Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Defense of Marriage

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 4, 2009

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 22
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Psalm 26
(Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12)
Mark 10:2-16

The Defense of Marriage

Back in 1996 Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. The law, which has grown ever more controversial over the past thirteen years, declares that states do not have to recognize same-sex marriages performed and recognized in other states. The law also states that the federal government defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.

I’m going out on a limb and assume that those of us here in church today hold widely different views about this law and its attempt to “defend” marriage.

However, wherever you stand on the issue, I think we can all agree that there is nothing radical about this law. In the United States back in 1996 - and to a lesser extent today - the majority of Americans defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. So, although it raises some constitutional issues, there’s nothing at all radical about the Defense of Marriage Act – it simply wrote into law the belief of the majority.

Jesus, however, has some very radical things to say about marriage.

To understand just how radical Jesus was on marriage we need a little background on marriage and divorce in First Century Palestine.

First, contrary to what we might think, divorce was fairly common among Jews in the First Century. It was something that people simply took for granted. Jewish Law supported divorce. Here are the relevant verses from the Book of Deuteronomy:
"Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again as his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession." (Deut 24:1-4)

Notice a couple of things about this passage. In order to divorce his wife a husband simply has to find “something objectionable” about her. The rabbis debated what might be included under “something objectionable.” Some rabbis limited it to sexual misconduct while others said it could be something as seemingly trivial as preparing a bad meal or even if the husband became fond of a more beautiful woman.

Second, notice that divorce is simply taken for granted in that passage from Deuteronomy. In fact, it’s not really concerned with divorce. Instead, the concern is the first husband remarrying his former wife. Remarriage was seen as defiling the land of Israel.

Finally, and this will be no surprise, notice that the woman is powerless and voiceless. The husband writes a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her away. And in that time and place a woman divorced by her husband was in a very dire situation.

The Jewish historian Josephus, a near-contemporary of Jesus, writes that – surprise! – only a man could divorce. He also tells us that an ex-wife could only get married again with her ex-husband’s consent. Talk about adding insult to injury!

That was the world in which Jesus lived. I’m sure that everybody, or nearly everybody, simply took it all for granted. That’s just the way it is. A man can get a divorce whenever he wants to. A woman has no say. I mean, isn’t that obvious?

And so along come the Pharisees to, as the gospel tells us, “test” Jesus. Now, as we’ve mentioned before, the Pharisees probably get a bad rap in the New Testament – in part because the early Jesus movement may have been in competition with the Pharisees. We don’t know much about them but it seems like the Pharisees were devoted to ritual practices in an effort to make everyday life holy.

Some scholars think that the Pharisees disagreed among themselves about divorce. Maybe they really wanted to know what Jesus thought about divorce! In any event, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

In typical Jesus fashion, he bounces the ball back at them, asking, “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees know the law and so they refer back to that passage from Deuteronomy.

It’s here that Jesus does something unexpected and radical. Jesus tells them that the law about divorce was given because of human hardness of heart.

I don’t know about you, but the instructions about divorce in Deuteronomy sound pretty hard to me. I have some trouble imagining what could be more hardhearted than to be just handed the divorce certificate and shown the door. But then again human beings are always able to come up with some kind of cruelty.

Jesus, it turns out, is not so concerned with Deuteronomy. Instead Jesus offers the ultimate defense of marriage by reaching all the way back to the beginning of the tradition – to the creation account in the Book of Genesis. Jesus says that in the Adam and Eve story we see God’s intention for marriage.

In that very familiar story God realizes it is not good for human beings to be alone and so God attempts to create for Adam a “helper as his partner.” So, first God creates the birds and the animals for man to name. But, as nice as the animals were none of them quite cut it as a helper or partner.

Obviously you know what happens next in the story. God creates woman. Adam says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” One of my Old Testament professors in seminary translated Adam’s words as, “Now that’s more like it.”

By drawing us all the way back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden, Jesus defends marriage by reminding us what it’s all supposed to be about. Marriage is a great gift from God so that we can share our lives with another who helps to carry our burdens and share our joys – to be both helper and partner. The bond of marriage is so close that we become, as Jesus says, “one flesh.”

Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that marriage in their own time – and perhaps our own – has become twisted and distorted. If a man can simply toss out his wife because of a bad meal then we are a long way from sharing the joys and burdens of life – we’re a long way from being both helper and partner, we’re a long way from becoming one flesh.

Jesus is radically defending marriage by reminding the Pharisees and us what marriage is all about. It’s not about handing out certificates of divorce and tossing your wife out of the house. Marriage is also not about legalisms, pre-nuptial agreements, quickie weddings and quickie divorces in Vegas, or serial monogamy.

Jesus radically defends marriage by reminding us that marriage is about being both helper and partner.

Which brings us to the hard teaching in today’s gospel. Jesus privately tells his disciples, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

First, notice even here Jesus is radically challenging the status quo. Even suggesting that a woman could divorce her husband must have seemed bizarre to the disciples.

Hopefully the context of First Century marriage and divorce helps us to understand what Jesus is saying. But, it’s still a hard teaching and the Church has struggled with applying this hard teaching from the very beginning.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes that followers of Jesus who are married to unbelievers should stay married. But he includes an exception to that rule, writing, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound.” (1 Cor. 7:12-16)

In the Gospel of Matthew, written after Mark, Jesus’ teaching is softened a bit. In Matthew Jesus says, as saying, “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.” (Matt. 5:32)

In the centuries since the Church has recognized that life – and particularly married life – is complicated and so the Church has struggled with Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Many of you know the solution of the Catholic Church known as an annulment – in which the Church declares there never was a valid marriage so there is no obstacle in remarrying.

In the Episcopal Church the canons on marriage evolved until 1973 when remarriage was allowed in the church with the bishop’s permission.

There are still some hardliners who think that Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Mark about divorce are very clear and we should simply stick to that.

But, when we put today’s gospel passage into the context of First Century Judaism and especially into the context of the whole Gospel we know that we are called to offer love and not condemnation. And if we really listen to what Jesus is saying, we recognize that Jesus isn’t primarily concerned with divorce.
Instead, Jesus is radically defending marriage by calling us back to the heart of marriage – two becoming one and serving as partners and helpers through the joys and burdens of life.

For those of us who are married, let us pray that God will give us grace to strengthen our marriages.

And may all of us always support those who are married and those who are divorced with love and compassion.