27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Genesis 2:18-24 | Hebrews 2:9-11 | Mark 10:2-16
Almighty, everliving God, who in the abundance of your kindness, surpassed the merits and the desires of those who entreat you, pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
Today’s set of readings is a very difficult and interesting set of readings, and what strikes me about it is it opens for me a great difficulty in terms of holding together two things: the law, its demands, and then the thing that we’ve been promised that God has given to us as we mature and live with him and he lives in us and he guides us. We count on his advice, and it’s real. And what that opens up for us is something the Vatican Council was so clear about, and that is the mystery of the human conscience. We have a law, and then we have a human conscience. The statements in the Vatican Council are so beautiful, because it said within every human being there is a kind of tabernacle where God dwells, and there we are connecting with the truth.
The second reading talks about Jesus consecrating us to something. What we’re consecrated to — it means set apart to be something different, and what the difference is, in grace in you and me, is we’re consecrated to the truth. We live in the fullness of the truth. And the law certainly is something there to guide us in terms of making choices, but the ultimate norm for the choices that we make is not the law but our individual conscience, moving toward that which we know is good, moving away from that which we know and believe in our heart is bad. It seems to me that’s one of the hardest things for a religious group, a religion to teach in a way, because it may sound very much like, “Well, it’s all up to you. It’s relativism. Whatever you think is right is right.” Well, that’s not the case. Because you have a conscience and you have a right to make your own decisions does not mean that those decisions can be based on anything but the truth — but the truth, and the promise that God gives to us, giving us this gift of our conscience, is that he will inform us. He will show us what is right and wrong. When you seek it, it will be found.
I love that phrase in scripture where it says, about asking, ask and you receive, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. That’s not three things talking about the same thing. It’s three different moves in terms of entering into the truth. Ask for it. Ask to know what is really important here, and what do I need to do, and what do I need to know in order to do it right. So you ask, but then you just don’t sit back and say, “Okay, I’m waiting for the answer. Where is it? I didn’t hear anything?” No, seek it. Seek advice. Ponder it. Wonder about it. Ask again and again until clarity comes. If you want an answer, you have to seek it. It’s going to always bring you into a new place, a new awareness, a new understanding. Knock, you open into a new place. It’s interesting in dreams — I love dreams, and I love the way you can read so much into them about who you are and what’s going on in your life. And usually a doorway is a major breakthrough to a new insight. Finding rooms in your house that you never thought were there before is a great insight into God awakening your mind to something bigger, something greater, something more.
So we have this tension, it seems to me, between the law and your conscience. Now, one thing that’s fascinating to me is, if you look at salvation history — and this is something that’s only dawned on me recently, but it’s so clear that the story is about a God revealing who he is to his people slowly. He doesn’t change. God’s always the same, but he certainly has revealed, through himself from the very beginning, a God very different from the God incarnate in Jesus. He didn’t start with the fullness of who he is and what he wants to have in terms of a relationship with us, how intimate it is, how close it is. No, he started by being just like the other gods, because that’s what people understood. That’s what they knew. That’s what they could understand, and so he becomes a kind of taskmaster, a law-giver. “Do this, or I leave you.” Well, then he changed it. “Do this. Now I can’t leave you, so I’ll stay with you. Every time I ask you to do something, you don’t do it, so I’ve got to change you. I’ve got to enter into you and write my law on your heart.” So you get these covenants that keep evolving from something that sounds very much like, “Do it or die,” to, “I’m with you in everything. I’m with you. I’m in you, and you know deep in your heart, because I’ve written my law there, that the answer to whatever moral dilemma you’re in is there inside of you. Go, ask, seek, knock, and you will know what’s right.”
It seems that there’s a way in which scripture has always talked about the danger of the law. If you look at Jesus, he was a lawbreaker, and he wasn’t breaking any major commandment. He never sinned, but so many of the things that had become laws were just sort of custom. They weren’t anything about doctrine. They were just ways in which — some of them very practical, very much in the world of hygiene. Make sure you clean things, wash things, clean your food before you eat it, all that. So many of those 613 rules were very practical, but the danger of the law, which is so clear in the lives of the Pharisees, can become an excuse for something much deeper, much more profound. You don’t have to think about where your heart is or where your motive is or who you really are or what God is really wanting from you. You just do those things that you have to do. As long as you do the letter of the law, it doesn’t matter where your heart is, and you know how Jesus responded to that. “You are hypocrites. You’re telling everybody, asking as if following the law is the heart of the gospel,” or the heart of the Old Testament, I should say, and it’s not and never had been. Yes, the law’s important. Yes, the law is helpful, but there’s something that God wants so much more than for you to follow the law. But in a way, you could say, in defense of the Pharisees and scribes, is they didn’t know the intimacy with which Jesus was going to initiate in the world, save the world by somehow breaking a barrier that kept people from who they really are.
