optional outcome, based on the wishes of the adults. And this too, is a redefinition of marriage in direct contradiction to God’s instruction to be fruitful and multiply. The happiness and will of the adults in question now attained to preeminence, children, rather than being an essential fruit, are only a possible outcome.
The current, and third redefinition of marriage is the proposal by many in our culture that people of the same sex can now enter into “marriage.” The utter absurdity of this proposal flows from the sinful conclusions of the first two redefinitions, which in effect state that, marriage is simply about two adults being happy, and doing what pleases them.
If that be the case, then there seems little basis in most people’s mind to protest “Gay” people getting married or, frankly, 3 or 4 or 5 adults getting married (polygamy is surely coming next).
We, in the heterosexual community, have misbehaved, and redefined essential aspects of marriage for over fifty years now. And the latest absurdity, (and it is absurd), of gay marriage flows from the flawed and sinful redefinition of marriage in the heterosexual community. We have sown in the wind, now we are reaping the whirlwind.
In the end, Jesus will have none of this. He rejects the attempts of the men of his age to redefine marriage, and he, through his Church, his living voice in the world today, also rejects the sinful and absurd redefinitions that we in our culture, propose, be it divorce, contraception or homosexual “marriage.”
God has set forth that a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and that the two of them become one flesh. In making a suitable partner for Adam, God created Eve, not Steve. And hence homosexual unions are excluded, a man is not a suitable partner for a man, a woman is not a suitable partner for a woman. Further, God did not, in making a suitable partner for Adam, make Eve, Ellen, Jane, Sue, Mary and Beth. Hence, polygamy, though mentioned, and tolerated for a time in the Bible (but always a source of trouble), is also not part of God’s plan.
God intends one man, for one woman, in a relationship of clinging, i.e., stable relationship, that bears the fruit of godly offspring.
This is the Lord’s plan and the Lord Jesus does not entertain any notion from the people of his day that will alter, or compromise God’s original design for marriage. He thus announces a restoration of God’s original plan for marriage as set forth in the book of Genesis.
III. Reality. As has become the case today, Jesus’ reassertion of traditional, and biblical marriage, was not without controversy. In Matthew’s account of this moment, many of the disciples react with disdain, saying, If that is a case of a man and his wife, it is better never to marry! (Matt 19:10)
In this gospel we see that the disciples are somewhat troubled by what Jesus says, and that they asked him about it again later, in the house. But Jesus does not back down, and even intensifies his language saying, Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.
There will be no apology from Jesus, divorce and remarriage is adultery. There may have been some in Jesus time, and today, who hold up their divorce papers and say that they have a divorced decree. But in effect, Jesus more than implies, that he is not impressed with some papers signed by a human judge, and he is not bound by the decision of some secular authority. What God has joined together, no man must separate. In other words, once again be establishes, that once God has in fact joined a couple in holy matrimony, the bond which God has affected is to be respected by all, including the couple themselves.
In other words, marriage has a reality beyond what mere humans bring to or say of it. Marriage is a work of God, a work that has a reality, and an existence the flows from God’s work, not man’s. All of our attempts to redefine, obfuscate, or alter marriage as God has set it forth, is both sinful and something which God does not recognize as a reality.
IV. Reemphasis–now comes an interesting twist, which includes with itself a reminder of one of the most essential purposes of marriage. The gospel text says,
And people were bringing their little children to Jesus 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 hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
This is not a new element to the story, neither have we gone into a separate pericope . Rather, Jesus’ remarks about children remind us of the essential reason why marriage is structured as it is. Why should marriage be heterosexual, why should it be stable, why should include a father and a mother, rather than two fathers, or two mothers, or one mother or one father?
The fundamental answer, is it the essential work of marriage is to procreate, and raise children! Since children remain marriage’s most fundamental fruit, it makes sense that marriage should be structured based on what is best for children. And the fact is, that children are best raised in a stable, lasting environment, where their parents have committed to one another in mutual support, and partnership in raising the children. Further, it makes sense psychologically that a child should be receiving influence from both a father and a mother, a male and a female parent. There are things that a father can teach a child that a mother, or another woman alone cannot. Further, there are things that a mother and a woman can teach a child that a father alone or two fathers cannot. Psycho-social development is best achieved in what God and nature have set forth, namely, that every child should have a father, and a mother; a male and female influence, growing up.
