Tony Van Vuuren.
“It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate” (Genesis 2:18)
“From beginning to end, the Bible is a story about marriage and love. Throughout the Old Testament the love of God for his people is compared to the love of husband and wife for each other and in the New Testament Christ’s love for the church is compared to the love of a husband and wife for each other in the sacrament of marriage. In their love for each other, a husband and wife discover the presence and power of God in their lives. The family based on marriage is society’s smallest, yet most important community; “small and beautiful,” the place where children are prepared in love for life.”
In a world filled with a lack of peace and injustice, it is a great sadness that much of this discord can be found within the walls of our homes and in the heart of our marriages and families. The stress on today’s couples and families is extreme. Economic struggles, career pressures, and time and emotional constraints, have made strong and faithful marriages a rare treasure.
Mark’s gospel account puts the sacrament of marriage in the spotlight; appropriate as we celebrate “Marriage Sunday” throughout South Africa. The religious authorities of the day are trying to trap Jesus with a trick question so as to discredit him. There were two schools of thought at that time among the Pharisees and other authorities. In one, the stricter group, led by Rabbi Shammai taught that a man could divorce his wife only for a grave reason. The other, led by Rabbi Hillel was more lax, allowing a man to divorce a woman simply “if she no longer pleased him.” The latter sadly tended to prevail.
The trick situation set up by the Pharisees was such that if Jesus opted one way he would be betraying John the Baptist’s martyrdom, and if he opted the other way he would incur the wrath of King Herod and his wife Herodias. Either way the Pharisees thought they would rid themselves of this annoying Jesus from Nazareth.
But as usual Jesus asks them a question in return. “What did Moses command you?” They responded that Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife if the husband found a defect in his wife. Jesus makes it quite clear that he regarded the law of Moses as being laid down for a definite situation in time and being in no sense permanently binding. He takes the opportunity to go back to the creation story and quotes two verses from Genesis (1: 27 and 2:24.) Jesus does not claim to be introducing something new; He is going back to the original intention of God.
From the beginning of creation God made them male and female. He then draws the conclusion from this that they are no longer two, they become one body.
He teaches that in the very constitution of the universe marriage is meant to be an absolute permanency, and unity, and no temporary Mosaic regulation can altar that.
Jesus’ teaching is a difficult one! Avery difficult one.
In Mark, Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and remarriage is absolute, but in the parallel account in Matthew there is a difference. In Matthew 19: he is shown as absolutely forbidding remarriage, but as permitting divorce on one ground; adultery. Another parallel is to be found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus lays down his own difficult moral teachings about; living the beatitudes; loving enemies; turning the other cheek; giving without expecting return. In the light of these ideals that Jesus places before us we must admit that more often that not we fall short. Perhaps the teaching about marriage and divorce should be treated as we treat his other ideals; we fail in so many ways to live the life of love and commitment that Jesus has described for us; we are always in need of his compassionate mercy.
Love and commitment demand hard choices, and asks us to sweat blood at times. It cannot be had without paying a price; and there is a real price to be paid for love. The cross tells us this. The language we use to speak about the cross might sometimes not give that impression. We speak of Jesus’ suffering on the cross “as paying a debt”, “as washing us clean with blood”, and “as breaking the power of Satan.” These expressions, which are essentially metaphors, might give the impression that Jesus suffers on the cross as part of some divinely-scripted plan and that the purpose of his sufferings is to pay off a debt within the divine realm. What has all of this got to do with us?
What Jesus’ suffered on the cross and what he suffered just prior in the Garden of Gethsemane, is not something that is too much in the realm of divine mystery to be understood. It’s something we are asked to imitate. What Jesus’ suffering on the cross reveals, among other things, is that real love costs and costs dearly. If we want sustained, faithful, and life-giving love in our lives, the kind of pain that Jesus suffered on the cross is, at a point, its price-tag.
