Last Sunday, the Gospel concerned avoiding scandal and sin. The Lord said it would be better for a millstone to be tied around your neck and to be cast into the sea than to cause scandal. And, he said that it would be better to enter into eternal life maimed than to go to Hell intact. It was a tough reading to preach. When it was all over and it was time to prepare for the next Sunday's readings, I found it was not easier. In this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife or husband and marries another commits adultery. I was kind of hoping for a "Blessed are the poor in spirit" weekend.
During the week, I talked to several priest friends about that Gospel and I also spoke to some parishioners. It is a tough one. In fact, one night I kept waking up thinking about that Gospel. I know my people fairly well. I knew that when I would be preaching about that Gospel I would be talking to the divorced and civilly remarried, the happily married, the same-sex attracted person, the children of divorced parents, the person who had betrayed their vows, the person who had been betrayed, the person who mourns the loss of his marriage, and the list goes on. And here is Jesus sounding fairly tough on this point. Marriage is between a man and a woman. It is permanent and indissoluble.
As I thought about this Gospel during the week, something struck me. When Jesus spoke these words two thousand years ago, he was speaking them already to the people in my congregation. He loved them then. These words are for their benefit, no matter what their present state or disposition. These words--even though they sound harsh--are good news to each of them.
To the faithful spouse, they are words of affirmation that they are living according to God's plan. To the spouse that has been discarded and abandoned, they are a consolation and an affirmation that they have been treated unjustly. To the couple that is growing in hatred towards each other, they are a call to repentance. To the person who finds himself or herself in some illicit union, the words are a call to find some way to order their life in a manner most fitting to the Kingdom of God.
Jesus reminds us in the Gospel of what marriage is according to God's eternal plan. This plan is the only way that marriage works. Sin seeks to thwart God's plan. When spouses are unfaithful, bitter, hateful etc, they are succumbing to sin. The solution is to open themselves to God's grace and be reconciled. There are, of course, instances where a couple must separate because of particular circumstances. But, this is a tragedy. And it is a tragedy because it means that God's plan for marriage is being interrupted in this particular instance.
We have become so accustomed to saying, "Oh, their marriage didn't work out" that it has become the new normal. That is the real tragedy. Jesus' words in the Gospel are a huge help to us because they call us back to living the true meaning of marriage. When I was first a pastor, the bottom line of my parish budget said that there were more expenses than there was income. That was bad news. And, that news seemed kind of paralyzing. It seemed an impossible situation to which we had to resign ourselves. But, the lay people on my finance board taught me that the bottom line was determined by all of the details in the rest of the budget. So, we went through the detail and began cutting things. Soon, the bottom line was a lot better.
When Jesus teaches about the nature of marriage, he draws our attention to the details. We have become so accustomed to looking at the bottom line in our culture (a bottom line where marriage is in total disaster) and thinking, "That's just the way things are." But, we need to return to looking to what the detail of what marriage really is: it is a union between a man and a woman that is permanent, exclusive, indissoluble, and open to new life. When we keep that as our focus, then the bottom line will turn out much better.
Admittedly, today I was a bit nervous about preaching because I didn't want to burden people who already feel the weight of their marital problems. But, it occurred to me that it was Jesus who spoke thsese words. And, in the proclamation of the Gospel at Mass, it was Jesus who was speaking them to my flock. Jesus certainly loves these people and the only reason that he would speak these words is because he loves them.
At the end of the day, I can't say that everyone heard these words as good news. I just don't know. But I do know that some did. There were some whose lives have been turned upside down because of infidelity and betrayals. What really amazed me was that it was these people--people that I most feared would be most hurt by these words--who found them most healing. Among my people, some who were most happily receptive of these words were those who have betrayed their spouses or who have been betrayed. Jesus really is something else isn't he? He spoke those words two thousand years ago. Today, he spoke them again to the people in my parish and those words--that seem so hard to those without faith--were a source of healing and peace to many. I don't know why I continue to be surprised by this, but I am: The Gospel really works. Jesus suffered and died for the people he addresses in the Gospels. He has proven his love for them. We should trust that his words carry with them the power to heal and to bind.
The success of the New Evangelization will depend upon preachers willing to trust in the power of the Gospel.