Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people,
"Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors--Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor--lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the desert a long time. Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. Then King Balak son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand.
"When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not laboured, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves you did not plant.
Some Pharisees came to Jesus, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
They said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?" He said to them, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery."
His disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." But he said to them, "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can."
If the Bible calls for heroic love and fidelity on the part of Israel, it first recalls God's sublime kindness towards his chosen people. Today's text from Joshua represents a typical covenant ceremony at Shechem, a major sanctuary in central Israel. When people had taken their places before the tabernacle, they recited a well known "credo"--similar to other formulas found in Deut 6:20-25 and 26:3-11. Israel's origins were not the best; their ancestors "served other gods," yet God led the patriarchs to the promised land and freely entered a covenant with them. After the exodus from Egypt and the wandering in the desert, God brings them over the Jordan to "a land you did not till and cities you did not build,; vineyards and olive groves you did not plant." Israel's sacred history was an account of God's initiative and continual kindness, always exceeding what they deserved.
Jesus restates God's original design for marriage: "a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become as one." Recognising the heroic conditions for marriage that this implies, his disciples wonder, "Is it better not to marry?" Jesus explicitly states that lifelong fidelity is possible only for "those to whom it is given to do so." Fidelity is a divinely-based promise undertaken by husband and wife, heroic in one sense, yet normal in another way. God's grace of sacramental marriage, helping and motivating the spouses, transforms this high demand into routine daily affection and respect toward each other. Not only does Jesus go beyond the tradition of Moses to re-state our Creator's original ideal for marriage, but he adds that, for the sake of the kingdom, some are called to celibacy. Some are held to the single life by birth defects or by other causes; others are drawn to it by a free decision. Gospel celibacy can be received and lived as a special grace, freeing us for fuller service to God and our fellow human beings, on the example of Jesus himself.
Maximilian Kolbe's offering his life in the grim cell in Auschwitz concentration camp, to save a fellow-prisoner, the father of a family, is a stirring example of that heroic love and fidelity to which Christians are sometimes called, in circumstances so extreme that we can hardly imagine what our own response might be.
In today's gospel, the leaders are presented as testing Jesus, because his teaching on marriage went much further than what the Jewish law required. They suspected that Jesus would go against what Jewish law allowed regarding marriage, viz. divorce in certain circumstances. Their suspicions were well founded. His ideal of marriage was more radical than what Jewish law required. He called on men and women to marry for life, appealing to the book of Genesis to support this teaching. We are all aware that many marriages do not last for life; relationships break down, and people go their separate ways. That is the reality. The gospels show that Jesus knew how to accept the reality of people's lives; he engaged with people as they were. He relates to all of us in the concrete situation of our lives. Yet, he also had a vision, God's vision, for human life, including married life. He proclaimed that vision while continuing to relate in a loving way to all who could not reach it, for whatever reason. That includes us all, because none of us lives up fully to the values Jesus proclaimed and lived. There will always be that two-fold aspect to Jesus' relationship with us; he loves us where we are, but keeps calling us beyond where we are.