Friday, August 13, 2010

Whom God Has Joined, Man Must Not Divide.

Friday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Ezekiel 16:1-15, 60, 63
The word of the LORD came to me:
Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations.
Thus says the Lord GOD to Jerusalem:
By origin and birth you are of the land of Canaan;
your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.
As for your birth,
the day you were born your navel cord was not cut;
you were neither washed with water nor anointed,
nor were you rubbed with salt,
nor swathed in swaddling clothes.
No one looked on you with pity or compassion
to do any of these things for you.
Rather, you were thrown out on the ground
as something loathsome, the day you were born.

Then I passed by and saw you weltering in your blood.
I said to you: Live in your blood
and grow like a plant in the field.
You grew and developed,
you came to the age of puberty;
your breasts were formed, your hair had grown,
but you were still stark naked.
Again I passed by you
and saw that you were now old enough for love.
So I spread the corner of my cloak over you
to cover your nakedness;
I swore an oath to you
and entered into a covenant with you;
you became mine, says the Lord GOD.
Then I bathed you with water,
washed away your blood,
and anointed you with oil.
I clothed you with an embroidered gown,
put sandals of fine leather on your feet;
I gave you a fine linen sash and silk robes to wear.
I adorned you with jewelry:
I put bracelets on your arms,
a necklace about your neck, a ring in your nose,
pendants in your ears,
and a glorious diadem upon your head.
Thus you were adorned with gold and silver;
your garments were of fine linen,
silk, and embroidered cloth.
Fine flour, honey, and oil were your food.
You were exceedingly beautiful,
with the dignity of a queen.
You were renowned among the nations
for your beauty, perfect as it was,
because of my splendor
which I had bestowed on you,
says the Lord GOD.

But you were captivated by your own beauty,
you used your renown to make yourself a harlot,
and you lavished your harlotry on every passer-by,
whose own you became.

Yet I will remember the covenant
I made with you when you were a girl,
and I will set up an everlasting covenant with you,
that you may remember and be covered with confusion,
and that you may be utterly silenced for shame
when I pardon you for all you have done,
says the Lord GOD.
We have today a rather striking allegorical history of Israel. In summary, Israel is seen as the faithless wife of Yahweh, a ‘whore’ of alien gods. This is a familiar image in prophetic literature from Hosea onwards. Ezekiel develops it in a long allegory (resumed in another form in chapter 23) surveying the whole history of Israel. As in Hosea, this allegory ends with a free pardon from the husband who establishes a new covenant, thus prefiguring the marriage of God with his people in messianic days, a theme which is taken up in the New Testament.

In a touching and progressing series of images the prophet describes how God chose his people, cared for them, showered them with all they needed and much more and how in the end they ungratefully abused all they had received. In spite of that he will not abandon them.

God describes himself as the spouse of Israel, who turns out to be an utterly faithless wife, prostituting herself (often literally) before false gods. The purpose of the allegory is for Ezekiel to confront Jerusalem with the terrible things she has been doing.

First, she is reminded of her pagan and idolatrous origins. “You belong to the land of Canaan. Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.” The “land of Canaan” was roughly equivalent to Lebanon and Israel today. The Amorites were pre-Israelite, Semitic inhabitants of Palestine and the Hittites were non-Semitic residents of Canaan who had flourished in Asia Minor before 1000 BC. In biblical tradition, Amorites and Hittities refer generally to the pre-Israelite population. They are seen as different from Israel, which traced its origins through Abraham to Nahor.

Jerusalem had, therefore, a centuries-old, pre-Israelite history and the city for a long time resisted conquest by the Israelites. It did not come fully under Israelite rule until David’s time. [Some matter for reflection here on the mutual rights of Israelis and Palestinians today.]

Israel is then described as an abandoned baby immediately after birth. The navel cord has not been cut nor has the infant been washed clean of blood. There is no one to rub the baby with salt (a custom still practiced by Palestinian Arabs into this century) or to wrap the little body in swaddling clothes (as Mary did with her Son).

In a word, there was no one to care for this child which lay, unloved and abandoned, “regarded as loathsome”, in an open field. Exposure of new-born babies was common in ancient societies but abhorred by Israel.

Then God came along, a prospective husband in search of a bride, and saw the helpless child still bathed in the polluting birth blood and growing like a wild plant until God gave his blessing of life and prosperity: “Live and grow like the grass of the fields.” This is God’s will for all his creatures.

The birth blood, a source of uncleanness, is seen as a symbol of the polluting and corrupting influences of paganism on Israel before its call in the covenant of Sinai. (Women who gave birth to a child were regarded as unclean for several weeks.)

