Proper 22, Year B
I want to say this up front about this Sunday's gospel:
A lot of conservatives point to this as containing the heart of what Jesus had to say about God's creative intent for human sexuality. I agree with them completely on that point -- but Jesus' word to us, I believe, challenges idolatry of American "traditional family values" as much as it undermines our culture's worship of every romantic impulse. In other words, this Sunday a lot of us are going to find ourselves pushed to think beyond cultural myths of marriage to ask ourselves what God really wants for us in relationship with one another.
It's a question posed in this Sunday's gospel, some Pharisees come to Jesus as a fellow teacher to ask his opinion on a subject that was in many ways just as "hot" of a topic in first-century Jewish communities as it is in many twenty-first century cultures -- namely marriage.
They ask Jesus a question that a lot of teachers were asked: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? They didn't see need to ask whether a woman could divorce her husband -- there weren't all that many women who would want to do such a thing. In the first-century Mediterranean world, a woman's honor is embedded in that of her father until she's married, and her husband when she is married. A woman who for whatever reason needed to leave her husband had better hope that her father would take her back. Otherwise, without a male attachment, she would be perceived as a "loose woman" on more than one dimension. Most women in such a situation had few options for making a living, and as "damaged goods," little prospect of remarriage. If their fathers would not take them back, many would have no option to survive aside from prostitution. Still, a lot of debate about marriage and divorce didn't treat it so much as a question about what would happen to the women as a question of contract law related to the agreement between the fathers who arranged the marriage.
Many teachers saw the question in more explicitly theological terms, though, insisting that the central question to ask is what it means to be the people of the God of Israel. Among other things, that meant thinking of he survival of Israel, of ensuring that there would be future generations to honor God. With Jewish people being a tiny minority in the Roman Empire, under threat as a distinct people not only by oppression from without, but also, in the eyes of many, by slow attrition, as Greek culture continued to deepen its influence. Especially under such circumstances, it's not hard to understand how many rabbis would respond to a question about God's purpose for human sexuality by pointing to Genesis 1, and in particular to God's command -- it wasn't just an idle suggestion! -- to "be fruitful and multiply."
Men wanted heirs to pass along the family name and honor, and that certainly played a role in thinking about marriage and divorce, but it was also an issue of God's imperative. God commanded us to "be fruitful and multiply." If a marriage wasn't going to be "fruitful" with children, that was more than rotten luck; it was taken by some as a sign that the relationship wasn't blessed by God. And (how unusual!) it was often assumed that the fault for a "barren" marriage was with the woman.
For all of these reasons, the most common reason for men wanting a divorce in the ancient world was that the marriage wasn't "fruitful" -- wasn't producing children, and to all indications, wasn't going to later either. And if, as many thought, God's purpose for marriage was to "be fruitful and multiply," building up future generations who would carry on not only the family name, but the name of the God of Israel, why should anyone stay in a "fruitless" marriage? Why not divorce?
All that's to say that few would be surprised to hear that when Jesus was asked about divorce, he quoted from the book of Genesis to ask what is God's purpose of marriage and what kinds of behavior best uphold that.
But then Jesus quoted from the wrong chapter.
Jesus starts with an affirmation from Genesis 1: that all people, women and men, are made in God's image. That deep truth of who we are as God's children must be upheld in whatever else we say about human relationships. But when Jesus wants to say more about God's intention for marriage, he doesn't go to Genesis 1; he goes to Genesis 2. As Orthodox rabbi Steven Greenberg points out, Genesis 1 is a story in which humans aren't at all distinct from animals in terms of what God says to them about sexuality; humans and animals are told to "be fruitful and multiply" in precisely the same terms. It's in Genesis 2 that God's creative intent for <i>human</i> sexuality as something potentially distinct from animals' is hinted at. As Greenberg argues, we see it in the first mention of Genesis, after God's repeatedly looking at Creation and proclaiming its goodness, that something is "not good":
"It is not good that the human should be alone" (Genesis 2:18).
God creates us for community. To become more fully who we are, who God made us to be, we need to walk alongside another who will be with us for the long haul, who sees us at our best and our worst and will tell us the truth about both, who knows us deeply and loves us unconditionally. Theologians (who always love coming up with impressive-sounding words) like to call this dimension of marriage the "unitive dimension." I prefer over that technical phrase the description from the rock band U2: "We're one/but we're not the same/we get to carry each other" ("One"). But perhaps the best description -- certainly one of the oldest, and also the one to which Jesus pointed -- is the one of Genesis 2: the two become one flesh, and are naked, and not ashamed. With people made in God's image and created for self-giving love, that's an amazing experience of God's glory, God's creativity, and God's goodness.
