Twenty-seventh Sunday (Year B)
(Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-12)
Our readings today are quite clearly and deliberately centred on the relationship between man and woman that we call marriage. It is such a mysterious, yet natural, relationship -- involving deep passions which promise great joys but also occasion deep sorrows -- that it is understandable that there have been and still are many wrong ideas and false attitudes in its regard. However, by considering this difficult but fundamental relationship we can gain deeper insight into the nature of our Catholic faith, so let us proceed.
Jesus told the Jews that they had, so to speak, twisted Moses’ arm into his giving them an inauthentic attitude to both the divine purpose and the human experience of ‘marriage’; an attitude which, by making it easier to get out of arising difficulties, only served to prevent them from being able to appreciate and attain the true beauty and fulfilment of that relationship.
According to Protestant teaching the fullness of Christian doctrine is to be found in the Bible expressed in the written words contained there; and because the words are there to be seen and read by all, a devout Christian can appreciate the Scriptures as both the source of what is generally acceptable belief and practice and also as the quarry where he can discover his or her own variations. Of course there are some difficult passages which might need explanation but, fundamentally, such difficulties do not affect the basic position which is, that what one can see and read in the Bible forms the basis of belief, and my serious belief is as good as anyone else’s because it is my personal and sincere response to what is written objectively in the Scriptures.
It has never been like that in the Catholic Church … and remember, the Christian body of believers in Jesus has always been called Catholic; indeed, before 1054 it had no other title whatsoever, being simply known as the Catholic Church. And so it is today, to the extent that we always consider ourselves as Catholics, members of the Catholic Church, even though others in our Christian fraternity insist on referring to us as Roman Catholics. We are not ashamed to be called Roman Catholics, for, understood aright, it is quite true; but we are most of all attached to that title which has always been ours, Catholic.
Now, Catholics are, and always have been -- first and foremost -- hearers of the Word of God, not readers of it:
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!" But they have not all obeyed the gospel for Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our report?" So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:14-18)
It was ever so, even in the very founding structure of the Church: preachers, as you heard, had to be sent, and those originally sent by Jesus Himself were the Apostles proclaiming the ‘gospel of peace’; and as a consequence of that original Apostolic mission those Churches were called Apostolic Sees that had either received the Gospel from such an Apostle, or had developed a specially close and proven historical connection with one, that other centres of Christianity did not have. Such Apostolic Sees – having heard and received the Gospel from Apostolic preachers -- were accepted as the criterion for catholicity. Churches not thus founded on or by an Apostle were regarded as members of the Catholic Body only if they were in communion with those Sees properly called Apostolic; and it was supremely the Church at Rome -- recognized as founded upon the two supreme Apostles, Peter and Paul -- that was regarded as the God-willed witness to Catholic Truth and ultimate criterion for membership of the authentic Catholic Communion.
In that Catholic Communion our initial, original, Scriptures were the Jewish Scriptures in the Septuagint Greek translation which Mother Church subsequently termed the Old Testament, because she regarded them as God’s revealed word only as read and understood in the light of Jesus. Those Jewish Scriptures, she believes, are an imperfect revelation only because they are preparatory: they are preparing the way for the coming of Jesus and can only be understood aright when interpreted in the light of His Person, His Good News, and His history. Our New Testament Scriptures, on the other hand, are final; and apart from the fullness of Old and New Testaments together, there is no other divine revelation to be found or to be expected.
Nevertheless, they too need to be understood, interpreted aright, for, since they are a witness to the original Gospel proclamation made by Mother Church before anything was ever written down, they are always to be understood according to the Church’s Rule of Faith which gave them birth and which they were originally meant to express, extend, and preserve.
Therefore, in our attitude to marriage, we Catholics cannot accept the Jewish approach condemned by Jesus, nor can we adopt a Protestant attitude which allows an individual to read the Scriptures and ultimately form his own opinion about ‘my belief’. As Catholics we receive our Christian identity and life by our faithful response to the Church’s Rule of Faith, for, we are ‘hearers’ of the living Apostolic preaching not ‘readers’ of ancient and unchanging books: for those books, supremely venerable though they are for the divine truth contained in them, are only infallible as guides when understood in accordance with, and as expounded by, the living Rule of Church Faith.
