Homily notes: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, 3 October 2021

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ 24 September 2021

The community of disciples, as the “beachhead” of the Kingdom in the world, are called to live out and bear witness to this original ideal.

Lectionary reading
First reading:
Genesis 2:18-24
Responsorial Psalm: 127(128)
Second reading: Hebrews 2:9-11
Gospel: Mark 10:2-16.

Link to readings.


The issue of marriage and divorce, which is the common theme between the First Reading and the Gospel today, appears rather intrusively at this point in Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus has been instructing his disciples concerning his coming passion. The next issue will be that of the detachment discipleship will require in the matter of wealth. It may be that St. Mark has placed these two issues – radical fidelity in married life and radical detachment in the matter of wealth – one after the other at this point as concrete illustrations of the demands of discipleship. That is, both have to do with areas where the following of Jesus takes on a path that runs strongly counter to prevailing customs and standards – something as valid, of course, in our own day as in the time of Jesus 

That said, any pastor would be aware that no Sunday Gospel read out through the year that will require more sensitive handling than this one. Any congregation today will include a considerable number of people in second marriages or people with family members in that situation. In many, if not most cases, the situation will have come about through circumstances beyond their control or from which they cannot now responsibly free themselves. To simply read out the rulings of Jesus in the Gospel without comment or nuance would be to turn Gospel into Law and simply add to a burden of guilt that may already be oppressive.

It does seem clear from the New Testament record that Jesus did rule out divorce and remarriage. This was something that set his community’s standards in the matter clearly apart from what prevailed in the Judaism of his day and in the wider Greco-Roman world. That said, we must take into account that life expectancy in the ancient world was less than half that prevailing in developed Western societies today. Moreover, Jesus and the early community lived in the expectation that the world as presently constituted was soon – perhaps in the very same generation – going to pass away (cf. Mark 9:1).

Contemplation of a second marriage in such a situation would have been a very different proposition from what it is in societies where people live much longer and where the sense that the present shape of the world is going to be around indefinitely prevails. Already the “exceptive clause” in the version of Jesus’ rulings on divorce in Matthew’s Gospel (5:32; 19:9) shows some accommodation to new situations in which believers found themselves. Moreover, the reality is that people make mistakes and relationships fail – something which longer life span and the high premium currently placed upon personal freedom and development make more prevalent. The Church has to find a way to help people grow through failure and find in it an experience of grace and deepened knowledge of God.

Jesus’ restoration of lifelong fidelity in marriage reclaims the original design of God expressed in the creation story of Genesis 2-3. The First Reading, Gen 2:18-24 offers an extract from this to which Jesus makes appeal in the Gospel. What we have in the text is not “history” but an “aetiological narrative”: a story cast back in the time of origins to account for what is or what ought to be in the present—here the social institution of marriage. Making no mention of procreation, the text displays a remarkable sense of the companionship, friendship and mutual recognition in love that should surround sexual union. The love expressed in the union of two in one flesh should simply be the most intimate physical expression of a commitment in companionship and intimacy, embracing the totality of life.

The Mosaic law did not “permit” divorce. It simply recognised it as a reality in human life and sought, on “harm minimisation process”, to reduce the harsh effects it could have on women. The bill of divorce certified that she was free from any suspicion of having simply abandoned her husband (Deut 24:1-4). Jesus in the Gospel, Mark 10:2-12 (13-16), insists that this provision, which he sees as introduced by Moses because of human “hardness of heart,” must yield before the initial design of the Creator revealed in the creation story standing at the head of the Bible. The Kingdom of God, the onset of which is the background to all his teaching, seeks to reclaim this original design of the Creator or, better, to bring it to realisation for the first time. The community of disciples, as the “beachhead” of the Kingdom in the world, are called to live out and bear witness to this original ideal.

In the Second Reading, from Heb 2:9-11, the idea of God “making perfect through suffering” may need some nuance; biblical thought does not clearly distinguish consequence (operative here) from intention.

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media