It is not good for us to be alone. The Jewish people, and the early Christian church, understood the communal nature of our relationship with God and each other. This message is often forgotten in our individualistic culture, let alone in today’s hierarchical Church which too often excludes individuals and groups from the table. Today’s readings make clear that our joy, as well as our salvation, is to be found in welcoming and being in relationship with each other. Today’s Gospel Acclamation, from the 1st letter of John, says “If we love one another, God remains in us.” There is no path to God that we can take independently of our spouse, our children, or our neighbor – the Word made flesh in those around us.
Today’s Gospel has the optional extended version that includes what at first seems like a rather abrupt shift from Jesus’ teaching on divorce to his blessing of the children. But if we take the Gospel as a whole, Jesus’ example of the children provides us a lens not only to better understand the first half of the Gospel, but the creation story in Genesis, as well. And through this lens, we realize the Gospel has a message for everyone – not just those who are married. Far from merely a theological dispute on divorce, today’s Gospel reminds us how to treat one another, or better yet, how to receive one another. Jesus is less concerned about legitimate or illegitimate grounds for divorce than he is with the condition of our hearts.
Children have a profound gift of reminding us how to live in the world with openness, full of wonder and curiosity and delight toward both the natural world and those who inhabit it. I took my 4-year old daughter to a playground recently and watched her so easily gravitate toward another girl close to her age. There was little communication before they began running around, squeals and giggles in their wake.
As we were leaving, my daughter lamented having to part ways from her new “best friend.” “What was your friend’s name?” I asked. “Hmmm…I don’t know!” Her response revealed we clearly have some social etiquette to work on…it’s good to call one another by name. But on the other hand, her simple delight in another human being, her open heart toward someone she hardly even knew, was such a witness for me. My interactions with strangers feel so sterile by comparison; the biases and stereotypes – both conscious and not – inevitably build walls around my heart and limit my own ability to approach others with wonder and curiosity.
This sense of original joy is what stood out for me in today’s first reading from Genesis. This beautiful creation story reveals God’s longing for Adam’s joy. God longs for him to have a suitable partner to share life with. It reveals the divine intention for equality, mutuality, and partnership. And when this partner is created, when Adam first beholds the woman, his delight is palpable: this one, at last, he says…in her he sees the wonder and joy of his longing. Open hearts, unabashed joy. This is what God longs for all of us. This is the story of our creation. To welcome life open heartedly, as Adam welcomed the mother of life.
Jesus addresses divorce in today’s gospel to show how far the Pharisees’ understanding had come from God’s original longing for us. According to Mosaic law husbands could divorce their wives with very little cause, leading to the abuse and exploitation of women. Jesus quotes the line from Genesis to make the point that the purpose of marriage was lifelong mutuality, not dominance of one party by the other. Spouses cannot treat each other as property to be dismissed or discarded. No one is disposable. Jesus was calling out the hardness of their hearts.
Jesus’ frustration is only exacerbated when people start bringing children to him and the disciples rebuke them. Children, of course, were also without legal rights like women under 1st Century divorce law, so these back-to-back incidents not only reflect Jesus’ frustration with the cold-hearted men he was conversing with, they reflect his own tender heart’s concern for the powerless and marginalized.
Who are the people we dismiss? Perhaps a family member, former friend, or colleague who we perceive as a threat to our ambition? Do we dismiss ideas from people who are younger or older than us, or those with less education? Do we dismiss others who look different, act differently, or speak a different language than us? Do we dismiss those who don’t share our Catholic faith, or perhaps those who do but possess different political views?
Jesus welcomed and embraced the little children and challenged all those who thought they were better, smarter, holier, and more important and said, this is how you should be… Open your heart…allow the innocence and trust and joy that Adam had in the garden before pride, deceit, and the desire for power over others blinded all of us to the simple beauty of God’s creation. A beauty only fully realized when it is shared.
See one another with delight. See one another. Too often we don’t.
Sarah Attwood Otto
Sarah Attwood Otto
Sarah Otto earned her Master of Divinity from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. She graduated with a Religious Studies degree from Santa Clara University in 2007 and served a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Portland, OR. She is a retreat director and spiritual director at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta, GA. Prior to retreat ministry, Sarah worked in college campus ministry at Providence College and directed the Newman Catholic Center in Chico, CA. She and her husband (and fellow minister), Andy, have two children who deepen their experience of the mystery of God in a myriad of ways!
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