Many today seem to assume for themselves the title ‘catholic’ while having but a minimal concern with faith. They are not ‘hearers’ of the Church’s proclamation of the Word to which they have obediently committed themselves in a response of faith; neither they are ‘readers’ of the Word, who can, at times, be so devoted to what they read that they are willing to sacrifice all except that right to personally quarry their own beliefs from the Scriptures. Rather, they are seekers of a message of pleasant and peaceful accommodation with the world around them, along with the additional spin-off of a certain measure of personal spiritual comfort. They don’t want to hear the Gospel, they don’t even want to read the Gospel, they prefer a gospel they can ‘feel’.
There are others today who are shown to be of this persuasion by their habit – perhaps unconscious – of giving their attention, first of all, to weighing up, assessing, the person of the messenger and critically studying his style of presentation before attending to the message itself: they want first impressions to persuade them to like the person of the priest or find his presentation interesting and attractive before they attend to his message; and only if those first requirements are fulfilled will they seriously consider giving both hearing and, perhaps, even a measure of commitment to the message thus acceptably proclaimed and presented to them.
However, for us Christians and Catholics who are hearers -- people called by God through the proclamation of messengers sent by Him -- it is the message of God’s Good News that counts. That is precisely the nature of our vocation: we hear the word of God, and we recognize it as the word of God, thanks to the Spirit of God given to the Church and working within all whom the Father calls to faith in His Son. And if -- once having been reborn through faith in baptism -- we are to become mature children of God, we have to be able to recognize the message proclaimed by the Church as Jesus Himself addressing us through the words of her proclamation: He is the Speaker to Whom we attend, His alone is the message to which we respond; all that we can require of the messenger is that he has the necessary authority to back up his message, for Jesus Himself always spoke with authority. Such required authority, however, is not to be accorded him by listeners who like his personality or his presentation, but by the Church of Christ which, able to back-up his sincerity, guarantees the authenticity of his teaching:
We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
He who is of God hears the words of God; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. (1 John 4:6; John 8:47)
To put things very simply and somewhat bluntly, it is a matter of distinguishing between the provisional packaging and the contents which abide. If the packaging is attractive it helps, but the contents, God’s gracious gift, are alone what matters.
The attitude of wanting, demanding even, to be superficially pleased before considering the message or receiving the gift, can have most serious repercussions even to the message of faith itself. Take the example of the Pharisees questioning Jesus in the Gospel:
The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked, "Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?" They were testing Him. He said to them in reply, "What did Moses command you?" They replied, "Moses permitted a man to write a bill of divorce, and dismiss her." But Jesus told them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment.”
Jesus, on the other hand, taught:
From the beginning of the 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.
Then He went on to add the most solemn words of all:
Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.
In our modern society, however, as the appearance of either spouse becomes less pleasing or attractive over the years, or when other difficulties inevitably surface in the course of their shared life, many -- who through selfishness and superficiality have never recognized any call to re-assert and confirm their original commitment, and who now no longer acknowledge any obligation to give as well as to receive -- abdicate their own, personal, responsibility for the permanence and beauty of the bond which they sealed before God Himself, and seek a totally pagan freedom for personal whim and pleasure, immediate advantage and seeming convenience.
The Chosen People -- a people formed and prepared by the grace of God over two thousand years to enter into and maintain a unique relationship with Him and thus to hear, recognize, and proclaim His Law of truth to all the nations -- had likewise turned out to be an unfaithful spouse, entering into illicit relationships with the gods of the surrounding nations. Failing to hear and respond to the word of the One, Redeemer-God proclaimed by the prophets whom He had raised up from their midst, they ultimately, despite their being the Chosen People, rejected that proclamation because the Messenger – the very Son of God Himself -- did not come up to the expectations they had so sinfully indulged for so long.
Dear People of God, in Mother Church we have to become children of the truth:
Assuredly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it. (Mark 10:15)
As new-born babies, desire the pure milk of the word that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious. (1 Peter 2:2-3):
As children of God, we have to long for God’s truth, we cannot pick and choose, even from such a quarry as the Scriptures, to form our own beliefs; we must embrace the Apostolic Faith offered to us by the continued proclamation and preaching of the living and universal Catholic Church.
Mother Church, ever rejoicing in the divine truth of her Gospel message which is the word of God amongst us still, lives by the Word she proclaims, enabling us who are born of her proclamation to be born alive; let us therefore, endeavour -- in the power and beauty of that living truth -- to love the Lord at all times, to seek His blessing in all circumstances, and to praise and proclaim His glory before all peoples.