T.S. Eliot writes; “Love is a harsh thing,” costing “not less than everything.” That’s one of the messages of the cross. Simply put, the cross says: “If you want real love beyond romantic daydreams, if you want to keep any commitment you have ever made in marriage, parenting, friendship, or religious vocation, you can do so only if you are willing to sweat blood and die to yourself at times. There is no other route. Love costs.
What you see when you look at the cross of Jesus is what committed love asks of us.” This is not something our culture is keen to hear. Today we have many strengths, but sweating blood and dying to self in order to remain faithful within our commitments is not something at which we are very good. We find it very difficult to make choices and then to do the hard things that need to be done in order to stick with those choices.
Our problem is not ill-will or ill-intention. We may be sincere, likeable, and moral people; and we want the right things, but every choice is a renunciation and we would love to have what we have without excluding some other things.
We want to be saints, but we don’t want to miss out on any sensation that sinners experience. We want fidelity in our marriages, but we want to flirt with every attractive person who comes round; we want to be good parents, but we don’t want to make the sacrifice this demands, especially in terms of our careers; we want stable friendship, but we don’t want duties or obligations that tie us down. In short, we want love, but not at the cost of “obedience unto death.”
And yet that is the message of the cross. Love costs; it costs everything. To love beyond romantic daydreams means to “sweat blood” and “to be obedient unto death”. The cross invites us to look at the choices we made in love, see how they narrow our options, and, in that pain, say: “Not my will, but yours, be done.”
I’ll say again; Jesus’ teaching is a tough one; yet we all fail in one way or another to live up to the radical demands of the Gospel and the question might be asked; why is the issue of divorce and remarriage any different? The strict laws are no doubt in place to help protect the ideal, and we will hold onto the ideal; but we need to find ways to help and care for people caught in a marriage crisis. Marriages do fall apart; sometimes over a long period of time, a splinter at a time; sometimes because of a sudden act of betrayal. Divorce does not mean excommunication; we need to be there for them in prayer and action, preventing alienation from the church, encouraging ways of a fresh start and still be full participants in the Church. Compassion and reconciliation is required of us as Church.
The Church’s hands are tied by Jesus’ unequivocal injunction on marriage and the doctrines based on that; and yet, our faith is one of compassion. The difficult challenge facing the Church today is to find a way in which the dimensions of doctrine and compassion, in this case seemingly contradictory, can be reconciled. (S Cross 30/10)
Fr Cantalamessa speaks of marriage suffering the common mentality of “use and discard”. He likens it to damaged goods or torn clothing. No one repairs anything anymore; we just discard it. (When last did you see someone darning socks?) This is deadly if applied to marriage. He suggests replacing this mentality with one of “use and repair”. Repair the tears no matter how big or small, and repair them immediately.
St Paul gave good advice’ “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
Even faithful Christians must deal with personal sin and live in, and be affected by a broken world. When the ideal breaks down we have the mercy of God as a refuge and that is Jesus’ most basic teaching isn’t it?……God’s compassion for our broken and sinful nature. When, with all our best planning and good intentions for faithful and permanent married relationships, we fail, then God’s mercy comes forward. We have the security that God will never break the bond, never give up on us, and never walk out on us.
If we, as church, are to take Jesus’ words seriously then we need to do more, not only officially, but as family and friends to support married and separated couples when their relationships are strained and in trouble.
Think of all the weddings we attend. Isn’t there an implied commitment we make at these ceremonies, not only to show up for the service and the reception afterwards; but later on, when the couple need our support, advice and encouragement to help them become one body and remain one body. That’s also the time for us to “show up.”
The symbol of marriage also helps us look at today’s Eucharist. Jesus’ first miracle was at a marriage banquet. Two people making a lifetime commitment provided a suitable setting for the miracle that symbolized God’s abundant and overflowing love for us. The wine of joy and celebration; overflowing from God to us;
Let us Toast the love God has for us!