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Don’t think Jesus has tough words about marriage in the readings this Sunday, the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B.
His words, and those in the other readings, are actually a powerful, positive vision of the beauty, joy, and high calling of marriage — not a prison sentence assigning us to the drudgery of marriage for life.
The Pharisees show us what the problem is: They focus on the rules of marriage while Jesus focuses on the reality of marriage.
In the Gospel, the Pharisees approach Jesus and ask, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?”
“They were testing him,” the Gospel says, and that’s a problem right there. They aren’t coming to Jesus seeking understanding, but trying to see if he matches their own vision of the world.
Jesus does indeed contradict Moses, as they feared. But while they talk about the Law and its loopholes, Jesus speaks of love and its gifts:
“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.”
Rather than looking at wives and husbands as legal partners, he sees them as life partners — and rather than look at the marriage contract uniting two households, he looks at the marital act, uniting two persons.
Jesus quotes Genesis, and the Church gives us that passage as a First Reading so we know exactly what he is talking about.
Marriage comes about because God says, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.”
First, Adam meets the animals. He names them all, but none can be his partner. It is not until God makes a woman, born from Adam’s side instead of from the earth, that Adam says, “This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”
In other words, when he met the animals, Adam saw how different he was from them. They had what was needed to flourish in their materiality: A squirrel is happy when he can climb and eat nuts and wants nothing more; a deer is happy when she can run and eat grass and never asks why. They were built to be ruled — by God, ultimately, but for now through Adam, the “prophet, priest and king” who named them and “subdues the earth.”
When he met Eve, though, Adam met one who was like him — aware of herself, the world, and God’s will. The Second Reading explains the grandeur of what he saw in Eve. It expands on what we know about Jesus Christ from the creed. We know he “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary” and “was crucified under Pilate” and that “through him all things were made.” The Book of Hebrews says that “for a little while” Jesus was “made ‘lower than the angels,’” so that he would “taste death for everyone … binging many children to glory.”
In other words, Adam and Eve were made through Christ, the crucified one, to be friends of God. Eve is made in the same way, so that, through mutual self-giving, they can return God’s love for them and for each other.
But there is more. Eve isn’t just like Adam in her meaning and purpose. Her body fits his also.
Genesis says the same thing Jesus does: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.”
God could very well have made only men or only women. This would have had some advantages. They could have been great friends, like Jesus and the apostles, or like the company of women who followed Jesus in his mission. They could have done great things together.
But God made them man and woman, which has its disadvantages. Men and women approach things differently; they are a mystery to each other. “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” as the old book title has it, or as a recent survey found, talking to 80,000 people in 76 countries, men and women are significantly different, in predictable ways, no matter what culture influences them.
But by making them male and female, God built them for physical union from the start. God’s creation of Adam and Eve is not just his creation of humanity, it’s his creation of sexual intimacy.
Our Creator, God, is not a Puritan who thinks sex is something impure and unworthy of holy people. God built sexuality into the very makeup of man and woman, commanded them to unite in this way, and then, when he became man in Jesus Christ, reiterated his insistence that this is what marriage is all about.
The poet John Milton was a Puritan, but even he sees the marital embrace of Adam and Eve before the Fall as something pure and good, as Benedictine College theologian Jamie Blosser pointed out. “With flowers, garlands, and sweet-smelling herbs,” Milton wrote, “Eve decked first her nuptial bed.” “Heavenly choirs … sung,” and an angel brought Eve to Adam “in naked beauty more adorned.”
This describes God’s view of sex. The old Dean Martin song “Kick In the Head” does the same thing.
“She’s telling me we’ll be wed
She’s picked out a king-sized bed …
Aint that a kick in the head?”
“My head keeps spinnin’
I go to bed grinnin’
If this is just the beginnin’
My life is gonna be beautiful.”
If you have any doubt that this is the attitude of God toward sex, just read Proverbs 5:18-20.
“May you rejoice in the wife of your youth,” it says; “may her breasts satisfy you always. May you ever be intoxicated by her love. Why, my son, be intoxicated with another man’s wife? Why embrace the bosom of a wayward woman?”
That is great advice about all forms of adultery, including pornography. If your spouse is the only unclothed person in your life, then your spouse will always be “in naked beauty much adorned” like Adam and Eve; your spousal intimacy will “satisfy you always” like the Proverb promises; and your life will be “beautiful … a kick in the head.” If your spouse isn’t the only unclothed person in your life, then, well, your marriage will be degraded, deadened, and dissatisfying.
But sex is not just the bliss of union. In the Gospel, it is significant that Jesus follows up his discussion of sex with a discussion of welcoming children.
If you look at the Gospel, you will see that Jesus condemns divorce not in his conversation with the Pharisees but later, “in the house” with his disciples. They learn that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
The next thing he speaks in public is when he tells his disciples not to keep children away from him. “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” he says. “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
This follows from his earlier reference to Adam and Eve, who were commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” Like Adam and Eve, we are meant to devote ourselves to one spouse for life. Why? Because our love has to be like God’s: His love is indissoluble, exclusive, and procreative. God will never abandon us, God can never cheat on us, and God’s love always brings new life.
So, since we are in his image and likeness, our marriages should imitate him — by welcoming new life and never preventing it; by uniting with only each other and never someone else; and by sticking with our spouse for life.
Sunday’s Psalm shows how the bliss of family life actually serves to prolong the bliss of marital union.
If you “walk in his ways” and stay faithful, “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine.” If you are open to life, you will rejoice in “your children like olive plants around your table.” And if you love your life, you even have a shot at seeing “your children’s children.”
That is what Jesus wants, and what he defends against the Pharisees: lifelong, exclusive, married love. He doesn’t say you are doomed to be with one spouse forever; he says you are blessed to be with one spouse for life.
Aint that a kick in the head?