So in Jesus' eyes, what we say about marriage must be guided by two points. First, it's got to recognize that God created humankind, both male and female, in God's image (and if I may digress, I have to underscore that the point here is that all humankind is made in God's image, rather than that a man without a woman or a woman without a man does NOT reflect God's image; the phrasing makes that clear enough, but the sheer ridiculousness of suggesting, for example, that single people -- such as Jesus of Nazareth, or St. Paul, for example! -- don't reflect God's image as well as any given heterosexual couple makes the suggestion unfathomable beyond its apparent usefulness for grinding contemporary theopolitical axes). Second, it's got to uphold that "unitive" dimension of relationship -- the "it is not good for a human to be alone" of Genesis 2.
As to the third point that people often bring up when discussing God's intention for marriage -- namely the command to "be fruitful and multiply" -- I have to say not just that Jesus was completely silent with respect to it, but that he seems to have rejected it.
His teaching regarding remarriage after divorce makes that clear. The most common reason a man in Jesus' culture would have wanted a divorce was if the marriage wasn't going to do what many men and women thought all marriages were for -- namely to produce children who could serve as heirs. Jesus' word on marriage pulls the rug out from under that. Jesus says, in effect, that a man who leaves his wife in hope of finding another marriage "fruitful" with children shouldn't have children at all. Women and men, Jesus teaches, aren't for use as baby factories or tickets to respectability, and a relationship isn't to be taken up or put aside with those things in mind.
Put positively, Jesus is saying that a marriage, like any other relationship, shouldn't be evaluated based on its perceived "fruitfulness" in terms of children, but based what St. Paul would call its fruitfulness in the Spirit. A relationship between two people that helps both live more fully in the world their identity and vocation as human beings made in God's image is blessed by God. Other considerations are peripheral.
In the first-century Mediterranean world, this word from Jesus was a profoundly liberating word. It may be that some of what Jesus had to say about divorce is less directly applicable to our culture, in which many women can and do make a living -- and one in accordance with their vocation as a daughter of God -- without having to rely on a father's whim or a husband's name, a woman's chances for remarriage are often not lower than a man's, and childlessness is far from the top reason for divorce. Conservatives are right, I think, in underscoring most the points that Jesus took from the beginning, from Genesis.
These points still constitute a profoundly challenging word to us, to be sure. Upholding marriage as the journey of two who have become "one flesh" challenges our culture's idolatry of romance, in which any powerful current of emotion or sexual attraction is interpreted as an entitlement to take up or set aside another human being like a toy or a prop. Understanding that we were created from the beginning for community, for deep communion, means that Christian communities must help to meet that need, recognizing that "it is not good for a human being to be alone" and committing to journey with one another intentionally, not leaving fulfillment of that basic and universal human need to romantic accident. Recognizing that all humankind -- all women and men -- are made in God's image and blessed by their Creator challenges us to overcome our culture's insistence that pairing up and parenthood are a universal call or at the very least a necessary component of "success" as a human being; it calls us to affirm the vocations and wholeness of those who are called, in Jesus' shocking terms, "eunuchs for God's kingdom" -- wholly available to a vocation as a "single" person in terms of marriage and children, but not at all alone when Christian community is "fruitful" in the Spirit. Those challenges can be daunting, but taking them up has the potential to set us free for authentic right relationship with one another -- each loved uniquely as God's child, each challenged and supported to grow in community.
Thanks be to God!
Sarah: Hi Again!
As we've talked, my faith was profoundly shaken when I read Borg and +Spong. Since that time I have found reading your blog has helped me regain (coming full circle ?) and truly believing and trusting in God again. This part really spoke to me:
"But perhaps the best description -- certainly one of the oldest, and also the one to which Jesus pointed -- is the one of Genesis 2: the two become one flesh, and are naked, and not ashamed. With people made in God's image and created for self-giving love, that's an amazing experience of God's glory, God's creativity, and God's goodness."
I now see that life has a purpose and human's have a specific purpose and this purpose isn't serendipitous. That God has to be source of purpose and director/conductor that we live and move and have our being. (simply, we just didn't happen by accident, that God is responsible).
