The Gospel for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time deals with the subject of marriage and divorce. I have been married for 51 years, so I do feel qualified to speak on the subject of marriage. But I do not consider myself qualified to speak for the Church on the topic of divorce because I am not a Canon lawyer and I do not pretend to be one. But statistics tell us that as many as 50% of the marriages in our society end in divorce. In light of that statistic, we must look, not only to the Church, but also to Sacred Scriptures for further clarification and instruction on this subject.
The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels. Being the shortest, Mark’s messages are always blunt and to the point. In this passage (Mk 10:2-16), Mark repeats the words of Jesus who states very clearly God’s intentions for marriage. Jesus revealed a standard that clearly was not eagerly received by either the crowd or the disciples. And knowing the statistics of our society, I know that this reading may be a burden for many today. If that is the case, I would invite you to read Matthew 5:32 or Matthew 19:9, which state exceptions to the ideal standard. Or read Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 7:15, which adds further exceptions to God’s standard and ends by reminding us that God desires that each and every one of His children should live in peace.
So, in light of this subject, I would like to share this story with you…
My mom and dad are both gone now. But my dad was a great musician and he made a living as a professional musician for many years of his life. Consequently, my dad had a library of many of his favorite tunes. When my mom and dad celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, we had a party to help them celebrate. During that party, my dad got up on stage and sang a song for all the guests present. It took me years to locate the origin of this tune but I finally found it. A country music artist named Eddy Arnold recorded this tune in February of 1940. My dad modified those lyrics slightly and this is the tune he sang at the party celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.
60 years with the wrong woman is more than a man can stand.
60 years with the wrong woman would wreck most any good man.
60 years with the wrong woman it’s the same in the mountain or dale.
She’ll stay awake all night trying to start a fight then have you thrown in the jail.
60 years with the wrong woman is punishment that is bad.
60 years with the wrong woman will drive most any man mad.
When you’ve married the wrong woman there is only one thing you can do.
Dig yourself a hole crawl into the hole then pull the ground over you.
Listen boys if you’re thinking of marriage take warning to what I say.
Don’t you marry the wrong woman it’s worse than living in jail.
60 years with the wrong woman will age you and turn your hair gray.
They say love is blind but search till you find a face you can stand every day.
Obviously my dad had a great sense of humor. But he was also very wise and he gave me some great advice. I remember very clearly, on the day I was married, the very last thing that my dad said to Sandy and I as we left the wedding celebration to begin our life together. He said, “As you two journey through life together you will not only grow closer together, you will become very much alike. You will think alike. You will act alike. In time you will even look alike as you grow closer to one another.” And over the years I have found his advice to be very true. As husband and wife, the two really do become one. And that truth sheds new light on the last line of today’s first reading. “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
Scripture teaches that marriage is a covenant, or a sacred bond, between a man and a woman instituted by, and publicly entered into, before God. Therefore, since marriage is a covenant instituted by God and entered into before God, marriage is a divine and not merely a human institution. The implication of that statement is significant. For this means that humans are not free to renegotiate or redefine the marriage covenant or the family in any way they choose. Rather the individuals are called to preserve and respect what has been divinely instituted.
Having said that, we cannot be blind to the exemptions to the standard that are identified in Sacred Scripture; and we certainly cannot be blind to the divorce rate within our society and the effect that this is having on the traditional family structure.
Some say we are simply evolving beyond the family. These people contend that the family is a relic from the past, and its decline is inevitable. They contend that the family offers more problems than solutions for the people of today. Comedian George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family that lives in another state.”
Still other people say that the institution of the family isn’t in trouble. It’s simply being re-defined. They insist that a broadening concept of family is required by the very proliferation of non-traditional family structures. As evidence of their claim, they point to the increase in the number of single parent families, the explosive growth of step-families, and the increase in the number of families in which both mom and dad work full time.
