As we’ve just heard, our readings have to do with both marriage and children, and so I think they are very fitting given that October is Respect Life Month with its focus on the value and dignity of all human life and in a particular way on the life of unborn children and mothers. In our Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus continues to travel towards Jerusalem, preaching and teaching. The last few weeks we have heard some of his more challenging teachings, and I think today’s Gospel likewise is challenging to our society nowadays.
One of the things that makes these teachings so challenging is that they are no longer reflected in the reality of our society. It would be easy to just gloss over them and move on to something else that we can all agree on, but…one, I don’t think it’s possible anymore to find something everyone can agree on anyway, and two, Jesus’s words are as applicable to us now as they have ever been; they apply to every society in every age. And we have to remember that what Jesus teaches us is Good News, whether it is recognized as such or not, and so as challenging as some of his words may be, they are the way to true happiness, both in this life and the next.
Sometimes it’s said that everyone already knows what the Church teaches about marriage, children, and so on, so why talk about it again, but in my experience we can no longer assume that. Perhaps there was a time when we could, but that time is long gone. So the Lord impels us to continue to proclaim the truth about his plan for human sexuality, marriage, and family. And in order to do that, we have to go back to the beginning in a very literal way: back to the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis. As we heard, God created Eve to be a “suitable partner” for Adam. Jesus quotes from this reading in our Gospel today when he says, “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.” If we accept this, we accept the words of Christ himself, and it we reject it, we likewise reject Jesus’ own words.
Jesus was responding to yet another challenge posed to him by a group of Pharisees. Divorce was actually very common in the time of Christ. Marriage has never been easy – it wasn’t then and it isn’t now – because of our fallen human nature. Different groups of Pharisees had different ideas about when divorce should be permitted, ranging from the very strict to the very permissive. And so they question Jesus about it, who then takes them back to the very beginning of God’s original plan for marriage and for humanity.
God created human beings not to be isolated, pleasure-seeking entities, but rather to be in community or in relationship with one another. So we are called to be a reflection of who God is. Remember, God is a Trinity of three divine Persons: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. The union of a man and woman in marriage, and then, God willing, the child that comes from the marriage, is like a little reflection of the Trinity itself. And the union between a man and a woman in marriage is a little reflection of the covenant relationship that God has entered into with the human race. God never withdraws from the covenant that He has entered into with us; He always remains faithful, and so likewise the covenant relationship that a husband and wife enter into ought to be permanent, unto death. However, if it can be determined that the conditions necessary to make a valid sacramental marriage were not present at the time of the wedding, then a permanent covenant relationship was never entered into in the first place; that is what the process of an annulment is about. But if it is a valid sacramental marriage, then it is unbreakable covenant until death.
And God created marriage for the purpose of bringing new life into the world, because life is a good thing. And when we’re born, we’re completely vulnerable. We’re not like cows, who deliver a calf and have it standing up and walking around within minutes of birth. We’re born totally helpless. We need the protection and stability provided by a loving mother and father, not just to survive infancy, but also to grow and thrive as individual human beings ourselves. From the very beginning, we are born into a community. And our well-being is dependent on the strength of the community into which we are born and grow up in – both the community of the family and the wider social community in which we live.
God calls us to high standards, which can sometimes seem very daunting to meet. And because we’re all weak human beings, we don’t always meet these standards. We all mess up from time to time, maybe a lot. But God knows what He is doing, and He calls us to these high standards because it is what is truly best for us, both as individuals and as members of a wider community.
So we have to be like little children before God, receiving what He desires to give us and what He desires to teach us. When we try to create society by our standards, things inevitably start to unravel with disastrous consequences. When we try to go it alone in life, apart from God and apart from others, we will start to unravel with disastrous consequences. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that we must be like little children: “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Maybe parents are imagining their child having a tantrum and wondering what Jesus is talking about here. No, Jesus is not talking about accepting the Kingdom of God like a child throwing a tantrum – although sometimes even as adults we might do that or at least want to do that. Rather, he’s talking about being dependent on God the way little children are dependent on their parents for everything.
If you’re an adult, remember what it was like to be a child – we just kind of accepted the world that we lived in. Our parents’ weekly routine was our routine and that was just the way it was. The holidays, the family vacations, the visits to extended family, our neighborhood – this was all normal to us and what we just accepted. Of course, then we get older and started to get more restless and wanted to branch out more and experience more of the world – all completely normal – but how much really has the same impact on us as those years of childhood had? Imagine buying a car or a house as an adult (obviously) – sure, we might feel happiness and be really excited about it, but there’s also the car payments or the mortgage that we have to keep in mind, there’s the paperwork we have to fill out, and of course, now we have to maintain those things. And now imagine the joy of a little child opening a present on Christmas morning – pure, unadulterated joy! It’s a little thing – not a big thing like a car or a house – but you wouldn’t know that from the joy on that child’s face. He’s just receiving this gift – he didn’t do any research to choose the right one, he didn’t work out a budget to see if he could afford it, and he’s not worried about paying it off, having insurance and so on. He’s just happy to have it. I think this is what Jesus is talking about when he says we must receive the Kingdom of God like a little child. Radical trust in God, that he loves us, that he will provide for us, that he will take care of us.
Even though we grow up and leave childhood behind us, our loving Father in heaven always remains the same. He never withdraws from the covenant that He has entered into with humanity. He always remains faithful to us. And His love for us is total and eternal.