27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – October 4, 2015 – Respect Life … All of It
Both our church and civic calendars today draw attention to similar concerns: respect for life, opposition to domestic violence and keeping the memory of St. Francis of Assisi alive. (Francis is one of the eight newly written icons in St. Vincent de Paul church)
The gospel is a counter cultural challenge to marriage as it is experienced in this country. That the divorce rate in the United States has been declining over the past thirty years is no consolation to men and women whose marriages have ended in divorce.
Further, for divorced Catholics, the thought of remarrying without an annulment can create anxieties with regard to their participation in the life of their church. The strong language attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel requires a careful reading. What was the cultural context within which he is quoted?
Jesus was responding to a test from the Pharisees. He referred to the Law of Moses which allowed divorces based on the initiative of the husband (Deut. 24:1). According to biblical scholarship Jesus actually sought to raise the social status of women and protect their rights from an unjust culture slanted toward the pleasure of the man. (Remember women were considered to be the “property” of the man.) In doing so he was reestablishing the original creative act of God, calling for harmonious relationships or an indivisible union of mutual companionship. 
From the Mediterranean cultural perspective, whenever a divorce occurred the men in that society were shamed and dishonored including the wife’s father, brothers, or other significant men in her family. “Hence the basic purpose of the commandments in ancient Israel was to head off feuding which led to bloodshed. The idea was to maintain internal societal harmony and stability.” 
According to scripture scholar Brendan Byrne it is not helpful to dwell on what is apparently prohibited in this gospel but on what it commends — marriage between two people is the “most intimate expression of a commitment, companionship and intimacy embracing the totality of life.” As the first reading reminds us it is not good for anyone to go it alone.
And there is something else. Jesus did not use his insight into God’s original purpose of marriage as a way of punishing people. Many have wondered about the penalties that a religion like ours imposes upon our own members who, in good conscience, are seeking spiritual sustenance and support when they need it most. Often it is a moment when it is clear that their best marital intentions are not working out and it is time to move forward.
Just maybe the “New Testament grants to the Church the authority to make concessions that are pastorally necessary” without entirely compromising traditional teachings.  That’s what Jesus was doing in this gospel — “acting as a merciful healer.”  It seems to be the way Pope Francis acts.
The recent papal authorization to speed the annulment process is encouraging. The final results of the Synod on the Family, which began this morning in Rome, will be published in due time.
The report undoubtedly will tell us more regarding the institutional church’s position about the role of marriage and the family in society. Hopefully it will also outline kind and merciful ways for church ministers to help those who are struggling to develop wholesome, life giving partnerships.
One parishioner, Angela Warner who directs our food panty, reminded me that the word “divorce” is not just applied to marriage but all relationships. We ask ourselves from whom or what are we estranged because of our reluctance to form new relationships or to accept life giving cultures and practices that break down barriers and celebrate diversity? For example:
How we divorce ourselves from others because of their race, ethnicity, class, religion or language.
How relatives divorce themselves from one another over some disagreement or past grievance.
How women and girls are divorced from the opportunity to equal rights, getting an education or becoming community leaders.
How children living in poverty are divorced from their families, thrown into prostitution rings, become victims of human trafficking.
The list can be longer. I invite you to talk about it with others at home, in the dorm, in the car or at work.
Last week while Pope Francis was in Philadelphia the Global Citizen Festival was happening in Central Park, New York City. The theme? “We are not a generation of bystanders.” It is a good nudge for us to do something about mending some of the broken heartedness in our world.
1. Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2008) 157 ff.
2. Pilch, John The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1996. pp. 142-144.
3. Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today. (Liturgical Press. 1984, Revised Edition, pp. 352-353.
4. Kaveny, Cathleen. “Mercy for the Remarried: What the Church Can Learn from Civil Law” in Commonweal, August 14, 2015, p. 15.