Anything else, amounts to something which is less than ideal. To the degree that we intentionally impose the less than ideal on children, we are guilty of an injustice. Bringing children into the world prior to marriage or apart from it, wherein a child will be raised in a single-parent home, is an injustice. It is an even greater injustice that children conceived under the promiscuous circumstances are far more likely to be aborted. To kill a child through abortion is a horrific injustice, it is also an injustice to raise a child apart from a marriage situation.
This preference for stable lasting heterosexual unions, clearly excludes homosexual unions. For same-sex “parents” are far from ideal for a child. To raise a child in such circumstances intentionally is an injustice, for it is to subject the child to that which is unnatural, and far from ideal.
Catholics have every obligation, to both uphold and to insist upon traditional marriage as what is right and just, not only because it is God’s plan, but because it is clearly what is best for children, and marriage is fundamentally about children. It is not simply a religious sensibility that should lead us to our position, but a position deeply rooted in natural law, common sense, and what is best for children.
Traditional marriage should be encouraged in every way, and becoming more fuzzy about what marriage is, or defining it down does not help our culture esteem traditional marriage. Traditional marriage has pride of place since it is focused on raising the next generation and is critical to that essential function of our society.
There is much talk today about the rights of people to do as they please, and so-called gay “marriage” is presented in this framework. But sadly, many who discuss rights, only refer to adults and seem to care less about what is really best for children. What is good, and right for children, needs to have a much higher priority in our culture today than it currently does.
Jesus reemphasizes the teaching on marriage by bringing a young child before them and telling them not to hinder the children. One of the clearest ways we hinder children from finding their way to God and to his kingdom, is with our own bad behavior. Bad behavior such as: promiscuous sexual acts that endanger children through abortion and single parenthood, bad behavior such as divorce which leaves children in divided predicaments and confused loyalties, bad behaviors such as homosexual insistence on adult rights above what is best for children. To all of this bad behavior Jesus presents a young child to us and says, “do not hinder them.” And our bad behavior hinders them.
V. Reassurance–to be sure, this teaching about marriage is, to a certain degree, “heavy weather.” Indeed, many in our culture have tried, and failed to attain to the vision of marriage which the Lord teaches today. There are complicated reasons, too many to note here, as to why people struggle to live this teaching today.
But whatever our own failures have been, we need to go to the Lord with a childlike trust, a trust that cries out for help. Thus, Jesus says at the conclusion of today’s gospel, Amen and I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God, like a child, will not enter it.
It pertains to children, often to feel overwhelmed, but in the midst of that, to run to their parents and seek help. It is in this spirit, that the Lord asked us to receive this teaching. Indeed, many of us may well have to run, and say “Abba, God, I don’t know how to live this teaching. My marriage is in ruins, and I don’t know how to save it. I’ve tried, but my spouse is unwilling. I can’t go back and undo what I did years ago.”
But note, how the Lord embraces the child in this gospel, and he is willing to embrace us as well, in our failures, and our difficulties. If we have failed, we should be like a young child and run to the Father. What we should most avoid is to be relentlessly adult, dig in our heels and say, “God is unreasonable, the gospel is unreasonable!”
In the end, only God can accomplish strong marriages and strong families for us. We must run to him as a Father, and seek his help. If we have failed, we must not fail to tell the next generation what God teaches, even if we have not been able to live it perfectly.
God’s plan still remains his plan for everyone, whatever our personal failings. We have every obligation to run to him and trust, and to ask his help, but even in the midst of personal failures, we can and must announce and celebrate the truth for others. In the end, God does not give us his teaching to burden us, or accuse us, but rather, to bless us. Our assurance must be, in his mercy and his capacity to write straight, even with the crooked lines of our lives.
If we in this generation have failed, and many of us have failed in this generation, we must still announce God’s plan for marriage to the next generation, we must not cease to hand on God’s perfect plan.
In the end, it takes a miracle, but God is still in the miracle working business, the miracle of marriage.
Photo Credit: Spiering Photography www.spieringphotography.com The couple pictured here are the Archduke Imre and Archduchess Kathleen of Austria who recently wed here in DC. A fine Catholic couple who seriously prepared for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and are possessed of devout faith which will surely help them embrace the miracle of marriage.