Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 3)

The first part of the Gospel passage for this Sunday’s liturgy along with the first reading deal with the topic of marriage and divorce, particularly to the bond created between the spouses when they enter into a marriage.

There are so many different experiences today from people of differing backgrounds regarding marriage and divorce. So many different views on these topics. It seems like it is at the point that many people think we can just “think whatever we want about marriage and divorce.”

The ideas on what a marriage is, what the relationship is about, and who can be in this relationship range so widely that one almost has to define what they mean by the term “marriage” before even entering a conversation about it.

One factor that influences people’s understanding of marriage is divorce. Though there are some indications that the divorce rate may be beginning to drop, a report last year suggested that 50% of marriages in the United States ended in divorce. The situation is such that many people and families have experienced divorce or know many people who have.

The reasons for divorce vary from some very heart-wrenching and painful relationships on one end of the spectrum to convenience on the other end.

The Gospel passage begins with the Pharisees asking Jesus the question: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” After asking them what was written in the Law, to which they replied that it was permitted, Jesus says: “Because of the hardness of your hearts (Moses) wrote you this commandment. 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, no human being must separate.”

Jesus further emphasizes what will later be termed the “indissolubility” of marriage by associating divorce with the sixth commandment.

Some people today will immediately object, saying that Jesus lived 2,000 years ago and the times were different back then. While it is true that he lived 2,000 years ago, and some situations in life were different and easily describable, there is an enduring value in his teaching that is related to truth. That is not to say that it is “easy” to understand or apply this teaching.

The point is that Jesus’ message cannot be dismissed because of time or circumstance. His words both challenge and console; they address the fundamentals of life and address real-life situations. His vantage point is that of the Kingdom of God that he proclaims, reveals and establishes. Sometimes the “Kingdom of God” is described as God’s vision for creation that entails a purpose and end (goal).

In answering the Pharisees’ question he enters into the discussion and gives it direction. The same is true today when questions of marriage and divorce are raised. He has a voice and wants to lead us to his Father’s understanding on these issues.

A well-lived marriage is a beautiful witness to love. It is not an idealized institution of perfect harmony. It is a journey entered into by a commitment. The journey is through life. The journey entails a partnership built on trust and reliability. The commitment is life-long. In this committed relationship the spouses find support, counsel, challenge and friendship.

There are always demands on a marriage. Responsibilities in and outside of marriage weigh in on the relationship. Hardship or loss have an impact on the spouses and their relationship to one another. The bond that is created in the marriage provides each spouse with a reliable partner to help the other through these situations either in the joys of the “good times” or the sadness of the “bad times.” Reliability is based on the commitment, hence Jesus’ emphasis on the bond that is created.

Marriage is a part of God’s plan for humanity. It is a gift and valued treasure for both the married and unmarried. The bond created between husband and wife is a regular reminder of the bond between God and his people. He is the spouse ever-faithful who is always with us on the journey of life. Faithfulness is the bond created in marriage, and spouses are witnesses to this love.

A couple years ago there was an article in the New York Magazine titled: “Is marriage obsolete?” I’m going to conclude with two quotes from the article. Interestingly, the author is not speaking from a religious perspective by language, but the significance in her conclusion does so nonetheless. In the beginning of the article the author raises the question/s:

“Isn’t it reasonable to question the value of a legal contract, written in ink, on paper, that involves disastrously punitive forms of dissolution? … Particularly when it’s paired with an enormously expensive ceremony that often includes allusions to obedience and lifelong mutual suffering and death, of all things? … And (there are) a host of inconveniences to being married, along with untold drudgery, monotony, frustration, and regret. … Considering all that, what could possibly be the point of this outdated charade?”

But she answers that question this way:

So why do I love this torturous state of affairs so much? The daily companionship, the shared household costs, and the tax breaks are not enough. … (It is) because some of the peak moments of a marriage are when you share your anxieties, your fears, your longing, and even your horrors. … That’s why sickness and death are key to marriage vows. Because there is nothing more divine than being able to say, ‘Today, I am really, truly at my worst,’ knowing that it won’t make your spouse run for the hills. My husband has seen my worst before. We both know that our worst is likely to get worse from here. Somehow that feels like grace.”

***

Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.