Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The two shall become one

He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and 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, let no one separate.’

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

- Mark 10:1-16

In this passage, Jesus has returned from Gentile territories and is teaching in Judea. So, the Pharisees are testing him, given the great crowds that are interested in listening to Jesus. They ask him about marriage - what is legal and not legal, and this of course is from the perspective of Jewish law. At that time, a man could very simply divorce a wife, through a mere certificate that he was dissatisfied. It is interesting to note that Jesus also addresses the question of a woman divorcing her husband in this passage, because this would not have been possible for a Jewish woman, so was a teaching that would only have applied to Gentiles.

It is my belief that this passage, taken as a whole, is a teaching about love. Most especially it is a teaching about commitment. I first asked myself why the church would include (as a daily reading) the teaching about children with this question on divorce. As Jesus' perspective clearly indicates a clear emphasis on union between two people, I don't think the discussion of marriage and divorce focuses on the children at all. Rather, to me, it focuses on the commitment and the notion of commitment within the bonds of love. So, to pair the discussion of the receipt of the kingdom as a child receives it, and a discussion on marriage and commitment, is - to me - a clear discussion on the nature of love, the bonds of love and commitment.

I'm very fortunate in that I am married to someone who has a great deal of love, and patience, to give that he brings to all of our difficulties and persistence in maintaining a marriage. I'm blessed in this respect. Others, I know, are not. What I would like to focus on, however, is the notion first of the easy way in which divorce could be obtained. To write a certificate of dismissal, in a sense, seems to me as a way of practicing a kind of ownership - to dispossess someone. I have always felt that Jesus was protesting the difficult conditions for women under such circumstance. But there is also more to this: to sustain commitment is not easy nor simple. It takes great effort on the part of both individuals to "cling to one another." Jesus also says here that both parties leave father or mother to create a union: so the pull of family or other ties becomes secondary to the marriage. It is the marriage itself, he says here, that must be the primary bond. In this respect, the commitment to another person is similar to the commitment to God. Both take great work and reaching on the part of both parties, both take a commitment of love that is inclusive of the part of us that remains as receptive as a child. There is more to love than an intellectual commitment, or a weighing of advantages, a calculation of what works and what doesn't. There will always be difficulties to face.

I may be parsing words here, but I also note that Jesus speaks of one party divorcing the other. As nothing in these gospels is flippantly worded, I find it significant that he doesn't mention the case where the desire for divorce is mutual. I also think it's important to understand the social circumstances about marriage he's referring to. But above all, I believe he's speaking about the difficulties of a commitment of love, and our willingness to adapt to one another to maintain that bond. And so we come also to the child - and the way in which we are to receive this kingdom.

Jesus' show of his great love for children is exemplary in the sense of responding to love. The openness with which children receive what is good, what is loving, is a characteristic of all of us when our hearts are open. To receive the kingdom is also to form a bond, a union of the heart. It is often said that marriage as a sacrament is the layperson's way to union: it is a process in which we participate whereby our identities adjust through love and union, notions of the self become malleable and flexible, peace becomes a question of an open heart, discernment, patience and a willingness to negotiate and communicate. Neither the commitment to God nor the commitment to marriage - in the best of circumstances - is simple or easy. But the basis for both is the love that is characterized by receiving as a child receives, on the part of both parties.

I'm saying nothing in my own commentary about reasons for divorce which would include hardship of so many kinds, abuse, etc. but I personally do not feel that a loving Father would welcome any union which endangers our mental, emotional, physical and particularly spiritual health. After all, the purpose of union is love; ultimately a grounding for spiritual growth which is rooted in love in all of its aspects and a deepening of our understanding of that love. May you be blessed with that kind of growth, which is available to everyone through that which is Love Itself.

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