27th Sunday of the Year
Reflections on the readings
The interconnectedness between ourselves, God and creation is often overlooked in a culture that is often individualistic. We need to include the Church in this critique when it excludes people and groups from the table. The readings however, are a call to joy in finding welcome and relationship with one another. The gospel reminds us how we receive one another. It is a message for all.
The first reading expresses God’s longing to share life by way of equality, mutuality and partnership. Human creation in all its forms is about companionship, not compulsory heterosexuality or divinely-ordained patriarchy. Sexual unity is about mutuality, joy and freedom from fear. Relationships are not about possessiveness. That not all suffering should be endured. The story of our creation. To welcome life open heartedly. In the gospel, Jesus addresses divorce to indicate how far the religious leaders had strayed from God’s original longing for us. Jesus is calling for a change of heart. In the Mosaic law, a husband could divorce his wife for trivial reasons which led to the abuse and exploitation of women. Jesus quotes a line from Genesis to assert that the purpose of marriage was about mutuality, not dominance of one over the other, or treat one another as objects and property to be discarded or disposed of. This has consequences also for our treatment of our ‘Common Home’. Welcoming children who were rebuked by the disciples highlights the overturning of the tables in God’s Reign. It reflects God’s concern for the powerless and marginalised. The way Jesus welcomed the little children points to his support for those who face the heartache of relationship breakdown. Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage may seem to resist interpretation in how they have been interpreted so literally in the Catholic tradition. One would think that our Catholic tradition would accept the messiness of life. Jesus calls us to faithfully and courageously wade into the mess with those who are struggling, so they do not have to face it alone.
In the first century, children’s lives were precarious and servile. Like women, they were regarded as often regarded as possessions or property. Jesus turned common perceptions upside down by embracing those that society did not value. Jesus tells us that by receiving children, we serve God. By receiving women we also receive the one who has created us all. If we are following Jesus’ lead, we will embrace and walk with those who feel vulnerable and marginalised with the same tender care. His acceptance of children, least of the least, expresses a way of being in solidarity with the ‘little ones’ in our world. It is not about being sentimental. It was about right relationship; about justice. I remember how Pope Francis ditching a meal with Congress in 2013 in order to be with Washington’s poor and homeless people.
Again, we could ask, ‘How good are we at welcoming, embracing and blessing the messiness of life?’ Would Jesus be intent on causing more pain for people and families facing relationship breakdown as he challenged a mindset that only finds fault with the other? Jesus’ context was definitely patriarchal. The prohibition of divorce and remarriage was to protect women and deal with an imbalance where women did not have the option of divorcing a man. Though repudiation was very commonplace by men, women were rejected for very insignificant things. Jesus was not going to get trapped about marriage and divorce, but addresses the system of power and privilege where a woman who has been dismissed by her husband became a social outcast without being able to support herself. He questioned the pretenses of a male-biased system that rejected women, just as it rejected children, the poor, the sick, and the outsider. In defending women, Jesus was speaking on behalf of all who are rejected and excluded, those without rights. Jesus was not condemning divorced persons but was coming down squarely on the side of the defenceless - ‘Don’t do that to women!’ Jesus’ words condemnatory but expressed compassion. The only condemnation was not divorce by machismo. Maria and Ignacio Lopes Vigil in Another God Is Possible write: “Jesus’ saying, ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ is not the expression of an abstract principle about the indissolubility of marriage. Instead, Jesus’ words were directed against the highly patriarchal marriage practices of his time. ‘Men,’ he said, should not divide what God has joined together. This meant that the family should not be at the mercy of the whimsies of its male head, nor should the woman be left defenseless before her husband’s inflexibility. Jesus cut straight through the tangle of legal interpretations that existed in Israel about divorce, all of which favoured the man, and returned to the origins: he reminded his listeners that in the beginning God made man and woman in his own image, equal in dignity, rights, and opportunities. Jesus was not pronouncing against divorce, but against machismo.” As a champion of women, he was especially sensitive to the abandonment of divorced women in a highly patriarchal culture. He implicitly invites us to put the welfare of people – women specifically – before abstract principles or laws. Doing so will make us more understanding and supportive of couples who decide to divorce in the best interests of all.
Our task is to redistribute power that is unequally concentrated in every social relationship. The alienation in marriage coming from abuse of power also applies to racism, sexism, ageism, classism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. Jesus wanted to ensure that his followers formed a community of equals. So, what a distortion when the church continues to be a community where a few have power and position, contrary to everything Jesus said, can lord it over others. This so-called ‘lording over others’ is seen when we deny the truth that people are made for relatedness and engagement and that we cannot be whole persons in isolation or insulation from the world and each other; it is seen when some members of the community are denied leadership or to proclaim the gospel because of their gender. If only the church would emulate the compassion, the kindness and respectful sensitivity of Jesus when dealing with any person who is struggling with divorce, remarriage, and sexuality.
Jesus’ message of compassion and his desire to protect the weak and defenseless applies today as much as in his own time. We need to proclaim the message of liberation that Jesus gives to all, as he did to the women of his day, and we need to address oppressive attitudes and structures women that women face today – whether it is domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and any other oppression or inequality the face.
Whether single, married or divorced, whether gay or straight, all people are cherished creations of God. Like Jesus, we are to be compassionate and caring, trusting in the good consciences of others and respectful of the difficult decisions they have to make. To exclude those who are most in need of the ministrations of the faith community would not only be unkind; it would be contrary to the example set by Jesus and the Gospel he came to proclaim. The Gospel insists that no one, not a displeasing spouse, not a helpless child, not an immigrant, not even a criminal, is dispensable.
Hospitality is politically subversive.
- Richard Beck, Unclean