By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

[27th Sunday in Ordinary Time]

On cursory reading, the Gospel brings us to explosive issues of the day, mainly divorce and marriage: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10: 2-16). When the issues reach the headlines, what you actually see is a “big basket”, to borrow one author’s phrase, which contains all sorts of related (or unrelated) things especially if read together with the First Reading — gender, diverse family, divorce and re-marriage, abortion, sexual orientation, reproductive health, HIV prevention, sex work, etc.

On the one hand, we see natural law theorists accusing the other side of destroying the “natural institution” of the family or tinkering what God has “naturally ordained”. On the hand, we see feminists and queer theorists of all kinds who accuse the other side of racism, misogyny and exclusion. But we also know that factions of each pole do not meet eye to eye on some basic issues. So the debate looks endless.

I think it is not helpful to use big banners to accuse the other, e.g., “purveyors of gender ideology” vs. “anti-feminists”, “culture of death” vs. “culture of life”, conservative vs. liberal, or as in the RH debate of recent memory, “Team Buhay” vs. “Team Patay”. Maybe it is useful to unpack the “big basket” as it were and locate each issue in concrete contexts, listen to all positions deeply, respect all social experiences as they are founded on fluid and plural—sometimes opposing—personal, cultural and religious traditions and sensibilities. In short, polarization and bigotry kill; respect and understanding nurture.

Since unpacking the “big basket” needs time and space, what I intend to do in this short reflection is to place the issue in perspective like what Jesus did in the gospel today. The law on divorce? It was not really like that in the beginning, Jesus begins to explain. But beyond that, God also understands our humanness.

The Greeks have a word—“epikeia”—which means to be reasonable. In Aristotle, "epikeia" exists as a corrective to enacted laws which by nature are universal, thus, limited. Universal laws could not foresee all possible circumstances. A person on the ground thus needs to digress, revise, amend the law in actual practice. The law still remains as law but "epikeia" makes it contextual, relevant, humane and compassionate. I paraphrase what the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, says: it would have been nice if we achieve what is “most humanly desirable” as all laws envision. But since all of it is not really attainable, we settle for the “most humanly possible”.

Two things I learn from the gospel.

First, humanity, respect, flexibility, listening and compassion are the characteristics of an authentic Christian community. As in the gospel, the ideal found in the law still remains. Its role is to remind us of things to which our hearts can still grow, to challenge our own blindness that constrains us, to satisfy our deep longings beyond the present horizons. But these ideals are not meant to condemn what our humanness allows. Instead, they show their own limits by attending to our human contexts. For God respects who and where we are.

Second, the privileged place goes to the “child”, the defenseless, the voiceless, the excluded. In my work with the orphans of extrajudicial killings of Payatas, there was a small girl who saw how they mercilessly shot her father right in front of her. For months after that, she was not speaking. In our trauma healing sessions, she would just stare at me. No word. Nothing. But that blank stare remains in my mind until today. It interrogates me, as if pleading and asking: "Will you also kill me?" Because if you do nothing, you are also killing me.

Another French author, Emmanuel Levinas writes: “The face, in its nudity and defenselessness, says: ‘Do not kill me’.” The naked face of the other that Levinas was referring to is the face of the helpless “orphan, widow or the stranger” begging for recognition and life. How a society listens to the naked plea of its victims shows the measure of its own humanness.

If there is any position to which we all should defer, it is not to the power of the law but to the cry of the weak, the defenseless, the marginalized. When our social rules and conventions oppress and exclude the weak, we should be up in arms to change the rule, as it were, to “kill” the law. For the law is made for humans, not humans for the law. I quote another Frenchman older than Ricoeur and Levinas by some centuries who said: “Charity is greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules lead to charity” (Vincent de Paul).

“Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”

Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, C.M.
St. John’s University
New York