THE NEW TESTAMENT'S TEACHING ABOUT MARRIAGE AND CELIBACY
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Sunday, 27th Sunday of the Year, October 04, 2015
Gen. 2:18-24, Ps. 127, Heb. 2:9-11, Mark 10:2-16
Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.
"And the Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" (Mark 10:2).
Today's gospel is about divorce. The Pharisees argue that divorce is acceptable because the law of Moses permitted it (Deut. 24:1). Jesus, however, replies that Moses only permitted divorce as a concession to human weakness because of the hardness of their hearts, but that this was not God's original plan from the beginning of creation, where Genesis says, "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). Jesus quotes this text of Genesis and then adds, "So then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Mark 10:8-9 NKJV). Then a little later Jesus goes on to say that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:11-12).
Matthew's version of this account contains an exception clause: "I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity (porneia), and marries another commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9). The problem, though, with this exception clause, "except for unchastity" (me epi porneia) is that this is not the proper normal word for the unchastity of a wife. The proper word is "adultery" (moicheia), for a wife who is not sexually faithful is committing adultery. The Catholic Church understands this verse to mean an incestuous union of a man and a woman who cannot validly marry, such as brother and sister. Their relationship is not adultery (moicheia), since no valid marriage is involved, but rather fornication (porneia). In this case such a union may be declared null and void, that is, it may be declared to be no marriage at all, since it is not a valid marriage, and so the two are free to marry someone else. This clause does not give an exception to a validly contracted marriage.
So the teaching of Jesus is clear. A true and valid marriage of a man and a woman who are free to marry each other is indissoluble. Jesus bases his teaching on Genesis 2:24 that man and wife become "one flesh." God himself has joined them together as "one flesh." "So then," Jesus says, "they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Mark 10:8-9 NKJV). This is why the Catholic Church considers divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to be living in a state of adultery, and so does not permit them to receive Holy Communion, unless they make an explicit promise before a priest to live as brother and sister.
Marriage contains great joy, the mutual body-soul love of a man and a woman for each other. It also contains a great challenge by which they are to sanctify themselves, namely that they promise to live faithfully together through thick and thin, in good times and bad, in sickness and health, until death.
In his version of this account, St. Matthew also reports that after speaking of the indissolubility of marriage, which gives marriage its stability, beauty, and strength, making it a means of sanctification, drawing the couple closer to God, Jesus then speaks of celibacy, saying, "There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it" (Matt. 19:12). As a preface to saying this, Jesus says, "All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given" (Matt. 19:11 NKJV).
Celibacy, like marriage, is also a life-long commitment, but it is focused directly on God, namely it is the commitment to live unto death in a special exclusive nuptial relationship with God that excludes a human spouse. It is a consecration. Those who accept life-long celibacy and make a public promise or vow of celibacy are consecrated persons who have committed themselves to live in an exclusive nuptial bond with Christ, so that they might be in love only with God, and not in love with a human spouse or with any other human being. In this way their heart will not be divided between a human spouse and God, but all their nuptial love and affective energy will go directly and only to God, without any division of heart, with an undivided heart. Their heart is not to be divided even by the love of a human spouse.
Celibates can therefore dedicate themselves fully to God in everything they do. They can basically live in solitude and silence for prayer and meditation, spiritual and theological reading and study, and then do their work of ministry. Celibacy is normally and best lived in a celibate community of the same sex which provides community support and protection for their way of life and also provides healthy socializing, usually at meals.
Celibacy is an inspiration for the whole Church, showing everyone what their own future will be like if they make it to the world of the resurrection, for in the world of the resurrection all will be celibate, since marriage is a good of this present life only and ends with death. That is why the woman who had seven successive husbands will have no problem deciding which one of them will be her husband in the world of the resurrection. She will have no husband at all in the world of the resurrection. Jesus said, "Those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection" (Luke 20:35-36). So those who are celibates now remind everyone of their own future. Celibates try to live now, already, in this present age, the life of the resurrection, wholly devoted to God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30) in a more literal, radical, and complete way than is possible in marriage.
St. Paul gives a beautiful description of celibate life, which he compares with marriage, saying, "The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband" (1 Cor. 7:32-34).
We see here that St. Paul emphasizes the undivided heart of the celibate in his love for God. His interests and his affections are not divided. He is in love only with God, and can then spend his life in the loving service of his neighbor. St. Paul concludes this discussion about marriage and celibacy by saying that one who marries "does well," but one who refrains from marriage "will do better" (1 Cor. 7:38), for celibacy is a higher call and a deeper walk with God than marriage. Yet both marriage and celibacy are calls from God and ways of being blessed by God and growing in holiness.
Today, however, we are faced with a new problem, so-called gay "marriage." But gay "marriage" is no marriage at all. It can in no way be considered to be marriage or even remotely analogous to marriage. Rather than being a way of holiness, it is a way of sin, rather than uniting people to God, it separates them from him. Rather than being a fulfillment of human nature, it is a perversion of human nature.
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