Genesis 2:18-24, Hebrews 2:9-11, Mark 10:2-16
The wedding reception disc jockey played a song that drew everyone, young and old, to the dance floor. I was left alone at the table with the aunt and uncle of the bride. During the meal I had learned that the bride’s uncle, a retired NYPD detective who was an excellent athlete, had suffered a serious stroke two years earlier. I watched as his wife assisted him during the meal in an inconspicuous but beautifully tender manner. His wife told me that, before her husband’s stroke, they were always the first couple out on the dance floor and the last to leave. And then I watched as she stood beside her husband’s chair at the table, took his hand and smiled at him, and moved his hand up and down to the beat of the music. They were still dancing — still dancing, even though her husband could no longer make it out to the dance floor.
This Sunday’s Gospel passage presents a very challenging message about fidelity in marriage. Jesus finds himself drawn into the hornet’s nest of a debate about divorce: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” The Jewish law allowed divorce under certain circumstances, though which circumstances were sufficient to provide grounds for divorce was a hotly debated topic. In a patriarchal society, the experience of marriage was shaped by male-dominated structures and practices. In his reply to the Pharisees, Jesus appeals to the passage in Genesis that is found in the first reading for this Sunday. He moves beneath the letter of the Mosaic Law to focus on God’s ultimate designs for a faithful, enduring union between a man and a woman in marriage. Man and woman are meant to “cling” to each other and to become “one flesh.” By answering in this way, Jesus challenges a practice rooted in patriarchy that viewed a woman almost as property.
This is certainly a difficult topic to discuss these days. We live in a culture that does not always support this vision of marital commitment. And many people have experienced tragic conflict in their marriages that they never wanted or even dreamed would happen. As we listen to Jesus’ challenging words, we also need to remember his gracious welcome toward those in need of mercy, his embrace of people whose lives had fallen short of the ideal. The Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John had already been through five marriages when she met Jesus at the well. But she discovered in Jesus the living water for which she had been thirsting, and she became a witness to the Gospel. Pope Francis repeatedly reminds us that Jesus is the face of the Father’s mercy and that the Church is called to reflect that merciful face to the world today. In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of Love, Francis encourages pastors to listen to people in complicated marriage situations “with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church” (312).
The message of the Gospel is that we find genuine freedom through commitment, not apart from commitment. As this Sunday’s (second) reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, Christ is the one who shared our humanity, who was made perfect through suffering and who is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. He became the source of salvation through his loving commitment, which endured through suffering. It is Christ who is strength in our weakness. It is he who offers us mercy when we fall short of the ideal. Because of him we can strive to be faithful to our commitments.