Every once in a while we get a set of scripture reading for a Sunday that make it really hard to croak out that “Thanks be to God” at the end of the reading. It can be a real challenge to search out some good news in a set of readings that seem so rigid and unbending. But that’s where we are today, so here goes.
Let’s start with Genesis. Today’s reading is the creation story from Genesis 2. You probably already know there’s a different account of creation in Genesis chapter 1. In Chapter 1, humanity is created last, as the crowning achievement of God’s creation. In chapter 2, much of creation is brought into being in response to the needs of humanity. In Genesis 1, male and female are created at the same time; in Genesis 2, man is created first, and woman second. That might seem, at first, to be establishing a hierarchy of some sort, with the man in charge because he was created first. But look again. In the beginning of the story, the man names all the creatures as they are created. They are unsuitable companions because they not his equal. The woman, who is made from the same stuff as the man, is a suitable partner, specifically because she is his equal. It is only after the Fall, when their relationship has been disrupted, that he gives her a personal name.
Let’s look next at this Gospel. It’s hard to understand what Jesus is getting at here, without a little background. Until the time of Moses, the Israelites had no formal divorce. There was no possibility of terminating a failed relationship. And so, because of the people’s stubbornness–their refusal to reconcile– Moses let them divorce. By the time of Jesus, divorce was easy. The man would say I “divorce you” three times, and the woman would be put out on the street. In a culture in which women had no economic possibilities and no social standing apart from her husband, this easy divorce was terribly abusive of women. And so, Jesus appeals to the story of creation– Genesis 1, by the way– and tells them that marriage isn’t something they can dissolve. It is forever. Furthermore, in the time of Jesus, because women had no legal standing, your could only commit adultery against a man. So for Jesus to say that a man commits adultery against a woman was a whole different way of thinking. The context of this Gospel makes it clear that Jesus is talking about protecting the marginalized. In his society, and in ours, that means especially women and children.
This saying prohibiting divorce introduces a whole new set of problems. We still have to deal with the fact of failed relationships, and how to resolve them. The way the church deals with this is through the annulment process. It’s pretty widely misunderstood and misrepresented, so let me say a few words about it. We have these difficult words from Jesus in the Gospel about in permanence of marriage. So, the church reasons that what he is talking about is sacramental marriage. If we can determine that what a couple had was not a sacramental bond, then we can declare the marriage annulled. The only way we can say the sacrament didn’t occur, is if there was something wrong with the form of the wedding– basically a technical problem of some sort– or if there was something that prevented either or both of the parties from making a full and complete commitment at the beginning. An annulment, when it’s granted, doesn’t say there was never any relationship, and it doesn’t make children illegitimate. It just says that this was not a sacramental bond; not what we mean when we say “marriage.” The purpose of an annulment process is to make a pastoral response to a difficult situation that will allow someone to try again. It’s an imperfect response to a difficult situation.
My mother once proposed a different approach. She reasoned that since Jesus told his disciples “what you hold loosed on earth is loosed in heaven,” we need to have a ritual in which we can say “we’re declaring this one loosed.” Yet another reason, I guess, why my mother will never be elected pope.
These words of Jesus about marriage are one of the few places in the Scriptures where the Church takes him quite literally. Oddly enough, other churches, who claim to take the whole of the scriptures literally, don’t seem to have as much of a problem with divorce.
All of us have promises to keep; many of us have relationships that challenge us to fidelity and permanence. The hardest thing for us is to remain faithful– to our relationships and to the Gospel– without buying into closed systems. All of us fall short of the ideal of perfect loving relationships, so it’s not a huge surprise that even the Church struggles to respond to these issues. Our ultimate goal is still the building up of God’s reign as an inclusive community that acknowledges the gifts, and the beauty, and the presence of God’s Spirit in every human being, especially the marginalized. The Gospel establishes the ideal of marriage as a commitment to love, for life. The fact that many of us fall short of that ideal isn’t a reason to change the ideal, but it does challenge us to respond with compassion, and to see marriage as part of the Gospel’s call to live his love in ways that draw all people closer to Him.