ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

And The Two Shall Become As One

GENESIS 2:18-24
HEBREWS 2:9-11
MARK 10:2-16

In the course of the next few weeks, the Sunday gospels will portray Jesus embroiled in controversy with his contemporaries over issues such as marriage and divorce, commitment and discipleship, ambition and service. Two thousand years later, these issues have lost none of their relevance and once again the gathered assembly is invited to allow the challenge of the good news to speak to their collective and individual beliefs and experiences. This week, three of the four scripture selections (first reading, responsorial, gospel) call us to attend to the sacred gift of marriage. Represented within these texts are the ideals toward which both Jewish and Christian couples are to aspire.

As William Barclay (“The High Ideal”, The Daily Study Bible, The St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1975) has explained, the Jewish idea gives us the basis for the Christian ideal. The ancient Jewish term for marriage was kiddushin, a term that meant sanctification or consecration. Ordinarily, kiddushin signified the husband’s absolute consecration to his wife and of the wife to her husband. Each became an offering totally given to the other. For the sake of their spouses, men and women leave behind what is undoubtedly one of the most secure of all relationships, viz., the love shared between parent and child, and bond with one another so completely as to be called one flesh, i.e. one nephesh or one living person. This is the ideal reflected in the first reading from Genesis; this is the ideal that is reiterated and affirmed by Jesus in the Marcan gospel.

In discussing the implications of this ideal, theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars concur that marriage is one of the most fulfilling of all relationships as well as one of the most demanding. “And the two shall become as one” is an ideal which requires careful and continual effort and attention. Marriage is not the union of two clones but of two distinctive personalities. As Barclay (op.cit.) has observed, two people can exist together in a variety of ways. One can be the dominant partner to such an extent that nothing matters except his/her wishes, interests, job and/or goals in life, while the other is subservient and exists only to please the other. Or, two people can live in a cold war type of neutrality characterized by tension, opposition and the continuous collision of their wills. Married life under these circumstances is either one long argument or an uneasy and often volatile compromise. In some marriages, the two spouses base their shared relationship on a more or less resigned tolerance of one another. To all intents and purposes, each goes his/her way. They cohabitate but their house is not a home.

Obviously none of these relationships approaches the ideal as reflected in today’s scriptures. In an authentic marriage, two people live in mutual love and complimentarity wherein each personality finds fulfillment and full realization on the other. Plato, the great Greek thinker of the fourth century B.C.E., ascribed to the legend that human beings were originally twice as big and twice as strong as they are now. However, because their size and strength made them arrogant, the gods cut them down to half their size; only when two-matching halves found one another and completed one another in marriage did they find true happiness.

Rather than narrow life or constrict freedom, marriage should complete and enhance it. In the mutual giving of two personalities all the circumstances of life can be shared; all the happenstances in life can be met and managed. At times, these circumstances can be delightful because each partner is at his/her best. However, “for better or for worse” means that two people must also love and accept one another when they are tired or upset. . . when money is tight. . . when illness strikes. . . when days are long and tempers are short. . . when children stretch the bond of love to the limit. Only a love that is willing to endure the bad times as well as the good can support and sustain the unique relationship of marriage.

Among the folkloric literature of eastern Europe, there is a tale which reflected the quality of love which marriage demands: After a long siege, the duke of Bavaria sat trapped in his castle of Weisberg. Outside the city walls, his enemy, emperor Konrad, was demanding his surrender. While the conditions of surrender were being determined, the women of Weisberg sent a message to Konrad, asking for safe passage out of the city. They also requested that they be allowed to take with them as many of their valuables as they could carry. Their request granted, soon the castle gates were opened and out came the women. To Konrad’s amazement, they carried no gold or jewels. Each woman was bending under the weight of her husband whom she hoped to save from the vengeance of their conqueror. Their loving stratagem proved successful and their story continues to bear witness to selfless love which constitutes a true marriage.

GENESIS 2:18-24

In their book, Spiritual Partners, Cornelia Jessey and Irving Sussmann have chronicled the marriage of some of the world’s most noted couples. Among the relationships cited are those of Catherine and William Blake, Olivia and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Paula and Martin Buber, Maisie Ward and Frank Sheed (Sheed and Ward Publ. Co.), and Raissa and Jacques Maritain. Each marriage was a union of two very different people with very different backgrounds and experiences. Many of the spouses were from vastly different cultures, countries and religious affiliations. Yet each of these remarkable marriages was enduring, monogamous and offered to the world an example of authentic married love as well as a deep spiritual outpouring of creativity and service which influenced religious thought and western culture.

