Like a lot of folks in this time of pandemic, Caroline and I have been doing some home-improvement. These were some long-term plans, often deferred, but now put into action. Renovation of our downstairs bathroom, and a back room, uncovered things we didn’t know were there. We discovered a couple of layers of old wall paper, very quaint, but not to modern taste; also, a bee-hive tile floor, that had not been seen by anyone at all for many decades. A layer of ceramic concealed a cast iron tub. It’s funny: when you take something down to the joists, you see things and discover connections that you just didn’t know were there before you started digging.
Jesus is doing something like that in our Gospel reading today. He’s been asked a question about divorce, and before answering it he digs down into the story of creation. Rather than just answering it, he digs into the past, cutting into the bedrock of God’s relationship with the human race, in order to get at the Pharisees’ question. He’s clearing a path, in other words, in order to gain some purchase.
But in order to come to grips with the question, he first has to strip away some recent layers of teaching. He asks the Pharisees, “‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her’” (Mk. 10:3-4). Jesus is taking things down to the joists, bringing a sledge hammer to the pastoral practice of his own time. Then he tells them, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’” (Mk. 10:6), making his move into the foundation of the story with a quote from the first chapter of Genesis. Then a reference to the second chapter (our first reading today), “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Mk. 10:7-8). Only then, having stripped the question bare, does he say, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mk. 10:9).
Jesus’ method, of going to the root of a question, is one we see in other places in the Gospel of Mark. In the seventh chapter, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and teachers of the law for creating ways to short circuit the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. “You have a fine way,” he says, “of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” (Mk. 7:9). Once again, he’s digging down into the theological tradition of his time in order to discover what’s underneath. He’s excavating the theological strata in order to take us back to the original order of things.
What he uncovers, of course, in response to the Pharisees’ question, is our symbolic “first parents” (as St. Augustine called them): Adam and Eve, the fountainhead of the human race, created in God’s image to be the ancestors of all who followed. What Jesus uncovers, by digging into the foundation of the story, is innocence, community, and faithfulness. The roots of the story of our relationship with God are found in a garden, in peace and communion with God and each other.
Now, we could leave things here, and we would be alright, but there is another note that is sounded in our Gospel that we should not forget. That is the notion of “hardness of heart” (Mk. 10:5), which Jesus used to explain Moses’ commandment. Human hearts are hard because sin enters in, destroying innocence, community, and faithfulness. Human hearts are hard because sin makes them hard.
Earlier, in chapter seven, Jesus “zeros in” precisely on the human heart. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within” (Mk. 7:21-23). There’s a reason Jesus brings a pastoral sledgehammer when he engages these questions, because some of this is hard to root up.
Today, faithfulness moves to center stage, as we celebrate Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, and the laying on of hands in confirmation. We will all be witnesses to what God is doing in today, as we see God’s grace at work in these sacraments and sacramental rites. People will affirm and re-affirm their faith in God, and commit themselves to the faithful following of Jesus Christ.
At the same time, God will be faithful to us in giving us grace, his power and presence in our lives. God will break open our hearts, and make them capable of receiving new life and new wholeness. Through the water of baptism, and the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood, we will discover what we were made to be in the beginning, and which we still are, deep down under. We will be reconciled to God, and reconciled to each other, through the mighty action of God in Christ.