The evolution of human beings, the whole story is us moving, moving more into who God created us to be. That’s what we’re here for, and there always was a block in a sense, our stubbornness, our stiff-neckness. All that stuff you see in the Old Testament, that’s human nature that isn’t very evolved. It hasn’t grown into what it’s ultimately made for a co-mingling with something greater than the self so that the self becomes so much more animated, so much more alive, so much more capable of doing the things that we’re here to do. One of the basic things we here to do is to connect, to become one with things, with creation, with God, with ourselves, and then in the theme of the gospel today, also in a relationship called marriage — marriage. What a mystery. What a mystery. The laws and rules on marriage are probably one of the last places that we really have, in a sense, at least from my experience, a burden placed on people that, if they somehow find themselves in a marriage that is destructive, that is not life-giving, that is not what God intends a marriage to be — it only takes one person to destroy that kind of flow of life, one to the other, and if someone does that, and you’re in that relationship, and it’s not working according to the law, there is no way out — no way out. There is no divorce, never. That’s what the law seems to imply. What’s so interesting to me, when you look at canon law, which runs the church, it’s filled with exceptions. You will always find, “This is what must be done. This is what should be done, unless this, this and this are there.” Exceptions, exceptions, exceptions. For some reason, and I’m sure it’s because divorce now is so common, it’s frightening to the church to see something that’s such a high ideal, the idea that you have found the perfect partner, the one that God planned for you to have, and then when you have it, it’s so life-giving — it’s so potentially transformative to you. Why would anybody want to leave that if that’s what marriage is, if that’s what it’s intended to be? No one in their right mind would want to leave that kind of relationship, and it’s true. The law, in a way, helps us stay in things when they’re tough, and yeah, there’s something to say, “No, I’m not leaving this, because I made a commitment.” That’s smart. That is what human nature needs. We need discipline. We need to work through things, but what do you do with a person who’s innocent and wants to be free and wants to leave? Then we have a process. It’s called annulments, and annulments are a very cumbersome, difficult situation, because it means that you have to go to a tribunal of lay people who will listen to the case. It means you have to ask intimate questions of people. What was their intention? Who are they? What do they feel about intimacy, about commitment? And somehow put it through a court and then decide whether or not you are free to marry.
I don't know what to say about that system other than it seems always to be, in so many cases, not always, so many cases to be something that’s such a burden, such a difficulty, such a painful situation, especially when it involves people who have never been part of the Catholic Church. They don’t have the same rules and laws we have, and so I want to say this: I know what marriage is when it is what God calls us to do. And when he says, “If you leave it, you commit adultery,” the word adultery means to weaken something, to make it impure, to defile it. Well, yeah, it would be wrong to leave something so life-giving, so potentially filled with life for you. Why would you do that? Maybe because of selfishness and for a while — but I think the restriction saying you can’t do that, you shouldn’t do that would take tremendous asking, seeking, knocking to know what in my conscience do I really know I should do in this situation.
It seems to me the church has to recognize that God-given right to make decisions in our conscience. There was such a thing, when they began the annulment processes after Vatican II. There was a case called the Conscience Case, and it was dropped, but I know the church is struggling. I know she’s doing wonderful things in terms of changing these situations of how you go about finding a release from something you know in your heart is not the thing God wants you to be in, and I pray every day that there will be something that happens so that these situations can become less painful, less difficult and we can honor our hearts, our intention, the power of God in us that would give us always the grace to get through anything that is for us — for us. It’s like Jesus saved the world by suffering. Suffering made him perfect. That means you surrender to what is real, what is true. It was absolutely true that Jesus had to die the way he had to die, but he accepted it. He gave in to it. That wasn’t a law he gave in to. It was a request from his Father, and he freely said yes. To be in something that you freely can’t choose, that you can’t find any reason for doing it is so difficult, and so I’m not saying that you disregard the law. I’m just saying that you grow through your struggle, and you have to listen to your heart, and you have to follow the God who’s promised to guide you. He’s in you. He speaks to you, and we have to respect that right that we all have to act out of what we know in our hearts is true. It’s why I think this reading has this beautiful end of the children. Children are the ones in the kingdom, and they don’t have to have something neat and clear. They don’t have to have rules and laws that are so complex. They just accept things as they are — accept things as they are, know they’re loved and know they’re cared for. That’s the goal of God in you, God in me. He’ll guide you. He’ll care for you. He’ll give you life.
Father, your love is more powerful, more life-giving than any set of laws or rules. Open us to that gift. Open us to the wisdom that only you can fill our hearts with so that our decisions will replace our energy. Where we place our lives is in your will, in your plan so that we can truly participate in the lifting of the world closer and closer to its goal of living fully in the truth, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.