This is absolutely wonderful...
"Put positively, Jesus is saying that a marriage, like any other relationship, shouldn't be evaluated based on its perceived "fruitfulness" in terms of children, but based what St. Paul would call its fruitfulness in the Spirit."
I think it should be on a bumper sticker!!!
I also think so many people think in terms of products, i.e. children, money, property. We don't focus on how much love we recieve and certainly on the love we give to one another. Can loving couple can be as rich as a family of five? I've seen it and usually there is an extended family i.e. neices, nephew's, friends, their church family.
The community thing reminds me of a blog by an Episcopal priest in Virginia. I'm leaving the link. I see a connection, a big connection between what you have pointed out and what he points out.
The article is called "living the vision...Shaping the Future."
Thank you, your a great help!
Posted by: Bob in Wash Pa | Oct 5, 2006 8:56:12 PM
great stuff, Dylan. Really good this week!
Posted by: maggi | Oct 6, 2006 2:52:21 AM
This passage is curious to me.
First, Jesus refers back to Moses and what he said. Yet, divorce to the ancients was unnecessary for the purpose of wanting to switch women since they certainly were not monogomists to begin with. Overwhelmingly they were polygynists. Why did they need a law about divorce as we think of it now? If one wife wasn't producing children, they could/did take another easily enough. They took new wives to seal land deals and broker political aliances all the time. (And to produce children) I suggest that divorce laws were on the books to deal with contractual complexities of land/power/money that had transferred between a father and husband in a marriage deal.
I'm not sure I can make the jump about Jesus' silence of the command to be fruitful as a condemnation of women being 'baby factories.' Although I'm sure he would not have condoned this thinking, I don't see the tie in this passage to such. I do think he was trying to level the power playing field for women and was trying to set parameters for a more equitable situation for them. I don't believe that 'monogomy' was a 'sacred' issue yet ... as it wasn't for the church for ages to come!
Reading from a propositional paper put together in April 2004; A Catholic History of Marriage by Stephen Schloessers, Professor of History Boston College, up until 1968-69 the church held fast to two ends for marriage: primary being procreation and secondary being a remedy for concupiscence (falling in line with Augustine and Paul and who before them??) The idea of community in marriage is a relatively new concept that began to evolve during the early 19th century (Charles Dickens portrayals of a man deserving a warm fire, supper on the table homecoming.) Marriage didn't even become 'sacramental' til the 12th century and then only due to land disputes and the desire for political power (via land ownership) to remain seated in Rome.
All that to say, I suggest that perhaps Jesus' silence on the 'be fruitful and multiply' reason for marriage is more because this command had been and still was being accomplished through legitimate concubine/multiple wives avenues in Judiasm. Perhaps 'it' just wasn't tied all that strongly the need for divorce clarification.
Jesus is also silent on the use of marriage for concupiscence. This must have been a prevalent and acceptable purpose for 'marriage' in Judiasm at the time as Paul addresses it rather openly and freely and with endorsement. If silence speaks to the 'fruitful' issue (as perhaps it does) then did his silence address this acceptable purpose for marriage as well?
I wish it had, but if he intended his silence to address both these issues, the Church has certainly been deaf to both for an extremely long time.
I appreciate your thoughtfulness to this tough passage, Dylan.
Posted by: Sherri | Oct 6, 2006 10:15:57 AM
Many thanks for your thoughtful comments, Sherri! Perhaps I could have been clearer -- while polygamy certainly was practiced (or even encouraged) in Jewish families in earlier centuries, monogamy was the norm in marriage by the first century under the Roman Empire. Men could and did have mistresses, of course, but the production of 'legitimate' heirs would require divorce and remarriage. I'm with you on marriage not being considered sacramental until MUCH later, but I think close reading of St. Paul's writings -- e.g., his use of sibling language for Christian spouses as for all other Christians -- suggests that Paul thought of the ideal qualities in marital relationships between Christians as corresponding in every way to ideal qualities in relationships between Christians in general. In other words, while Schloessers' terms would be anachronistic for Paul, from what you say of Schloessers' position, it sounds like his view of marriage as community is compatible at least with what Paul says. And Paul clearly does say that sexual desire is a good reason to marry *if* other criteria are met (interestingly enough, given that marriages in Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures in the first century were generally arranged between the fathers of the prospective couple, parental approval never appears among those criteria). In short, I would indeed say that too much of the Church has all too often been deaf to the radical edge of Jesus' teaching and Paul's -- not just on the subject of marriage, but on many other issues. That sort of thing seems to happen a lot when reform movements are co-opted by the mainstream; fortunately, it seems the Spirit is still active in inspiring prophetic voices to challenge that dynamic!
Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Oct 6, 2006 10:42:47 AM
Thanks for your reply.
I appreciate your insights on Paul and his use of sibling language that included spouses. It then raises the question in me, to which community was Paul actually giving greater weight - marriage relationships or Christian community relationships? Was he seductively suggesting deluting, to some degree, the marriage relationship by using sibling language and at the same time elevating the value of the Christian community relationships to family-heir status? Paul seemingly struggles with someone committing to a marriage (in his time frame mindset) and it's potential interference with a commitment to this fledging new spiritual community of Jesus followers. I wonder: Would we ever see that context revisited? Would the commitment to the survival of the Christian community ever take precedence over marriage? Jesus seems to offer words that would fuel Paul's thinking here.
I suggest that there is not enough weight given to the "property" component that has been continually intertwined with marriage throughout the ages. I think it continues to be culturally relevant today ... in Western cultures I see it taking on a more personal link, e.g. Christian weddings still present images of women actually BEING the property that is being acquired in the deal. (Women are still 'given as property' by fathers, "who gives this woman?" but not so the men.) And yet Jesus emphasizes here not "the giving of the woman" but the leave a man is to take from both his parents to form a totally fresh/new community relationship with a woman.
So, is Jesus alluding to this property factor, instructing in this passage that neither gender should be cast aside as if it is a mere change in property possession status? Is it a contrast that He is suggesting; property can be seperated but not so easily the human connection made in marriage?
Yes, I too am thankful for God's Spirit still working actively in challenging ways with all voices, including those that have typically been sidelined to the margins. I'm certainly still one of The Spirit's partners in the making!
Thanks again for your insights.
Posted by: Sherri | Oct 6, 2006 1:33:22 PM
Thanks for a thoughtful analysis and exegesis. Still, what can we say to the party caught in a devastating marriage, whether physcial or emotional, without exacerbating feelings of guilt about divorce?
Posted by: Texas Disciple | Oct 6, 2006 9:45:50 PM
If, as we have seen recently in Mark (9:30-37), children are among the most vulnerable in society because it does not value them enough to protect them/serve their needs therefore leaving them vulnerable to disease, starvation, violence, and exploitation to the degree that less than half reach adulthood, what does that say about the value of marriage in a society that holds the production of children as the primary standard of the value/effectiveness/blessedness of a marriage? It would seem that marriage would be even less significant than the resulting children, both only having value as a tool/vehicle for future security of the parents/elders. If in 9:30-37 Jesus was challenging the society to re-orient themselves with the most vulnerable in the center, and saying that when a community does this they are doing the same to God, what implications are there for the marriages which existed largely to produce such children?
Posted by: arc | Oct 7, 2006 4:43:35 PM
Thank you for a wonderful reflection, affirming on so many levels! Much appreciated.
Posted by: Chris | Oct 8, 2006 12:48:52 PM
Sarah, your reflections are very thoughtful and well reasoned. I am sure you will be an asset to the seminary. I was impressed by your comment "God creates us for community" Indeed the latin root communis is the same for communication, which God has made us to seek him through prayer. Certainly Jesus teachings of love were to bring people together in relationship with each other so that they could be in relationship with God.
Posted by: Bill | Oct 9, 2006 7:10:09 PM
Being a divorced person myself, your thoughtful questions prompted a review of my reflections on divorce. I see Jesus almost always answering the religious leaders of His day in answers that were way above the standards of their law ... up in the perfection stratisphere ... thereby setting the stage for the realization of their (and ours) need for a grace based salvation/righteousness, for all peoples, even those who thought they could obey the law perfectly. My understanding has been that Jesus was also giving us a glimpse the very best of life scenarios in the day when the K. of God will be fulfilled completely. Either way, I don't think His intent was to bring additional legalism, but a realization that we still live in the 'not yet' paradigm of the K. of God where God's grace and mercy triumphs continually over all the brokeness that still infiltrates even the best of our human efforts and good intentions.
Just wanted to jouney to this topic a little today ...
Posted by: Sherri | Oct 10, 2006 2:25:35 PM