During one of my scriptural methodology courses, I was assigned to critique Quentin Quesnel’s ground- breaking Catholic Biblical Quarterly article Eunuchs for the Sake of the Kingdom (vol. 30, no. 3). Among other things, Quesnel’s redaction study of Matthew 19:1-12 demonstrated that the disciple’s oft-quoted statement, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry,” had been misinterpreted for almost 1700 years. Matthew’s Jesus not only condemns such an attitude, his response to it zeros in on the heroic dimension of Christian married love.
After making our class presentation on the article, I and my co-critic made a confession. “By discovering what Matthew was actually trying to convey in this passage, we uncovered some selfish aspects of celibacy.” Hands immediately shot into the air. Every student (almost all priests, nuns, and brothers) who read Quesnel’s article had arrived at the same conclusion! Though our seminary/convent training stressed the generosity of a celibate commitment, our sacred authors consistently stress the generosity of committing to one specific individual for a lifetime. For some celibates, loving all people equally could simply be a cop-out from totally giving themselves totally to one person - come hell or high water. It’s against this background of personal commitment to spouses and families that we must listen to today’s three readings.
Sirach treats the uniqueness of family relationships. He expects Yahweh’s followers to relate differently to their parents than they relate to others. Though we understandably can be impatient with dementia-plagued people, it should never happen with parents. The preferred reading of verses 13 & 14 is, “Even if your father’s mind fails, be considerate with him; revile him not in the fullness of your strength. For kindness to a father will not be forgotten . . . .“ We’re expected to cut our parents much more slack than we cut anyone else.
The Pauline disciple responsible for the letter to the Colossians reminds us what the risen Jesus expects of his/her followers. “Brothers and sisters,” he writes, “put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.
Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. . . .” Special people are expected to act in special ways.
Then the writer directs our uniqueness to those special people around us: wives, husbands, children. Though we today might nuance some of the writer’s commands (e.g. “Wives be subordinate to your husbands!”), the basic concept is that our love of family must be as total as Jesus’ love of us. No loopholes!
Many modern commentators - even the editors of National Geographic! - question the historicity of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. But no one questions the dedication of Joseph to his wife and son. Matthew might have created this narrative to demonstrate that Jesus, like Moses, was “called out of Egypt.” Yet he presumes commitment to one’s family often creates situations in which one’s security is found only within that family, not outside it. How many reading this commentary have “pulled up roots” more than once for the sake of family?
We must never forget that when Paul encouraged the unmarried in I Corinthians 7 to emulate his “unmarried status,” he was expecting Jesus’ Parousia in the near future. He never seems to have envisioned followers of Jesus living a “non-Parousia” lifetime without making a lifetime commitment to a specific spouse and family.
Once, when I was having a major “disagreement” with a small group of parishioners, the chair of our priests’ personnel board called, offering me the pastorate of another parish. Though grateful for his concern, I asked if non-celibates were offered a similar option when they experienced family problems. (I’m still in the parish.)