If you’ve been to any number of Church weddings, you have probably heard today’s first reading, and part of the Gospel proclaimed. Obviously we usually leave out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings. The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other. The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging. We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when so many marriages fail.
Apparently, the people of Israel were unable to accept the fullness of the teaching of marriage – not unlike today, obviously – Moses gave the men permission to divorce when necessary. In that society, a woman’s reproductive rights belonged first to her father, and later to her husband. So adultery could only be committed against the husband whose rights had been violated. Our modern sensibilities see this as completely wrong, and Jesus seems to agree. Jesus says that the man who remarries is committing adultery against his first wife, because she has rights in the marriage too. Jesus levels the playing field here by giving both spouses rights in the relationship, but also the responsibility of not committing adultery against one another.
In our society, we have to contend with this painful reality still. Each spouse has rights and also responsibilities, and while we are all ready to accept our rights in just about any circumstance, we are hardly ever ready to accept our responsibilities. That has led us not only to the problems we have with divorce, but in so many areas as well. We are a people very unaccustomed to the demands of faithfulness, not just in marriage but also in our work and our communities, just to name a couple.
Today’s Liturgy of the Word rejects this lack of faithfulness. Christian disciples are to be marked by their faithfulness to each other, to God, and to their communities. Faithfulness is hard and very often inconvenient. But for us, brothers and sisters in Christ, faithfulness is not optional.
In wedding liturgies I always tell the bride and groom that faithfulness will make demands of them. They will have to make a decision every day to be faithful to the promises they make at their wedding. They will have to make a decision every day to love one another. And sometimes this is easy, but sometimes it is hard to do, but either way, it’s still their calling. The same is true for me as a priest. I have to renew my ordination promises every day. I have to make a decision every day to be faithful to my God, be faithful to my ministry, be faithful to my promises, be faithful to my own spouse which is the Church, and my own family which is the people I serve. Sometimes that’s a joy and the easiest thing in the world. But, just like anyone else, I have rough days, and on those rough days, I’m still called to be faithful.
We are all of us called to be faithful citizens. That is easy when our candidate wins the election or legislation we’ve been hoping for passes. It’s not such a joy when he or she loses the election, or our interests aren’t being met, or the economy is plunging. It’s very difficult when we see so many abuses of power or the seeming triumph of evil. But we still are called to be faithful, doing our best to make things right, witnessing to the sanctity of life, standing up for the poor, needy, and most vulnerable members of society, building the kingdom of God on earth whenever and however we can.
One of the biggest challenges of our time is something of which we are mindful in a special way this month, and by that of course, I mean the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. It’s easy to remain faithful to that call when we don’t have to make the decision, but harder to remain faithful when someone we know is having a difficult pregnancy, or has been raped. It’s hard to defend life to natural death when a loved one is suffering, clinging rather tenaciously to life even when they’re unable to live it. It’s hard to defend life when someone in our community has been murdered and the death penalty is on the table. But we disciples don’t get to pick and choose the occasions during which we will be faithful. If our witness to life is to mean anything to the watching world – and now more than ever before it absolutely has to! – we’re going to have to be faithful always, even when it’s hard, even when it stretches us.
The little vignette at the end of the Gospel reading today almost seems out of place. I use this story at every baptism I do, and it’s easy to see why. But I also think it relates to our call to faithfulness today. Jesus promises the Kingdom of God to those who are like children. Obviously he isn’t extolling the virtues of being childish here. He is getting at, as he often does, something much deeper. He notes that children are dependent on their parents or guardians for everything – they need their parents. They don’t yet have rights in the society, they are unable to provide for themselves. So they depend on the adults who care for them for all of their needs for safety and care.
This is the kind of faithfulness Jesus asks of us. We need to approach our relationship with God with childlike faith, acknowledging our dependence on God’s grace and mercy. We need to be faithful to God in good times and in bad, even when we cannot see the big picture.
Faithfulness makes demands on us. The disciple is the one who is ready to accept those demands. The disciple makes a decision to love God and the people in his life every day. The disciple makes a decision to be faithful to his or her vocation, whatever that vocation is, every day. The disciple defends the sanctity of every human life, from the moment of conception, to the moment of natural death. The disciple makes a decision to be faithful to God and the teachings of God’s Church every day. Some days those decisions are easy, and some days they are more than challenging. But the faithful disciple, the one who accepts the Kingdom of God like a child, has the promise of entering into it.