Friday, October 02, 2015

"The Two Shall Become One Flesh": Readings for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday the lectionary readings focus our attention on marriage and family. Indeed, the texts we read here will serve as the basis for the discussion of the upcoming Synod Pope Francis has called together in Rome.

So much could be said about them. Here are some brief thoughts to consider.

FIRST READING: Genesis 2:18-24
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.
Obviously, much has been written on this text. For our sake here let us simply highlight five important elements of the text.

First, Eve is created because God says, "It is not good for the man to be alone." Humanity is created for community. The poet Donne was correct: "No man is an island". According to Genesis, that's because God does not intend humanity to live in solitude. We are created for the other.

Indeed, in his famous treatment known as the "Theology of the Body," Pope St. John Paul II would look at this text and go further, reading Genesis in the light of the New Testament. In Genesis 1, God creates man in community--male and female--to image himself. Indeed, this coheres beautifully with the revelation of the New Testament that God is Trinity. God creates us for community because God is a community of persons. The family reflects the truth of who God is--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Second, Eve is created out of Adam... as he sleeps. Adam is completely passive here. In other words, he does nothing to create Eve or to cause God to create her. Eve is a gift to Adam. In New Testament terminology, Eve, one could say, is a "grace" for Adam (since the Greek word for "grace", chairs, can mean, "gift").

Third, the account of the creation of Eve is significant. Unlike other ancient texts that would devalue the nature of women, Eve here is presented as being made of the "stuff" of Adam. The expression "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" teach a kind of egalitarianism that would have been surprising in the ancient world: Eve has the same dignity of Adam. Indeed, this is already suggested by Genesis 1: both are created in the "image and likeness of God".

Fourth, Eve is described as man's "partner", also sometimes translated, "helpmate". At first glance, this might sound like Eve is being spoke of in derogatory terms, that is, she is merely Adam's "helper". However, that's not necessarily the case. The same term is also used for God elsewhere in the Bible.

Finally, Genesis 2 presents the creation of Eve from the side of Adam as the basis for marriage: That is why a man leaves his father and mother and cling to his wife. . . 

Humanity is not created to be isolated but we are created for the "other". Ultimately, Christian faith reveals, we are created for God. Yet there is no competitive account here between our relationship with God and neighbor: we love God in loving others. Spousal love is a unique expression of this.

And it is not simply that spousal love is oriented towards the two engaging in mutual love. The language of becoming "one flesh" points to the fecundity of such love: the two love each other and the oneness they become is so real it is manifested in a third person: junior.

Again, "reading backwards" (to borrow from Richard Hays), John Paul II would see in all of this a trace of the Trinity. He wrote, “Humanity images God in the family.”[1] He also said, “God in His deepest mystery is not a solitude but a family because He has within Himself, Fatherhood, Sonship and the essence of the Family which is Love.”[2]

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 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 psalm, which describes of a fruitful family as among God's blessings to the righteous, was undoubtedly chosen because of this Sunday's first reading and Gospel, which focuses on the motifs of marriage.

Let me be more specific: children in the biblical tradition are seen as a blessing. This would have been entirely consistent with the mindset of ancient peoples. Whereas today children are viewed in contemporary Western culture as an especially burdensome and inconvenient aspect of life, such was not the view of the biblical authors.

Such a negative view of children strikes me as sad and impoverished. How unfortunate it is that many people prioritize possessions over people. Certainly, not everyone can have children. But many people who could have more often decide against it, typically because more children represent difficult challenges. While being responsible is important, as a general outlook it has always struck me as short-sighted to favor more possessions over people.

Lying on one's deathbed, will anyone seriously wish to be surrounded by fewer children? Having had that extra car, that extra free time or TVs for other rooms will probably not seem so important. Whether or not children had to wear hand-me-downs will likely not seem that problematic either. In fact, rather than wishing they had fewer children, I suspect most might regret not having more. But I digress...

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 consecratedall have one origin.Therefore, he is not ashamed to call them “brothers.”
Though the Second Reading is not usually selected in the lectionary because of the First Reading or the Gospel, it nonetheless shares one important motif with those readings this Sunday: familial imagery.

Here we see that family is the ultimate end of God's plan accomplished in Christ. God intends to make us his family. Christ has become our brother and thus has made his Father our Father: he brings "many children to glory".

GOSPEL: Mark 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 divorceand dismiss her."But Jesus told them,"Because of the hardness of your heartshe 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 motherand 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 anothercommits 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 tosuch as these.
Amen, I say to you,whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a childwill not enter it."Then he embraced them and blessed them,placing his hands on them.
Oftentimes people who advocate for the sanctity of marriage are described as "pharisaical". The truth, however, is that the sources we have seem to suggest figures such as the Pharisees had rather low threshold when it came to the question of valid grounds for divorce. John Bergsma has written a fine post on this.

Jesus teaching is rather shocking to his contemporaries: divorce and remarriage is adultery?

The obvious objection is the one they raise: if that's the case, why did Moses permit it?

I've written an entire article on Jesus' teaching on marriage for the Letter & Spirit journal and can't delve into all of the issues involved here. Suffice it to say, Jesus' answer is that Moses permitted divorce because of Israel's hardness of heart but, he goes on to insist, Genesis reveals God's original intent for marriage--two are to be permanently united, namely, they become one flesh. 

Above I suggested that the language of "one flesh" points to the procreative dimension of marriage. Notably, then, Jesus' teaching on marriage gives his welcoming of children.

Believers are to be like children, not because people of faith are to be "childish" but because they must learn to receive the kingdom in trust--in faith. Indeed, believers are children--children in the Family of God, children of the Father.

Let us ask our Lord to enable us to receive his teaching faithfully, particularly his teaching regarding marriage and family. Let us ask him that our families may reflect the love and holiness that is the Triune God himself. As the three divine persons give themselves totally to one another, let us give ourselves totally to one another in our families, laying down our lives for one another.

[1] John Paul II, Letter to Families, 6.
[2] John Paul II, Puebla: A Pilgrimage of Faith. Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1979.

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