Brief Synopsis of the Readings: In the second chapter of Genesis (after creating a human) we see God recognizing that it’s not good for the man to be alone. After asking him to choose from among all of God’s creation, and not finding a helpmate, God put him into a deep sleep, removed one of his ribs and created a woman. The man then rejoiced and called her “woman.” Genesis then proclaims that the man and the woman should become one body. In Mark’s Gospel some Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus by asking about the question of divorce. Refusing to take their bait, Jesus told them that Moses allowed divorce because they were unteachable. Jesus went on to say that God made us male and female and that once married they are “one body.” He then tells them that anyone who divorces and marries another commits adultery. Then, when children were brought to him he told them that “for it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
People who don’t preach or speak publicly often think that it’s hard to preach on obscure Scripture readings. Last week we read from the book of Numbers, a book that most followers don’t know much about. Thirty years ago I was a youth minister of a church and took the youth group members on a retreat based on reconciliation. I based it on the Old Testament book of Hosea and none of the teenagers had even heard of it (now in their 40s I hope they still remember it).
But I find it easier to preach on obscure readings because the readers and hearers don’t have preconceived ideas. Nearly everyone who reads from the 2nd chapter of Genesis and the 10th chapter of Mark recognize these readings and that presents challenges. What can we learn from readings where we’ve been told from childhood what they mean?
Well it’s hard. A search for the phrase “Adam’s Rib” presents us with restaurants, a movie, and even a short lived television show. Unfortunately this passages has left us with the idea that since Eve is formed from Adam’s rib, she is subservient. This was never the author’s intent. Instead it was meant to show that spouses joined together are of the same flesh. We think of this as the world’s first marriage and since it was between a heterosexual couple of the same race, this has been seen as the only legitimate form of marriage.
As I was reading this and the Gospel I couldn’t help but think of the play and movie Fiddler on the Roof. It you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look. It’s set in the early 1900s in Russia and it looks into the lives of Orthodox Jews living under Czarist rule. The protagonist, Teyve, is married and has 5 daughters. He begins by talking about tradition: “Because of our traditions, each of us knows who we are and what God expects us to do.”
Unfortunately for Tevye, the rest of the play outlines how his traditions called him to change. First he was approached by the village matchmaker. Her job was to give recommendations for who should marry and she told Tevye that his daughter has caught the eye of the town butcher; he and Tevye meet and Tevye agreed to the marriage. But he later found out that his daughter had fallen in love with and promised herself to the local tailor. Anguished, Tevye was torn between the tradition of honoring the pledge given to the butcher and his desire for his daughter to be happy. As he talked to God he wryly recognized that perhaps his daughter and the tailor had the same matchmaker as Adam and Eve. He then gave his blessing to the tailor.
But Tevye’s anguish is far from over. His next daughter fell in love with a Jewish Marxist who was exiled to Siberia. He expected to live in the same town with his children for his entire life. In a truly heartbreaking scene, Tevye put his daughter on a train for Siberia and prayed that she would be able to find a rabbi in Siberia who could perform the wedding.
Finally, near the end of the play, another daughter fell in love with a Christian. This was finally too much for Tevye and he told her: “A bird may love a fish, but where would they build a home together?” They never fully reconciled but when Tevye and all the other Jews of the village are exiled from Russia, he did wish her well.
I love Tevye and I love this play because of the struggle and the anguish we all face when we agonizingly try to honor our traditions in the face of new and bewildering realities we experience.
As Catholics we see this struggle most poignantly with the issue of marriage. It has always been the goal that marriage be permanent. We all know the phrase “till death do us part” (though I’ve always preferred the phrase “as long as both shall live”). Much like Tevye, we like to think that marriage is simple: we find the person we love, we marry, and we live our entire lives as husband and wife.
But it’s not that simple. When Jesus spoke his words, marriage was different. People lived simpler, and shorter lives. They made no distinction about skin color and had no understanding of sexual orientation.
Much of the conflict we’ve experienced in the 20th and 21st Century about marriage depended on an antiquated view that marriage was permanent, opposite sex, and within the same race.
If you think this wasn’t true, let me give an example from my own family. In 1940 my (French) Aunt Jeanne married (Polish) Chester Hetnik. According to tradition they married in the bride’s church. At the reception my aunt’s pastor (at the French Church) told her that since she married a Pole, she would now worship at his church, not hers. She was shocked but recognized that she was told that this wouldn’t have happened of she married someone who was French.
When we think about marriage we are often challenged and we should be. While we all agree that God created love, perhaps we can admit that we invented laws governing marriage. In the United States marriage between people of different races broke the law in some states until 1967. Marriages between people of the same sex broke the law in many states until 2005.
These readings should call us beyond our comfort zone, at least I hope they do. Speaking for myself I’m a man who married a woman of my same race. But I have friends who entered into interrational marriages or same sex marriages.
Again and again in Scripture we are called to ask who we should love. Most of the time these challenges don’t call us to intimate relationships: we are called to feed the poor, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, and love those who we meet. But I argue that these readings begin the process of seeing these passages with realities we see today and recognize that some of us are called to intimate love with those that Biblical authors could never have recognized.
For those who have chosen their own spouses, for those who chose spouses of other races, for those who chose spouses of the same sex, I say “Bravo.” I pray your marriage gives you as much joy as mine does.