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Overcoming the Hardness of Our Hearts

In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus himself teaching about the permanence or indissolubility of marriage. He gives this teaching in the context of being questioned by the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day. They had heard through the grape-vine that this new preacher on the scene was espousing or proposing some controversial view on the subject, potentially in conflict with long- standing tradition, and they came to “test” him to see if that was the case. Quoting Genesis in two places, Jesus reasserts God’s plan for marriage “from the beginning of creation” and brings the discussion – and the whole understanding of marriage – to a new level. By referring to humanity before the Fall, Jesus implies that God’s original intention is the true standard for marriage and other human relationships. The concession allowed by the law is no longer necessary because, with Jesus, the reason for the permission for divorce – sin and hardness of heart, can be overcome. When Jesus says, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate”, he confirms that the union of husband and wife is no mere human convention but a bond made by God himself. Made male and female in the image and likeness of God, spouses are in a relationship that points them to God and which is an instrument through which God’s grace flows, through which he is present, and through which he leads them to the Kingdom of God. This is what makes marriage a sacrament. God takes something that is good on a natural level, blesses it, purifies it, elevates it, and uses it to bring the couple to a higher level. What Jesus teaches about marriage is radical – in the truest sense of the term – goes to the root of what marriage is. His teaching about divorce and remarriage was just as challenging and countercultural then as it is today. We know this by the reaction of the Pharisees and the disciples who questioned him about it. In another account, the disciples say to Jesus in shock and disbelief, “If that is the case, who then would get married?” (cf. Mt. 19:10) What Jesus proposes seems like something impossible, unfair, or unjust – too strict, given the human condition.

The problem is not with his teaching, but with the “hardness of your hearts,” says Jesus. The Pharisees are approaching Jesus with a lack of openness to what he is proposing because they have pre-judged him based on what they have heard. They approach him with skepticism, criticism, and hostility because of a fear that the system they have set up will be undermined and they will lose power and control. Jesus is perceived as a threat to what they have established – their idea of what works or what should be. They have their mind made up before they meet him. Marriage, as well as all relationships, can devolve into something combative, frightening, and hopeless when the original experience that formed the relationship is forgotten or taken for granted. Communication breaks down and the parties seek ways to dismiss each other or get out of the relationship as a way to fix the problem. It is for this reason that Jesus asks to examine the reasons for the current situation and then brings them back to the origin or genesis of the relationship. Marriage is a response to something God has done, and without this awareness that God has joined the couple together, the union cannot be sustained. Our first reading from the Book of Genesis which recalls the creation of Eve, brings us back to the original experience of marriage. Adam was suffering from solitude – being alone – and that is not “good”. It doesn’t correspond to our good to be alone because we are made in God’s image. God who is a communion of life and love – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three distinct persons living in an exchange of life- giving love. This is the origin of life and our ultimate good – what we are made for – our destiny. We have this deep need and longing for God – for love – that we cannot satisfy on our own. God makes the woman for the man to respond to man’s need and for the man to make sense of his need, for with the woman, together, they are made in God’s image. Together they point to their destiny in God. With the woman, he sees what he is made for. When the woman is seen as a gift, she points to God, the giver of the gift. “This one at last…” Adam cries. There is an answer and meaning to his longing. He is filled with wonder and awe at this “difference” in the woman that corresponds to him, the “fit” if you will. He is moved by this experience to start something new, to embrace something new – to set out on a journey and “cling” to the other that has opened him up to the meaning and purpose of his life. One interesting detail of the story is that this happens by putting Adam into a deep sleep. “Sleep” in Biblical language is always a metaphor for death. There is a dying to self that must take place for the man to recognize the gift. What moves Adam is the experience of being loved in his need – it is an experience of mercy, something that no created thing can give him. One of the things that differentiates Eve from the animals, what makes her a “suitable” partner, is that, unlike with the animals, Adam can have a conversation with her. She can speak back to him. They can have a dialogue and conversation. They can share life on an intimate level. He recognizes her as his equal. This is what he needs. One can die to self – one can be freed from hardness of heart – one becomes open to the proposal of the other when the other is perceived as a gift – someone for me, not against me, because this arrangement has been made by God. When the couple lets this experience at the beginning define them, they move forward in hope – with a certainty that a promise for fulfillment awaits them because of the surprising presence that has entered their life today. They do this – saying “yes” to the proposal – not knowing how it will all work out, without having all the answers or a fixed plan. So when difficulties or disagreements arise, they are able to compromise. Compromise literally means “with promise”. They can die to self or let go of their ideas with the promise that fulfillment is still possible as long as they remain together on the journey. When the relationship becomes, “my way or the highway” – when one thinks he is always right or a concession equals a loss or failure, then the relationship breaks down. If there is not an openness to dialogue, we reduce the relationship back to the level of the animals – a situation of hostility, prejudice, fear, biting and growling, and ultimately a return to a depressing solitude.

Our political situation has been reduced to this level, as is apparent to all who watch and listen to the news, but our marriages and our interactions in the church do not have to be that way. Anyone who is baptized and living a sacramental life or a vocation of service in the church, be it marriage or holy orders, has been called by God and given a new life that is discovered and nourished on the journey of faith together. Being a pastor is a lot like being married, albeit in an arranged marriage. But I still have to say “yes” to what the Lord proposes. Jesus is the bridegroom and his bride is the church, and the priest, conformed to Christ the high priest, sees himself in the same way in relation to the church entrusted to his care. I am certain that God, in his wisdom, has made us suitable partners for each other – for my conversion and yours. He has joined us together and has promised to be with us until the end of time. I come to you with an open heart and a desire for dialogue because we are in this together and we need each other for our happiness and the fulfillment of God’s plan in our lives – that the spiritual life at St. Charles may be fruitful and multiply. We can’t do it alone. If you have questions or concerns about proposals or changes, please, like the disciples did with Jesus, come to talk to me “in the house”, that is, in private. Any other way will lead to just an increase in hardness of heart and more divisions within the community. I will meet with you, return your phone calls, and respond to your emails. Your concerns will not be dismissed. I ask that my concerns not be dismissed either. I don’t presume to have all the answers or to know what is best. But I trust that together we will discover the way forward, accompanied by Christ, here at St. Charles.

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