Still others contend that the traditional family structure is being replaced by the increase in the number of couples that prefer to remain unmarried. The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this concept by saying, “This is an offense against the dignity of marriage, it destroys the very idea of the family, it weakens the sense of fidelity, and it is contrary to the moral law.” (CCC #2390)
And there are those who reject the traditional family (and I will say this as delicately as I can) and promote alternate life styles. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The Church bases its directive on Sacred Scripture which presents this situation as an act of grave depravity. Tradition has always declared this situation as intrinsically disordered. It is contrary to the natural law. And it closes the door to the gift of life.” (CCC #2357)
In defense of the family, many Christians are speaking out. They insist that, for the very future of our country, we must return to the traditional family structure. But is that even possible?
There are a growing number of Christians that insist that what is desperately needed in this country is a renewed commitment to the Biblical ideal of the family. But that idea requires some clarification because it is important to understand the cultural norms of the time that these books in the Bible were written. During that time period family solidarity was maintained by a thoroughly father-centered organization. Actually, the family itself was more like a clan or a tribe than what we know as a family. The women in those ancient Biblical families ranked only slightly higher than slaves. They had no rights of their own. Is this the traditional Biblical family structure that we want to go back to? I don’t think so.
This does not mean that there is no Biblical answer to our question of how to approach the subject of family structure. For the Bible certainly does contain the answer for the ideal family. And we as a nation need desperately to see it and to claim it. However, we need to first understand that the Bible has much more to say about the substance and content of family life than it does about the form and structure of the family. The Bible does not provide a foolproof organizational plan for the family. But the Bible does reveal a way to live within the family.
In today’s Gospel text for example, Jesus answers a tricky question from the Pharisees about divorce. At first glance, Jesus’ response sounds like a traditional, conservative answer. But if you look at the culture of the people to whom He was speaking, His statement was, in fact, revolutionary. You see, the Old Testament laws governing marriage and divorce were ordered around an overriding concern for male property rights. Remember, women and children had no rights.
A man’s wife was his property. There were provisions in the Jewish law for the husband to divorce his wife. But essentially, there were no provisions in the law for the woman to divorce her husband. If a man divorced his wife, there was simply no place for her in their culture. Women and children had status in relation to the man only. Divorce was a nice convenience for the man, but it was an unspeakable tragedy for the woman. It was a terribly demeaning and abusive system. So the question that the Pharisees posed to Jesus was not just seeking clarification on a fine point of Jewish law. The question exposed the very heart and values of their culture.
Against all this, Jesus exalted the sanctity of marriage. Marriage was created by His Father, and it was intended to be intimate and permanent. Jewish divorce laws legalized the idea of serial marriages that amounted to legalized adultery. Jesus upheld the sanctity of marriage and the dignity of all human beings. Jesus even goes on to affirm the value and dignity of children who were second-class citizens in that society, just as the women were.
The point is, the Bible’s primary concern is that the family be understood as a spiritual reality. The fact that a family is modeled a certain way, is no guarantee that it is a “model” family. You can know little or nothing of a family’s inward condition, simply by looking at its outward form. Appearances can be deceiving. A true family is a spiritual reality in which all its members are valued and loved. It is a family in which the Spirit of God is free to dwell. Remember, God is Love. Where the spirit of love dwells, so too does the Spirit of God.
So what is a Biblical family?
Assuming that we confine our discussion to family structures that are not contrary to the Moral Law and do not violate the Natural Law, the Biblical family is one in which all the members are united in a bond of love. By definition, there must be organization and structure. But, because of today’s divorce rate, we live in a society of many single-parent and step families.
The subject of divorce and the Catholic Church can be a delicate one. And none of us here has the right or the qualifications to stand in judgment of any marriage failure. But as heartbreaking as these failures may be, I encourage those affected to remember, it is better to come from a broken home than to live in one.
It is important for us to understand that the outward appearance of the family’s organization and structure is not important. What is important is that this structure facilitates the fulfilling of God’s will in each family member’s life. In such a structure, the head of the family is God. Remember, in a Biblical family, Christ is Lord of the family, just as He is Lord of the Church.
We must strive to reaffirm, defend and protect God’s intended design for the permanence of the marriage covenant. But we must also strive to support, console and encourage those who fall victim when the covenant fails. May God bless and protect our families.