Two of the most difficult problems facing the Catholic Church in the United States in the early part of the 21st century are the high incidence of divorce and the fallout from the crisis caused by sexual abuse by members of the clergy. These are complicated matters that demand to be approached from many different angles. Today’s Scripture readings suggest, however, that the most radical (in the sense of going to the root) solutions may be the most effective.
Sometimes we so focus on the painful and sensitive aspects of divorce that we ignore the positive ideal of marriage set forth in Mark 10. The positive ideal is that in marriage the union between a man and a woman is so close that they can and do become “one flesh.” Jesus bases this ideal on God’s original plan for humankind expressed in Genesis 2: “the two of them become one flesh.”
Jesus’ ideal of marriage as one flesh was unusual, perhaps even unique in first-century Jewish society and in the wider Greco-Roman world. In Judaism marriage was understood primarily in legal terms, with the husband having most of the power. The husband (or his father) arranged the marriage with the father of the bride. The husband had the right to send his wife away merely by giving her a legal document. Divorce was accepted practice and was traced back to the law of Moses (Deut 24:1-4).
In this context Jesus’ prohibition of divorce went against the cultural and religious grain. His radical teaching encouraged the husband to regard his wife not as a possession but rather as a partner. It gave protection and security to the wife lest she be sent away on the husband’s whim. It provided a context in which a man and a woman could live out a total commitment to one another no matter what might come their way. “So they are no longer two but one flesh” was as radical a teaching in first-century Palestine as it is in 21st-century America. And it is radically positive teaching.
Why do people find it so hard to stay married today? Social theorists blame the high incidence of divorce on such factors as American individualism, capitalism and the fast pace of modern life. Surely one element in this phenomenon is that many persons do not give sufficient thought and energy to what their marriage can and should entail, and so do not work seriously and patiently at the ideal of becoming one flesh. In a “throw away” society, too many of us seem willing to throw away a marriage and with it a chance for real happiness. Jesus’ unusual and challenging teaching about marriage, with its noble ideal of the two becoming one flesh, stands out as a radical and positive solution to the difficult problem of divorce.
Connected with Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Mark 10 is his challenge to “accept the kingdom of God like a child.” Young children are totally dependent on adults and necessarily receive everything as a gift. The kingdom is God’s gift, so we must accept it as a gift from God. This passage also reminds us once more of the horror of the clerical abuse of children and the continuing fallout from that crisis, which has left many Catholics and others spiritually confused and exhausted.
Today we begin a series of short selections from the Letter to the Hebrews, which is perhaps the greatest Christian sermon ever written. The sermon explores the ramifications of the early Christian confession that Christ died for us and our sins, and reflects on Christ as the great high priest who willingly offered himself on our behalf. Christ is both the perfect sacrifice and the the priest who offers it.
There are many indications in Hebrews that the original addressees were spiritually confused and exhausted Christians. The author was bold and radical enough to believe that preaching on Jesus and his significance for us was the answer to that crisis. Today’s passage from Hebrews says that by the grace of God Jesus tasted death for us all, that he was the leader on our way to salvation and that we are now his brothers and sisters. Christ was thus “perfect” for fulfilling the task of bringing us into a new relationship with God, in which we may now approach God with confidence and even boldness.
If we are to find our way out of the present confusion and weariness, and if we want to be a more vibrant and purified church, we too must be bold and radical enough to look more directly to the one who tasted death for us, to our leader on the way to salvation and to the one whom we can call our brother. There is no more radical and effective solution.