Down by the Riverside
This is not an easy gospel ; we all know (or are ourselves) people who’ve had to face the fact that the bond to which they pledged themselves in a joyful, hopeful moment has broken – usually for a host of reasons, some more easily understood than others. Hearing this gospel proclaimed every third year at Sunday Mass can cause real distress to anyone affected, whether directly or indirectly, by the break-up of a marriage. It doesn’t help matters if the preaching that follows comes down hard on people who’ve gone through a divorce.
We’ve said many times in this space that reading the Word of God isn’t just a matter of grabbing a verse out of context and using it to “prove” something. As any real estate agent will tell you, it’s all about “location, location, location.” And that’s true whether you’re selling your house or trying to understand a passage from the gospel.
So, let’s take a look first at the geographical context of this pericope. Our liturgical text omits the first line, which places Jesus in Judea “across the Jordan” (v. 1). He’s down there among the reeds and the bulrushes, next to the stream where John the Baptist had done his work. That same John the Baptist who was beheaded by Herod because he’d criticized him for marrying his brother’s wife. Notice what Mark says about the Pharisees’ question : “They were testing him.” Another way to put that is that Pharisees would have liked to trap him into offending the much-divorced Herod family ; it would have been a tidy way to get rid of a pesky preacher from Galilee while keeping their own hands clean.
The Pharisees’ “location” is local ; their interest is in getting an answer that will trip Jesus up, one way or the other. How about us ? If we use this text simply as a means to show others the error of their ways, for example, we might not necessarily be wrong with respect to the Law, but we might be lacking with respect to the Spirit. Certainly we’d be accepting the Pharisees’ reading of things.
Jesus’ interest and concerns, on the other hand, cover a wider range, the big picture, if you will. Refusing to be drawn into parochial gossip, he answers their question with one of his own : “What did Moses command you ?” That’s an easy one ; they quote from Deuteronomy : Moses allowed divorce. But notice that Jesus’ question was “What did Moses command you ?” He’s harking back to an earlier time, a time of beginnings, to the time of the Garden in the Book of Genesis (of which, for both Jesus and the Pharisees, Moses was the divinely inspired author).
In Genesis, God (as described by Moses, the author of Torah) creates the two to become one. Much later, says Jesus, Moses allowed (but certainly didn’t command) divorce “because of the hardness of your hearts.” Touché ! Jesus hits them so hard that they disappear from this passage.
But we still need to consider — what does “hardheartedness” mean here ? According to N.T. Wright, whose Mark for Everyone guides this reflection, it’s “the inability to have one’s heart in tune with God’s best intention and plan.” This hardheartedness on the part of the ancestors of the Pharisees “thwarted God’s longing that Israel should be his prototype of renewed humanity.”
But, says Wright, “for Jesus’ comment to make sense, he must be offering a cure for hardheartedness. If he is now articulating a rigorous return to the standard of Genesis, to God’s original intention, he is either being hopelessly idealistic or he believes that the coming of the Kingdom will bring about a way for hearts to be softened.”
What an idea ! Jesus himself would be the cure. With him present in our midst, hearts could be softened. Minds and attitudes could change. God’s desire for his creation could be fulfilled. And yet. It’s pretty clear that we still have a long way to go. Just as in Jesus’ day, the Kingdom is right now but also not yet. Hearts are still hard. At the same time, we know that they still break, too.
At Mass this Sunday, as we listen to the story of this confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees down by the Jordan, a couple of things might help us to keep the notion of Jesus-the-Cure (rather than Jesus-the-Judge) before our eyes.
First, it would help to remember that very soon in this Eucharist we’ll have the joy of having Jesus completely present in our midst, in each of us individually and in us together as community, as we receive his sacred Body and Blood. This “cure” is meant to soften our hearts, and it never fails to do its part. Whether those hearts stay soft or harden back up again is, of course, up to us.
Second, as we’re listening to this gospel, let’s recall that Jesus’ primary mission was to announce the breaking in of the Kingdom of God. He called everyone to repent and believe in that good news (Mark 1 : 15). Since he was constantly trailed by crowds of sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors and other shady characters, it’s pretty clear that judgment wasn’t what he was about. In fact, in John’s gospel, when he’s faced with the woman caught in adultery, he says so : “I do not judge anyone” (8:15). That doesn’t mean that sin doesn’t exist or that God’s original plan for humanity may now be dismissed as “old-fashioned” or “not realistic.” It simply means that to Jesus, mercy mattered most.
In our own day we hear our Holy Father Francis echoing that idea as he thinks about re-married divorced Catholics receiving communion or about the situation of gay Catholics, whether laypeople or priests. His famous line on the plane returning from Rio (“Who am I to judge ?”) is very well known, but perhaps it’s his declaration of a Holy Year of Mercy, beginning on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which could call our attention on this Sunday, a little more than two months before it begins.
We need this year, no question about it. Francis knows, and we know, too, our crying need to receive God’s mercy. But it could also be true that we have an even greater need to live this year from the other direction. My grandmother used to like to say that all of us enjoy being “judge, jury and hangman” ; she meant that, more often than not, we’re pretty darn tough on each other. Maybe Pope Francis is dedicating this year to Mercy so that each one of us can learn more and more what it means to “be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). This could be the year that we really hear Jesus when he says : “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
Friends, we’ve about to begin a Year of Mercy. Let’s do what the Man says, and “go and learn.” Amen.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, ra
Worcester, United States
Genesis 2 :18-24 ; Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6 ; Hebrews 2:9-11 ; Mark 10:2-16