Whose Marriage? A Biblical Reflection on Culture, Church, and Change

The text of the sermon, based on Mark 10.2-16, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 3, 2021.

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“From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. Thus, shall a man leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Whenever I reflect on life, its evolution, its revolution, I often recall a line of a favorite hymn: “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.”[1]

Traditional mores and maxims, whatever and wherever, are changing. Have changed.

This is true regarding marriage. It has changed. It is changing. And, believing that this always has been so, I share a brief historical overview.

At one time, the marriage-ideal, nearly universally understood (although not always observed!), was a lifelong union between one man and one woman in which sex for procreative purposes was reserved. This paradigm still stands. However, there is public acknowledgement, even acceptance of other choices…

Cohabitation before marriage, with or without the intent to marry and with or without the desire to bear children. Once prosaically termed “living without benefit of clergy” or, judgmentally, “living in sin.” (Long ago, clergy occasionally advised cohabiting engaged couples “to separate for a season,” usually a month before their wedding day, so to preserve the integrity or the illusion of the marriage liturgy, which presumed that consummation of the relationship had not yet taken place!), and

Divorce. What God hath joined together, humans regularly put asunder, and

Second and serial marriages (expressive of our human need to belong and our desire to try again), and

Same-sex marriages.

Through time, change has been constant. In society and in the church. Christians, for generations, have waged open warfare over human sexuality. The church, whatever one’s point of view, in the words of the hymn, is “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.”[2]

Nevertheless, people of good faith on all sides yearn for clarity, if not certainty. So, amid constant, contentious, and confusing change, what do we say?

Today, I offer not the answer, but an answer. For I share with you what I, a disciple of Jesus, believe.

Jesus spoke in the first century. Therefore, for our day, I, we must interpret, asking: What might his words mean? But, first, why did he say what he said when he said it?

Pharisees, strict observers of the Mosaic Law, asked Jesus whether divorce was lawful. “What,” Jesus answered, “did Moses command you?” The Pharisees referred to that tenet of the law that allowed divorce should the wife be found objectionable.[3]

In Jesus’ day, there was hot debate about what justified divorce. Adultery. So said the conservative rabbinical school of thought. The liberals argued any displeasing action; say, consistently ruining dinner. Either way, the Pharisees maintained that divorce was lawful. For the man! So, they wanted to know whether Jesus defended or dared disobey scripture. (Aha! We humans have argued about the meaning of scripture ever since there was scripture!)

Jesus looked beyond the debate to the human dynamic that gave rise to the law. “Because of your hardness of heart” (failure to honor God’s will for human relations) “Moses wrote this commandment” (divorce being a lesser evil than an abusive marriage).

Then Jesus lifted the debate from legal precept to spiritual principle: “From the beginning, God made them male and female…and the two shall become one flesh.”

The Pharisees quoted Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah. Jesus quoted the first. The Book of Genesis.[4] Rather than argue about legal prescriptions, Jesus went back to the beginning. To creation.

In his day, Jesus’ teaching affirmed the significance for human existence of the relationship between a man and a woman in marriage. Therefore, Jesus did not answer the question of the legitimacy of divorce. Jesus was…is not a legalist declaring “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” to cover every situation.

In our day, Jesus’ teaching does not answer the question of the validity of same-sex marriage. Even if Jesus was a legalist, he, as human, was bound to his time and place. Thus, his words are not (nor should they be stretched or strained to be) authoritative instruction about an issue that in his day did not exist.

In his day and in our day, Jesus’ teaching addresses one thing only: The relationship of a man and a woman in marriage. It is silent on all other questions.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ teaching does speak to a larger concern. For it is a theological declaration (“In the beginning, God”) with an explicitly spiritual intention (“the two shall become one flesh”). Jesus declares what marriage is from God’s point of view.

Marriage is not a legal contract meant to assure ownership and inheritance rights and the fluid transfer of property. Although, in our world, we often make it so.

Marriage is not primarily a social institution meant to provide stability for the family and, therefore, the wider culture. Although, in our society, we often make it so.

Marriage is a dynamic, organic union where God joins in covenant with two people who, in the oneness of their love for God and each other, become for each other and the world an incarnate sign of God’s unconditional love.

In our world, we have the law to govern human conduct. We need guidance precisely because of our intrinsic individual desire, demand to have our way. Thus, we are susceptible to the hardness of heart that desensitizes us to the harmful consequences of our choices in our relations with others.

However, the law is more than its function. For its intention is to point not to an aspiration, not to a standard of existence that is not yet, but rather to what already is. That state of being that the community has determined leads to fulfillment. Thus, laws that decide for whom marriage applies can and do change. For a community can discern that a new occasion has come making an ancient good uncouth.

However, no matter the changes, what remains for the disciples of Jesus (whomever we are and whomever we love and with whomever we live) is our calling in our relational living to be one with another in love and in our daily living to bear and share that love with the world.

© 2021 PRA


[1] From the poem, The Present Crisis, written by James Russell Lowell in protest of America’s war with Mexico and published in The Boston Courier on December 11, 1845. Several lines of Lowell’s poem were adapted for the hymn, Once to every man and nation.

[2] From The Church’s One Foundation (1866); words by Samuel John Stone (1839-1900)

[3] See Deuteronomy 24.1

[4] Genesis 1.27 and 2.24b

#Jesusteachesaboutmarriage #timeandchangeinhumanrelationships #thelawandlegalism #earthyperspectivesversusdivinepointofview #whatmarriageisandisnot

3 thoughts on “Whose Marriage? A Biblical Reflection on Culture, Church, and Change

  1. What a BEAUTIFUL sermon, Paul. So needed; so usable; so exemplary. Urging us back to first things, first principles and extrapolating what God’s All-Creating Love would have us do.

    Thank you, dear friend. I will reread and remember this and USE it in my life and in my writing.

    Again and yet again, gratitude for your vision and clarity, and much love,

    Karen

    Like

  2. Paul.

    I loved the 3 C’s! Culture, Church and Change and you sure did capture it all so well…. So much has gone on since Biblical times and marriage and the people involved in it had adapted (or not).

    I remember my grandparents talking about “living together in sin” not being allowed for their four kids, YET that had all gone out the window by the time us grandkids came along and I believe it was because none of their four kids marriages worked out… not even one. My grandparents gave us great role models on marriage being very happily married for 55 years. But even they recognized, people change, times change and they needed to change too.

    Thanks for reminding us how marriage differs for each couple depending on the two people involved, their love and their beliefs.

    Love

    Like

  3. My dearest sisters, this sermon was one of those cardinal occasions for me when (not…never believing that I have the last OR first word on anything!) I wish (as in wishful thinking, that is, the expression of my desiring in the face of matters that I cannot control) folk could and would perceive scripture as a dynamic, organic work of literature that, literally and figuratively, breathes (inhaling the life of the ongoing world and exhaling its ancient wisdom into that world) as opposed to being some static, fixed dusty tome of changeless counsel.

    Alas, my wishful thinking oft is proven precisely to be that. Ne’ertheless, this sermon also was one of those moments when I prayed unto Almighty God that I had established enough credibility with this beloved people of God whom I now serve to tackle a tough text and, in so doing, likely would say some things hard to hear and harder still to accept. For some, that hath proven true. And I love them all the more.

    Love

    Like

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