From that moment Israel began to grow and mature as symbolised by the appearance of breasts and pubic hair. However, the girl was still naked.

So now God again passes by. “Your time had come,” he tells Israel. “the time for love”, that is, for marriage. God covers the girl’s nakedness with part of his own cloak, the sign of his intention to marry her. “I made you mine,” he says, like a groom speaking of his bride.

From now he pours out his attentions:
- his bride is bathed in cleansing water
- the polluting menstrual blood of idolatry is washed off
- there is an anointing with oil
- she is dressed in the very finest of clothes, clothes fit for a queen and sandals made from the same leather used to cover the tabernacle.
- she is adorned with jewellery: bracelets, necklace, nose-ring and ear-rings, and a beautiful wedding diadem.
- she is “loaded with gold and silver, dressed in fine linen and embroidered silks”, as was the Temple in Jerusalem.
- she was fed with only the finest of food, the kind used in offerings in the Temple.

In time she grew into a beautiful woman, a queen, the Lord’s bride. She was looked up to and admired by peoples everywhere for she was bathed in the very glory of the Lord, her spouse. This was especially so in the days of David and Solomon, who was famous for his God-given wisdom, his wealth and the building of the Temple. 

Unfortunately, all this went to her head. She forgot the origins of all her glory. She turned her beauty to prostitution in the two senses of being unfaithful to her Lord and of actual indulgence in the fertility rites of her pagan Canaanite neighbours. She offered sexual favours to all comers.

But, however unfaithful Jerusalem may be, her spouse will remain true to the covenant they made and will make it last for ever. It is time now, reminds the Lord through his prophet, for Jerusalem to be covered with shame for what she has done. And when God forgives, she will be reduced to a shameful silence.

This allegory in many ways can be applied to our own Church and its evolution from Gentile and pagan beginnings in so many parts of the world. We too have been blessed with an extraordinary cornucopia of spiritual and cultural richness over the centuries. But we have also prostituted ourselves frequently, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally.

This allegory has much to say to us. Let us not just read it as a condemnation of pre-Christian Jerusalem but a salutary reminder for our own relationship with our loving God.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Responsorial Psalm
Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
You have turned from your anger.
God indeed is my savior;
I am confident and unafraid.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
With joy you will draw water
at the fountain of salvation.
You have turned from your anger.
Give thanks to the LORD, acclaim his name;
among the nations make known his deeds,
proclaim how exalted is his name.
You have turned from your anger.
Sing praise to the LORD for his glorious achievement;
let this be known throughout all the earth.
Shout with exultation, O city of Zion,
for great in your midst
is the Holy One of Israel!
You have turned from your anger.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Matthew 19:3-12
Some Pharisees approached Jesus, and tested him, saying,
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife
for any cause whatever?”
He said in reply,
“Have you not read that from the beginning
the Creator made them male and female and said,
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh?
So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
Therefore, what God has joined together,
man must not separate.”
They said to him, “Then why did Moses command
that the man give the woman a bill of divorce
and dismiss her?”
He said to them,
“Because of the hardness of your hearts
Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,
but from the beginning it was not so.
I say to you, whoever divorces his wife
(unless the marriage is unlawful)
and marries another commits adultery.”
His disciples said to him,
“If that is the case of a man with his wife,
it is better not to marry.”
He answered, “Not all can accept this word,
but only those to whom that is granted.
Some are incapable of marriage
because they were born so;
some, because they were made so by others;
some, because they have renounced marriage
for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.
Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”
We return now, after the discourse on the Church, to a narrative section which describes Jesus’ ministry in Judaea and Jerusalem. He is no longer in the north, in Galilee but in the south. We are now entering the sixth section of Matthew’s gospel which will conclude with the parables of the last times.

Today’s passage begins with a discussion about a contentious issue between Jesus and the Pharisees, an issue which continues to be contentious in our own time. The question in itself is straightforward but, as was often the case, it was thrown at Jesus to test his orthodoxy with regard to the Law.

They ask: “Is it against the Law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever?” Among the Jews there were two schools of thought on divorce. The school of Shammai would only allow marital unfaithfulness as a justification for divorce. The Hillel school, however, would allow a man to divorce his wife if she did anything he did not like, such as burning his food! Jesus clearly sides with the first interpretation.

Using two passages from the creation story in the book of Genesis Jesus gives an uncompromising reply which it would be difficult for his opponents to challenge: “The creator from the beginning ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘This is why a man must leave father and mother, and cling to his wife, and the two become one flesh’.” Jesus goes on to say, “They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then, what God has united, no human being must separate.” And, in fact, in a good marriage, the two becoming one flesh is a reality. It is in the death of one partner that that can become very clear.

