Tuesday, September 29, 2015

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

With Pope Francis concluding his Apostolic Journey to the US by opening the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, our readings for this week are particularly appropriate as they focus on marriage.

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
Hebrews 2:9-11
Mark 10:2-16

Our first reading is from the second creation story in the Book of Genesis.  Wait… second creation story?  Most Catholics are aware that Genesis is the first book of the Bible, and most are aware that it begins with the story of creation, but unless they’ve engaged in any critical Bible reading or study, any details beyond that tend to get a little fuzzy.  So let me explain…

The first chapter of Genesis does in fact give us the story of creation, starting with “In the beginning,” and very poetically proceeds to give us a day by day description of the events.  When we get to day six, we are told in verse 27, “God created mankind in his image;  in the image of God he created them;  male and female he created them.”  The author then brings his story to a close with verse 31, “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”  This is what we call the first creation story.

The second creation story then starts in Chapter 2 where the passage from our first reading is taken.  Here we are told a story about how after creating the man, God felt he needed a partner, so he puts the man into a deep sleep, takes one of his ribs, and fashions from it, a woman.  The closing of the passage gives us our catechetical lesson for the day… “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.”  Thus our lesson focuses on marriage.  Our Psalm continues this lesson with images of home and hearth singing “May the lord bless us all the days of our lives.”

This theme of marriage continues in our Gospel passage from Mark.  Here Jesus is confronted with a question from a group of Pharisees.  They want to know if it is lawful for a husband to divorce his wife.  Jesus turns the question back on them and asks, “What did Moses command you?”  They reply with the law from the Book of Deuteronomy (chapter 24, verse 1) that says it is permitted.  Jesus replies, however, that this section of the Law was put in “because of the hardness of your hearts,” and then supports his argument with a quote from Genesis.  Actually, it’s a couple quotes from Genesis.  The majority of the quote you should recognize from our first reading, the part about how a man leaves his mother for his wife.  But the first part of this quote is from the first creation story…where “God made them male and female.”  Jesus then teaches us that, “what God has joined together no human being must separate.”

Many of us are familiar with these passages as they form our understanding of Christian marriage and serve as the basis for the Church’s teaching on divorce.  Unfortunately, for far too many of us Christians, we’re so focused on divorce and what constitutes adultery that we are missing the point of what Christ is trying to teach.  To find that, we must go back to the original Law code in Deuteronomy, which states, “When a man, after marrying a woman, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house.”  Jesus isn’t teaching so much about marriage and divorce as he is teaching about equality and the rights of women within the marriage covenant.

At the heart of the Mosaic Law is a sense of social justice.  We have a duty to love God and love one another, just as Jesus taught with the Golden Rule.  These laws go even further stressing our need to be of service to one another, especially to those who are marginalized or in need.  Jesus saw in this passage from Deuteronomy the same things we see… first, that it is decidedly one-sided by allowing the man to write out a bill of divorce for just about any reason, and second, that it is a violation of the spirit of the Mosaic Law in that by dismissing her from the house you create a marginalized class.  To bring home his message of equality, Jesus quotes not only from the second creation story, but from the first, where God created man and women at the same time… together in one breath… equal and complimentary, not separate and subordinate.

Our second reading begins our study of the Letter to the Hebrews.  From now through to the end of Ordinary Time we will be spending time with this letter.  This week’s short passage from chapter 2 reminds us that Jesus, who was above all, was made “lower than the angels.”  In order to save us, he became one of us, and because he was one of us, both from the same God, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We hear and say that phrase so often that we sometimes forget that it originates from our earliest traditions.

Final Thoughts:
Jesus intentionally wanted to revolutionize our understanding of marriage.  Unfortunately, we weren’t listening very well.  We, the Church, have taken Jesus’ teaching to be purely a prohibition of divorce rather than a reinforcement of marriage being a covenant among equals.  For you see, if both parties enter into marriage as equal partners, with all due care to the seriousness to the vocation that it is, then divorce as defined by these ancient laws would be a sin.  The sin lies not so much in the actual separation, but in the fact that one party has been marginalized by the other.  More specifically, that the women have been marginalized by the men.

When Jesus taught, he did so by challenging us… asking us to take that extra step, go the extra mile, to do something more.  Even if what we are doing was good, there is still more we can do.  No matter where we are at, Jesus meets us there and compassionately guides us forward, calling to our better natures, building on our successes, so that in time we can become the best versions of our selves, reflecting the light of Christ within us.  Jesus also knew this would take time.  We are, after all, only human.  For the entirety of recorded human history, but for a few notable exceptions, we have been a male dominated society.  This was the society into which Jesus and the Apostles were born.  It is this condition we see reflected in our scriptures.  And in too many cases, it is still the society in which we live today.  But Jesus taught us to do better.  Perhaps instead of focusing on divorce, we should focus more on what a true Christian marriage really is:  A covenant among equals.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

God’s ways are not our ways.  This is one of the points Jesus was trying to make with his Apostles in last week’s gospel, and that theme continues be examined in our readings for this week…
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
Psalm 54:3-4, 5, 6, 8
James 3:16-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

Our first reading comes from the Book of Wisdom.  By way of reminder, the Book of Wisdom was written about fifty years before Christ.  For Jesus and his followers, this was a contemporary work, and like most wisdom literature, served as a sort of catechism for the Jewish community.  In this case, however, the community wasn’t from Jerusalem, but from Alexandria, and was written in Greek (not Hebrew) while patterned on a style used in Hebrew verse.  For most Christians reading this passage, it sounds very much like how Jesus was treated.  It can be hard for us to remember that this verse comes to us a couple generations before he was even born.  Still, the theme of “the suffering servant,” popularized by Isaiah, rings true with vivid detail.  Like Isaiah’s servant songs, our Psalm reminds us that our service and praise to God will lead to our salvation… that God is behind us.

Our second reading continues our study of the Letter of St. James.  This week he teaches us that it is our selfish ambitions that are at the root of our problems, as individuals, as a community, and as a society.  Instead, we should recognize the wisdom from above and that the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace.  James is challenged with bringing together a community that is divided in a world where they are surrounded almost constantly by conflict.  James, using the same wisdom found in our first reading, is teaching us that there is a better way.

Our Gospel continues this “suffering servant” theme with Jesus reminding his disciples that the Son of Man will be handed over and killed.  Our story picks up not too long after last week’s Gospel where Jesus rebuked Peter for telling Jesus not to speak of such things, so understandably, the disciples are afraid to question him on this as they continue their travels through Galilee.  When they reach Capernaum, the disciples are gathered together in a room when Jesus enters and asks what they were arguing about during the trip, but they don’t answer (they were arguing about who is greatest of them).  Jesus scolds them by saying he wishes to be first will be last and servant of all.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  Instead of rebuking them further, however, he turns the encounter into a “catechetical moment…”  taking a child into his arms, teaching them that whoever comes to him like this child will be received by him, and in turn, by God.

Final Thoughts:
While this story is somewhat short and lacking in the intermediate details, it still does a good job at setting the scenes for us, and gives us some insight into the daily life of this band of travelers.  It’s not hard to imagine that the Apostles could be a little intimidated by Jesus at this point, while at the same time engaging in the adolescent high jinks of figuring out who’s best.  It’s easy for us to forget that Jesus and his followers were only young adults by today’s standards… young, impetuous, still learning.  Not yet the great saints they will later become.  But the narrative is meant to help us see the disciples that we can become.  Like the young apostles, we don’t always understand.  Yet just like them, we to will grow to understand.  Through them we can see that there’s hope for us as well, and that Jesus’ death (and resurrection) was not in vain.