“Jesus emphasises the importance of children’s dignity … So many have been scarred by the adults in their lives” – Bishop Donal McKeown

04 Oct 2021

In the last weeks Jesus has been challenging the disciples to understand the mystery of who He is.  Jesus tells them three times that He will be crucified and says the little ones are the most important.  Now He is confronted by some Pharisees about what they hope will be a tricky issue for Jesus.  As ever, He answers in a way that goes far beyond what the specific point of law to which they want to limit him to.  What did He expect His listeners to learn 2000 years ago – and what does it say to us today?

Firstly, there is the constant danger of thinking like the Pharisees and assuming that Jesus is concerned just about marriage law.  He is not.  And we miss the point if believers think this is merely a useful teaching of Jesus with which we can condemn divorce.  Jesus always proclaims a bigger picture.  The Pharisees’ question wants to undergird the practice that men have the right to divorce their wives, if they are unhappy.  Even the apostles have that assumption.  But Jesus goes back to Creation.  The Old Testament Law may well have legislated for what happens where there are break-ups in relationships – but Jesus emphasises that God’s dream for creation calls us to believe in committed partnerships, built on trust and maturity.  Just as God is revealed as a Trinity, a God-in-relationship – so human beings are called to be like that in relationship, in partnership and mutually complementarity.  God wants to renew and heal the world that has been scarred by the original sin of disobeying God.  God wants to heal division, not merely legislate for how to deal with it.

This teaching is equally important today when the cultural emphasis falls so heavily on the individual and my wants.  That has promoted a society where commitment and partnership are seen as limiting me, rather than a blessing.  Notice at the end of this passage how Jesus emphasises the importance of children’s dignity.  When the wants of the solo adult come first, faithfulness is seen as a bind and children can suffer terribly.  So many have been scarred by the adults in their lives.  Can we reflect on this radical divine call to promoting trusting, supportive long-term relationships that are never just about me?  A society afraid of commitment is its own worst enemy.  Jesus challenges us to use our freedom in order to build up and never as an excuse for selfish irresponsibility.

Secondly, this Gospel passage deals with the dignity and complementarity of men and women.  Jesus refers back to the second page of the Bible where the radical equality of male and female is stressed as being part of the Divine creation.  Saint Paul would later talk about there being no distinctions in the Body of Christ between male and female.  We have a lot of work to do in Church to take that on board, for the temptation to seek superiority is strong in every fallen human being.  But we know from the news that there is a tsunami of violence against women and children.  Just like the Pharisees, many political leaders talk as if the main solution to this is to be found in more laws and policing.  Legislation and law-enforcement are important.  But we also need to address the reality of a society that is wallowing in violence as entertainment, and pornography.  More laws alone will not develop maturity when there is vast profit to be made in promoting irresponsibility.  Jesus calls people of every age to build unity through respect.  It means, like Adam, discovering the beauty of the Other.  When an identity-politics society portrays the Other as threat or as a toy to play with, it is killing itself.  There is no healing in pitting men against women.  Relationships, commitment and love of the Other build a healthy society.  A society where faithfulness is prioritised will thrive.  That is what Jesus underlines. 

Thirdly, I love seeing couples in love.  That is a grace-filled vocation and ministry in the Church.  But today Jesus is telling us that complementarity should mark all relationships in Church and not merely male-female unions.  This Divine vision says much about how we should be parishes.  The Bible includes many references to the Church as family under the fatherhood of God.  Jesus talks about those who hear the Word of God and keep it as being his brothers and sisters.  Thus, the emphasis on synodality is at the heart of building a family of faith, most especially in a fragmenting society.

Being, listening and praying together is an expression of our radical equality before God.  Making room for the talents and uncomfortable wisdom of all is not merely an option but an obligation as we celebrated our prophetic unity in the Body of Christ.  And that applies in its own way to the relationship between the parish community and its clergy.  It, to, has echoes of a spousal relationship of love.  It is a call to care for each other.  The priest has to love his people and treat them with dignity as brothers and sisters, whether they are his friends or not.  That means sacrificing himself so that they know the love and mercy of God.  Parish communities thrive when they know that the priest loves them, respects their uniqueness and history and walks with them.  The priest needs to know that he is not merely a supplier of services as required, but a fellow pilgrim, a fellow disciple who needs support and who can benefit from being challenged in love.  Jesus challenges us to let grace make us into light for the world and salt for the earth.  A parish that thinks it is enough to be merely an efficient administrative unit needs to hear today’s readings.  If we do not model Christ’s dream for a renewed world, then we have nothing of God to offer, no matter how many prayers we say or how fine our buildings are.  Synodality is a call to build a mature parish family through grace – and thus witness to healing through complementing one another.

Jesus seeks to remake the world by calling us all to a change of heart – and not merely by bringing in new laws.  We unite round the Lord at Mass to be nourished with this vision and to be strengthened by the Eucharist.  The Mass contains a recognition of sin and a need for forgiveness, the Word of God and a celebration of our unity in the Body of Christ.  We share in the Body of Christ which Jesus gives out of love for us.  He asks us to learn from, give thanks for, and model a graced way of being human.  In a community that cherishes faithfulness, life-long commitments will be cherished.  This Gospel speaks to us all and not just to the married.

  • Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry.  The homily was preached by Bishop McKeown yesterday, the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, in Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry.

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