Marriage, therefore, as the intimate bonding of a man and woman is part of God’s plan for the human race; it is not something to be undone by us. However, the Pharisees are not satisfied with this answer. They press their case further by asking: “Why did Moses command that a writ of dismissal should be given in cases of divorce?” Jesus replies that that was simply a concession to the “unteachability” of the people in his own time but that it was not the situation from the beginning. The purpose of the writ was obviously to formalise a separation and allow a husband to enter into another marriage.

Jesus says that “the man who divorces his wife…and marries another, is guilty of adultery”. Nothing is said of the woman who might divorce; in a patriarchal and male-dominated world this would have been far less common, if not impossible. The woman had very little say in such matters. (In Mark’s version of this passage, both husbands and wives are included. He was writing for a Gentile audience where the rules were somewhat different.)

There is, however, an exception mentioned only by Matthew which has caused problems for exegetes and moral theologians. He has Jesus give “fornication” as one possible reason justifying divorce. The problem is that the word Matthew uses, porneia, is not clear in its meaning. It is variously translated as ‘fornication’, ‘lewd conduct’, ‘unfaithfulness’, or ‘marital unfaithfulness’. And it seems to apply only to the wife.

Unfaithfulness, leading to an illegitimate pregnancy, would, of course, in that society be a very serious breach of family purity and the integrity of the family (i.e. the father’s) line. The child born of such a relationship would be a bastard, coming from another family line and, at birth, might not be recognisable as such. In fact, a wife could be stoned to death for entering into such a relationship.

Jesus seems to say that, in such a case, a man would be justified in separating from such a wife and in entering on another marriage. Otherwise, any repudiation of the marriage contract for any other reason and to enter another contract would be adultery.

In our secular societies, unfaithfulness as well as many lesser reasons are given for justifying a legal divorce. If the original contract is known to be valid, the Catholic Church does not recognise any reason for its termination. However, in these times, divorce is not always the result of one partner’s decision. It is often the result of the mutual breakdown of the marriage relationship where they can no longer live together with mutual love and respect but where there are mutual feelings of hostility and unhappiness which are irreconcilable. Of course, the Church allows and may even encourage legal separation in situations of serious incompatibility but it does not allow remarriage. Even so, it is well known that many Catholics do enter a second marriage, which can turn out to be stable and enduring.

Whether this position will be maintained in the future remains to be seen. The issue is seen nowadays to be more complex and the nature of marriage and the contract contain elements not considered in the past.

In any case, Jesus’ position was seen by his own disciples as rather severe. If things were the way he saw them, then they thought it would be better not to get married at all! Jesus makes a statement which perhaps we should listen to more carefully than we often do. While, on the one hand, he lays down a clear principle he also indicates that not everyone may have the strength to observe it. There seems to be a call, then, for some compassion and flexibility in implementation. “It is not everyone who can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted.”

He goes on to describe three kinds of people who can live lives free from sexual activity:
--  those who are congenitally impotent (”born that way from their mother’s womb”);
--  those who are physically castrated (”made so by human intervention”) - commonly called ‘eunuchs’;
--  “those who have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”. This last group can include either those, who like Paul, choose to live celibate lives in order to work for the Kingdom and the Gospel or those whose marriages have broken down for one reason or another and choose to remain celibate for the rest of their lives also for the sake of the Gospel. This last does not seem to be a universal requirement: “Let anyone accept this who can.”

Marriage is seen here very much linked to the call to work for the Kingdom. If it is an obstacle, it should be avoided; if not, then one can and should work for the Kingdom through one’s marriage.*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

I read somewhere that the main argument early Christians had against the practice of exposing infants was that the babies were collected by people who raised them up to be prostitutes. A similar practice was described to me by my history teacher, who had worked as a diplomat in Hong Kong. The families livng in boats in the harbour tended to throw their female infants overboard. People gathered them up and kept them in orphanages. One day, my teacher visited one in the company of an elderly Chinese acquaintance who was selecting a new 'child bride' - quite a culture shock!

In the reading from Ezekiel, I see the baby girl in a similar situation: an unwanted daughter, thrown out and destined for prostitution. In fact, even before puberty she would probably already have been 'imprinted' with the sexual identity of a prostitute. So, when the covenant was made, it was already too late. Prostitutes notoriously find it hard to escape their pimps and even if they do, they often return to the lifestyle. This is borne out by poor Hosea's experiences.

I find the girl described here truly pitiful, even in her foolish haughtiness. She cannot escape from the identity that has become her own. She doesn't understand about marriage and probably just thinks she's hooked a particularly generous client!