Common to each of these admirable relationships was the conviction that God had specially created each spouse for the other and that God remained an integral aspect of their union. When Jacques Maritain published Raissa’s Journal after her death, one of the entries read: “The gift of God has infinite expansion. But they are at the same time for this or that individual. First, God made the child Jacques Maritain to be born on the 19th November 1882 in Paris. Ten months later, he made the child Raissa Oumansoff be born on 12 September in Rostov-on-the-Dow.” Their marriage thrived for fifty-five years; the legacy of their love to the world continues to inspire.

This quality of enduring love and the notion that each is God’s gift to the other is firmly rooted in the theology of marriage which is reflected in today’s first reading. Part of the so-called primeval history, in which the ancient biblical authors offered faith-filled, albeit mythic and poetic answers to life’s basic questions, this pericope underscores: (1) the dominion of humankind over creation; each of the creatures was presented to man who named them, thus signifying his authority over them; (2) The fact that human beings are not meant to be alone but are created to live in society; (3) the equality of men and women; God created woman to be a suitable partner. She was made from a part of man, i.e., from the same substance (or species) and nature. The term sela which means rib also has affinities to a cognate (same root) of the word where it means life; (4) God intended that man and woman enjoy a relationship of complimentarity. This notion is evident in both Hebrew and English wherein the terms for man and woman, ish - ishah, adam - adamah, are closely related; (5) the marital union between man and woman is more profound than any other: “This is why each leaves father and mother and clings to one another and the two become one body.”

Reginald Fuller (Preaching the New Lectionary) suggests that the phrase “that is why” or the “therefore” which introduces the principle with which the pericope concludes (v. 24), should be understood as the linchpin of the whole text. It is precisely because of the manner in which each was created by God that man and woman become one body. Nephesh (translated in the NAB as body) is more correctly rendered as flesh (as in the NRSV and NJB). Nephesh or flesh means the whole person, body and spirit in all its aspects, physical, spiritual, psychological, emotional. For two to become as one flesh means that the depth of their union is all pervasive and all encompassing. Each is so known to and loved by the other as to become one.

The Genesis’ authors believed that because this union of man and woman has been created and ordained by God, it is, therefore, indissoluable. Although the indissoluable character of the marital covenant has become more and more rare in contemporary society, it is nonetheless admired (couples celebrating landmark anniversaries, e.g. 25th, 50th, 60th, etc. are celebrated in the media as heroes) and a certain debt of gratitude is owed to those who continue to prove that it is attainable.

HEBREWS 2:9-11

Another type of covenantal union and a different sort of consecration are featured in this short pericope from Hebrews. Whereas the Genesis and Marcan texts emphasize the covenant and consecration of human marriage, the Hebrews’ author calls the attention of readers to the saving covenant made by Jesus with all of humankind and of the fact that those who are so covenanted to Christ are thereby set apart or consecrated unto a life of goodness.

Most scholars concur that the anonymous author of Hebrews wrote to a community or to communities of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians (probably in Rome), ca. 90 C.E. From the author’s teachings and exhortations, it would appear that he (some suggest an authorship by Apollos, Clement, Luke, etc.) or she (others cite Prisca) was concerned that the recipients of his correspondence were growing lax in their faith and were abandoning Christianity in order to return to Judaism. If the proposed date of Hebrews is correct and if Rome was indeed its intended destination, then the political circumstances of its addressees may also have been a threat to their commitment to Christ. During that time, the persecution under emperor Domitian intensified against the Christians. Those who refused to burn incense to Domitian, who proclaimed himself as Dominus et Deus, Lord and God, were tortured and executed. No doubt, some Christians were tempted to return to the relative safety of Judaism, a religion tolerated as licit by Rome.

In an effort to bolster the faith of Christians, the author of Hebrews wrote what is actually more of an extended homily than a letter, affirming the singular role of Jesus and the necessity of enduring faith in him. Lest readers of Hebrews surrender to a sense of futility and hopelessness, due to the delay of Jesus’ second coming, the ancient author encouraged them that Christ, who had become one with them through the incarnation, would remain one with them until he ushered them into the glorious presence of God. Jesus had experienced the depths of human suffering “for a little while” (v. 9) in order that after their “little while” on earth, each believer would enjoy the redemption he had accomplished.

