Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 5, 2003

St. Agnes Church, Cincinnati

(Based on Genesis 2:18-24; Ps. 128:1-6; Hebrews 2:9-11; and Mark 10:2-16)

"At last!" At last! That's the cry of Adam in Chapter Two of Genesis.

I have a confession to make: When I began to look up the readings for today's liturgy and saw what they were, I found myself disappointed and depressed.

You know, a lot of ink has been spilled -- indeed, whole books written! -- over this passage in the Gospels. What did Jesus really say? There are issues about Jewish law; questions about Roman law. Authors debate over whether there were exceptions allowing divorce --- (then or today); and just what the phrases meant in practice. What could a man do? What could a woman do?

How do you preach about all that? It reduces the word of life to haggling over obscure phrases in the law. It turns living bread into cardboard.

But after praying and reading what some wise commentators have to say, I began to realize that something else is going on here, something much more important . It creates real spiritual food to chew on.

The Pharisees were into that whole legal game. But more importantly, they were into the game of "theological gotcha" with Jesus. It's all about tricks and maneuvers to cut down this uneducated itinerant preacher. Who is he to be teaching the people? It's about pulling him down by putting him in a lose-lose situation. There were two schools of thought, each claiming to have the truth on their side; if he takes one position he loses one side, if he takes the opposite position he loses the other.

Jesus turns it all upside down, as he so frequently did. It's not really about the legalities of divorce at all, it's about the human heart.

Jesus tells them Moses allowed divorce because of their "hardness of heart." As one author points out, a more accurate translation of the Hebrew expression would be "a heart dried up." A parched heart.

Divorce is about something that has withered and died. It's a symbol of failure and brokenness and pain.

That is not the mood of Adam in the Genesis account. He cries out "At last I have a companion who is my equal, made as I am. Of my very own flesh and bone.

He is tapping into one of the deepest desires in the heart of every human being, of you and of me. We long for intimacy with someone who is a peer, a partner, a companion on our life journey. Someone with whom we can share ourselves fully, safely and without fear. Someone we can face eye to eye. Where there is no higher-and-lower, no superior-and-inferior --- whether that supposed superiority is based on gender ('male is higher') or race ('white is better') or clerical status ('priesthood is higher') or class ('rich controls poor') or national pride ('America is never a partner, it stands above all the other countries'). We are drawn by the dream of a world where neither of us is the caretaker of the other. We long to be able to be transparent and know that we are fully accepted.

Adam's word is a cry of total exaltation. At last! Finally! He reveals that this is what he had been longing for and seeking from the beginning. Creation was a wonder; it was an amazing gift to be placed in the lovely garden; it was nice to have all those animals living in peace with him. But none of all that was enough.

(Royce and I were talking back in the sacristy after the nine o'clock Mass and he said, "How would Adam know how to put a name on a giraffe?" I said he might have more probably told God, "Oh, you got this one wrong!")

Finally, the fulfillment of our human dream.

And then the hard reality. We know that the exaltation doesn't last. That addiction of one-upmanship comes back, the drive to be on top, to put the other guy down takes over. We fail. We don't live up to what we promise in any of our relationships, whether marriage or friendship or contract.

We are all divorced. We discover that we are unable to be all that we had hoped to be, to fulfill all that we had promised. We all fail, we are all faith-less, we are all withered. As one writer put it so simply and directly, collectively we are "a company of hearts dried up." Divorce is ultimately a symbol of our common brokenness.

The exchange with the Pharisees had all started out as a power game, a test. Jesus has taken it to a more disturbing level. Faithfulness involves more than fulfilling legal commitments, it's about the heart. It's possible to fulfill all the legal requirements of marriage, and never be physically unfaithful, and still miss the point. As it is possible in all our relationships, with each other and with our God. It's all about being a peer, being an equal subject and not making the other an object, of knowing the other as flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone, looking at me eye to eye.

That's how children so frequently know it: the powerless, with no pretensions or agendas, open to life as it comes.

I want to tell you a true story. It was told to me by the couple in the story.

They were a white couple, very engaged in issues of social concern, and trying to insure that their children would know diversity through actual experience rather than from books. They made a conscious choice to move into a neighborhood that was almost totally black.

Their five-year-old daughter made friends with all the kids on their block. They played together and fell and scraped their knees together and enjoyed Slurpies together. There was no distinction, they were just "kids." Children.

For some reason or other (I forget just why) the family had to move. They moved a few blocks away but still within the same neighborhood. But the little girl was separated from her previous playmates and had to get to know new kids on the new block. Because she was new and strange, they began to pick on her. They teased and taunted her, and played mean tricks on her.

One day she came home to her mother in tears, and said, "Mommy, why are they doing these mean things? They don't even know that I'm black!"

They don't even know that I'm black! What a profound sense of the Kingdom, of what it's all about.

Jesus turned the whole understanding of his society upside down. The higher shall be lower. The last shall be first. The one who is master shall be the one who serves. Only if you receive the Kingdom as a child will you enter it.

And he lived it that way. He was flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, like us totally in all things but sin. And beyond even that he became a slave, even unto death. As the author of Hebrews puts it, he became 'perfect through suffering.' And that 'perfection; wasn't some ethical perfectionism, it means that he completed his mission, he did what he had been sent to do. His suffering and death came at the hands of those who could not tolerate his claim of equality in the face of their assumed superiority.

In God's eye -- in the Kingdom -- there is no higher-and-lower. Whether the claim of superiority is based on gender, or race, or status, or class, or nationhood. But we have to claim our equality, we have to dare to stand tall and look the other in the eye -- whether the other is a boss, or is white, rich, professional, a priest or politician or pope. That is what our Baptism is all about.

As we receive that same Lord, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, let us ask him to refresh our dried-up, withered hearts. To water them and moisten them, to soften the hard edges of our claims to superiority. And let us carry our divorced, broken selves to the same table, like wounds that are not shameful but the places where the mercy and glory of our God shines forth, as badges of glory.