27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deacon Convocation, Turf Valley
October 3, 2021
Monster or Marshmallow?
Some 50 years ago, I attended my first class at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg. It was 8 a.m., and our professor was a Dominican priest, Fr. Thomas Heath, one of three brothers who served as priests of the Order of Preachers. They looked so much alike that they were known as “heath, heathier, and heathiest.” Fr. Tom Heath was probably “heathiest” – at the time, he seemed craggy and forbidding. To top it off, he was to teach moral theology to me and my classmates, a motley crew. Fr. Heath turned out to be a wonderful priest and an excellent professor. He began that class with a question I have not forgotten after all these years. He asked, “Is God a monster or a marshmallow?”
Is God a monster who created us only to condemn us, only to lay down harsh rules, keep a running tally of our infractions, and at the end of our lives sentence us to eternal damnation? Or is God a marshmallow, an old softy, an indulgent sort of fellow who looks the other way when we sin and then rewards us eternally for doing pretty much what we darn well pleased . . . two trends, dear deacons, we can sometimes perceive in homilies! Even as a rookie, I sensed that God was neither a monster nor a marshmallow, but it was Fr. Heath who led me and my classmates to appreciate more deeply the God of love who made us in his image, so that we might love God and one another as he has loved us.
Light on a Seemingly Harsh Teaching
That said, we can’t really seem to get around the fact that some of Jesus’ teachings strike us as countercultural and harsh. In today’s cultural climate, the biblical assertion that God created human beings as “male and female” may seem out of step, to say nothing of the fact that Jesus annulled a provision for divorce in the Mosaic Law. Jesus is a merciful Savior, but in today’s Gospel, he seems to be a rigorous teacher. Even as Jesus’ disciples were so amazed that they asked him for a private explanation, we too may want Jesus to explain teachings of his that seem harsh, teachings of his that strike some of our contemporaries as “monstrous”.
In his love for us, Jesus not only provides us with an explanation, but he has also set the stage for you and me to understand the explanation he gives us, as we learn in that brief second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. In a word, we are detouring thru the 2nd reading so as to understand the Gospel!
Now, in the verse before today’s reading, the author of Hebrews teaches us that, even in our disordered world, we see Jesus “crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death” – tasting death so that you and I might live eternally. Of course, we do not see Jesus in the flesh but we do “see” Jesus by faith – in the celebration of Mass, in Eucharistic adoration, and in the poor… those you are called to serve with special love in the diaconal ministry. As you know so well, the more we see Jesus by faith, the more we become like Jesus. Being with Jesus, praying to him, and serving him in others … all this helps us to understand what our Redeemer did to save us from our sins, and how deeply he really does love us. Here is the solvent that softens a hardened heart, the cure for sclerosis of the heart!
This leads us into today’s reading from Hebrews where we are told that, in God the Father’s plan of salvation, his plan to bring “many children to glory” – it was appropriate that his Son, Jesus, be “made perfect through suffering”. Now, these words might rankle us no less than the first audience who heard them. What does it mean to say that Son of God needed to be “perfected”? Was he guilty of some sin? Was he in some way less “perfect” than the Father? The answer is that God’s Son became one of us – without sin to be sure – Out of love, he assumed the weakness of our humanity and took upon himself our sins. In the crucible of human suffering, he broke the power of sin and opened the way for our humanity to be “divinized” – to share in the glory of the Father’s life and love. Thus Jesus, our leader, became the perfect priest who offered himself to God and who has now “ordained us” … ordained us to be a holy people, a people who strive to live in the Kingdom God while still living in this passing world… who strive to become those persons whose daily lives reflect what God had in mind when he created the world in love, and then, with even greater love redeemed it. Baptism, Marriage, Holy Orders, Eucharist, and Reconciliation are bestowed on us to make us a people of self-sacrificing and reconciling love for our families, for parishioners, and for those in need . . . a people willing to follow the Teacher who loved us beyond all telling. We are to have soft and supple hearts, which soak up the teaching of Christ! We are to be like the children whom Jesus loved and blessed in today’s Gospel, for the Kingdom of God belongs to those who accept it with childlike faith and trust. Perhaps you think of this when see your own children and your children’s children.
The Teaching on Marriage and Family
Hopefully, the foregoing has prepared us now to take a second look at today’s Gospel and to see it not with the cynical eyes of the Pharisees but rather to receive it with the open minds and hearts of true disciples. Evidently, the Pharisees had heard Jesus on a prior occasion teach against divorce. They knew in a heartbeat that his teaching did not fully align with the permission Moses gave for divorce, as found in the Book of Deuteronomy. So the Pharisees asked Jesus a question, the answer to which they already knew: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” The Pharisees knew that it was.
Jesus does not fall into their trap but instead takes goes back to the beginning, to the Book of Genesis, where we read that “God made them male and female” and decreed that they live as husband and wife, to be fruitful and to multiply. Jesus adds that, what God has joined, no human authority should separate. If elements of the Mosaic Law bent to human weakness and hardness of heart, in the Kingdom of God we are to be made new, restored to what God had intended from the beginning, only more so! In the death and resurrection of Jesus, he who embodies the Kingdom of God, we are given a new power, a new grace to be and to live differently. The Kingdom of God is not a big abstract idea but in fact, it is the Person of Jesus who wants to infiltrate our hearts and to transform all our relationships, including the relationship of marriage with its many daily challenges, ranging from the most trivial to the most severe. Even the most happily married couple knows that their love is perfected as each day they take up their cross to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
Your marriages, of course, have the added dimension of diaconal ordination, and while that signals the depth of your faith and commitment, it does not spare you from the challenges of either vocation. You have perhaps noticed that diaconal ordination did not automatically address chronic faults or settle running arguments, any more than priestly and episcopal ordination automatically addresses my foibles. Icons of charity may be no more willing than other chaps to take out the garbage, to clean the gutters, and to help with housework. Lord knows that ordination does not magically calm the sturm und drang of family life, nor does it spare you of anxiety, illness and suffering, or the separation of death. Yet, the graces of holy matrimony and the graces of diaconal ordination are ways, powerful ways, in which the Lord has infiltrated your lives and those of your children, taking you by the hand, perfecting your love, and leading you day by day into the heart of his Kingdom, the Kingdom of the Beatitudes.
God, it seems, is neither a monster nor a marshmallow but rather the God of love who created us in his image, sent his Son to redeem us, and continues to pour out his mercy upon us – all in the ardent hope that he, God the Father, may see and love in us what he sees and loves in his Son, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.