In answer to those who were wondering whether their faith in the Christ-event had been misplaced, the Hebrews author offered the assurance that “it was fitting” (v. 10); in other words, everything in the saving mission of Jesus (his suffering as well as his glorification) were a necessary part of God’s foreordained plan. Therefore their faith was not in vain. Moreover, just as Christ was “made perfect” through suffering, so also would those who believe in him come to perfection. Teleioo or “made perfect” does not refer to a moral victory over faults and failures. Rather, teleioo (from telos or goal) means that Christ achieved the goal or fulfilled the purpose for which he was sent.

By virtue of our covenantal union with Christ, because we have been consecrated by his saving death, each of us who believes is also being brought to perfection, i.e., moving closer and closer each day to the goal for which we were intended. Without losing faith or hope, we, who have been saved by the same brother and who are children of the same Father-Mother God press onward to glory.

MARK 10:2-16

Grounds for divorce, in contemporary society, vary from state to state and country to country. Several U.S. states permit divorce for reasons such as adultery, insanity, felony conviction and drug addiction, whereas other support none of these exceptions. In Jesus’ day, grounds for divorce also varied, not because of territorial legislation but due to differing rabbinical interpretations of the law.

When the Pharisees approached Jesus, they were, in effect, asking what he considered to be acceptable grounds for divorce. The law in question was expressed in Deuteronomy 24:1 which stated that “if a man has taken a woman in marriage, but she does not please him because he finds ’erwat dabar in her, he therefore writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house. . .” The term ’erwat dabar, which is variously translated as “something objectionable” (NRSV), “something offensive” (REB), “something indecent” (NAB), or “some impropriety” (NJB) was so vague as to be open to a wide range of interpretations.

One school of thought, championed by Rabbi Shammai, interpreted ’erwat dabar quite strictly, limiting the grounds for divorce to adultery alone. Another, more lenient opinion on the matter originated with Rabbi Hillel; enlarging the loophole offered in Deuteronomy 24:1 to its widest extent, the school of Hillel permitted divorce if a wife put too much salt in the stew, if she danced in the streets, spoke to a strange man, spoke disrespectfully of her husband’s relatives in his hearing or if she were a shouter, i.e., if her voice could be heard in the next door neighbor’s house. Rabbi Akiba pushed the envelope even further, permitting divorce if a man found another woman more appealing to him than his wife.

Rather than be drawn into the wrangling of the Pharisees by offering yet another opinion, Jesus nipped the argument in the bud by lifting it to a higher level. Jesus explained that the text in Deuteronomy was not a law but a dispensation from the law, a concession permitted by Moses (all of the Pentateuch is traditionally, albeit erroneously, attributed to a Mosaic authorship) because of the sklerokardia or hardness of heart of the people (v. 5). Rather than allow his contemporaries to seek refuge within legal loopholes, Jesus challenged them (and us) to attend to their own insensitivity to God’s will and word.

In typical rabbinical style, Jesus countered the question of the Pharisees with one of his own; then, continuing in the fixed form of the rabbinic dialectic, he reduced his questioners to silence. Calling on the only authority considered to be greater than Moses, viz., God’s, Jesus underscored human marriage as a covenantal and complementary bond between two persons, a bond foreordained by God from the beginning of creation. To breach this God-given union was therefore a violation of God’s inscrutable yet wondrous plan.

Some have proposed that Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce should be understood in light of the eschatological urgency of the times. If, as was expected, the parousia was so imminent, then arguments over the grounds for divorce were moot. All attention should be focused on preparedness for the coming reign of God. However, as the delay between Jesus’ two advents grew lengthier with each passing year, the radical character of Jesus’ teaching again became an issue. As is reflected in the gospel of Matthew (19:9), the centuries-old concession, first recorded in Deuteronomy 24:1, was revived.

“Back in the house” (v. 10), Jesus continued the instruction of his disciples, making both husbands and wives culpable for adultery. Scholars suggest that these verses are a piece of Marcan editorializing in order to adapt Jesus’ teaching to the Roman matrix within which his gospel was framed. According to Jewish law, adultery was the sin of a married woman against her husband. But the Marcan appendix (vv. 10-12) to Jesus’ teaching (vv. 1-9), extended the law to protect the rights of wives (as did Roman law).

In addition to upholding the sanctity of marriage and the God-given dignity of women, the rest of today’s gospel affirmed the rights of children, who were regarded as property, belonging to their father. Jesus surprised his contemporaries by inviting the children to come to him; he blessed them and offered them as example to all who would welcome God’s reign into their lives.

Perhaps this very difficult gospel concludes on this note for a purpose; only with a child-like trust and humility can the radical challenge of Jesus’ teachings be met, accepted and lived.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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