I don’t post my homilies until a day or two after Sunday’s Mass, because I like to preach the homily a few times to real congregations before sending out a final version. I want to note something from today’s readings, however, before yesterday’s homily.
Jonah tries to flee from Yahweh by taking a ship for Tarshish, but a storm comes up and the sailors learn that it is because of him. “Throw me overboard!” he tells them. Why didn’t Jonah just jump into the sea himself? Because that would’ve been suicide, not sacrifice. He has to let the sailors throw him overboard, because killing oneself is not salvific. In two days, Governor Jerry Brown will either veto or approve a bill making suicide legal in California. The money behind this bill is immense, undoubtedly from insurance companies who don’t want to pay long-term care for the elderly. Let us pray that Governor Brown follows the 3000-year-old wisdom of our Judeo-Christian tradition, articulated by Jonah in today’s reading. Suicide is not self-sacrifice. It is despair, and always wrong. Now for Sunday’s Homily….
The Synod for the Family
Today, October 4, the feast of St. Francis, Pope Francis will open the Synod for the Family in Rome. Marriage and family life are clearly in deep trouble. These days, less than half of cohabitating couples marry, and of those who do, more than half get divorced. It cannot be merely coincidental that in today’s Mass readings, which open the three-week Synod, Jesus definitively answers the question debated in last year’s pre-synod (should the Church loosen the rules on divorce and remarriage?). “I say to you,” Jesus tells us, “whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” The world defines marriage as a human agreement to satisfy adult desires; Jesus defines marriage as a divine covenant to provide for children.
Let no man tear apart
The world will focus on one question: will the Church change her rules on marriage like everyone else has? Consider Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. “Can a man divorce his wife?” the Pharisees ask Him. Jesus refers them back to Genesis (today’s first reading). “It is not good for man to be alone,” God says to the lonely Adam. “I will make a suitable partner for you.” So God fashions Eve, a suitable partner because she is like him enough to connect, but unlike enough to help him. So a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, who will come to love him even more than they can. The two will become one flesh. Jesus concludes matter-of-factly: if God has forged this unity, who are you to tear it apart?
Is divorce lawful? No, because it is not good for man to be alone. Divorce separates. It alienates a man and a woman, and worst of all their children. In most cases it’s worse than a difficult marriage, which after all can be fixed.
“Then why did Moses permit divorce?” you will ask. “Because of the hardness of your hearts,” Jesus replies. Certainly our hearts become hardened by life’s traumas, which render happy marriage impossible for most us. But not for God. In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter objects to Jesus’ definition of marriage, saying “if that is how it is with marriage, better not to marry.” And indeed, most do not marry these days, at least not with the expectation of lifelong fidelity. Divorce has been an option for the last 30 years. I don’t think you are capable of this either, Jesus implies, but I’m offering you a sacrament. I will give you the grace necessary to be happily faithful until death.
Many, especially from wealthier nations, say the Catholic Church is so harsh. We just pass the buck to Jesus—he’s the one who said those harsh words about adultery. But Jesus is no harsher than a coach who passionately believes in his athlete, who pushes him, who gives him the skills and encouragement needed to reach beyond himself, to run that five-minute mile, to win that Olympic gold. The Church refuses to “settle” for a lesser definition of marriage, and she believes we are capable of Christ’s high calling, with His help.
At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus blesses the little children. “Let them come to me,” he tells the apostles. Christian marriage is essentially about children, not adults. We who began using contraceptives in the 1950s began denying children. By denying children, we began denying marriage. If October’s Synod can do anything about marriage, it will focus on children rather than adults. After Mass yesterday, a man with his four sons told me: “Your homily described my situation exactly.” His wife had left him for another man, but his sadness did not compare to the hopeless confusion in the faces of his four boys.
Why do we make sometimes immense sacrifices to keep our families stay together? Because Jesus told us that marriage is until death, and because we love our children. Look into the faces of your own children before you give up on your marriage, and beg God for the grace to bless them rather than to maim them for life.