Genesis 2:18-24 Hebrews 2:9-11 Mark 10:2-16
Marriage and divorce and remarriage can be complex and emotionally charged issues. Today’s texts from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark are both ancient exhortative descriptions of how marriage was seen from Jewish perspectives in the days of Jesus. It is far too simplistic to assert that the Genesis text describes marriage completely, or once and for all. In fact, marriage has evolved and changed rather dramatically in the various cultures of the world. Don’t forget that at the same time that the ancient Jews wrote down the 2nd Creation Account (Genesis 2), they also accepted polygamy as an acceptable marriage arrangement. In that very patriarchal culture we ought not too easily assume that the husband and wife (or wives) considered themselves equal in the modern, Western cultural 20th - 21st Century style. Still normal in those days were arranged marriages, at very young ages, and concubinage (officially condoned female consorts without the status of wife). Also, we must remember that the prohibition against divorce was a cultural protection for the wife and children for there was no real social safety net by which a divorced woman might be aided even if she had escaped an abusive marital situation. So, these cautions (and more) should make us reticent to draw absolute and permanent conclusions about both the Genesis description of marriage and Jesus’ rather forceful prohibition against divorce. At the same time, we should refer to that very famous text in John’s Gospel (8:1-11) in which Jesus dealt kindly with “a woman caught in the very act of adultery.” Jesus treated her in a manner which is nothing short of extraordinary in a situation where we can speculate that her partner in crime was let off without penalty. It such was the case, then Jesus actually elevated the status of the woman by removing the Mosaic penalty (death by stoning).
We need to often remind ourselves that the Catholic Tradition, the Orthodox Tradition, and some of the mainline Protestant Christian Traditions, do not easily lend themselves of a simplistic or literal acceptance of everything written in Sacred Scripture, especially un-nuanced and difficult sayings and messages. For us, and other intelligent religious believers, the situations and contexts, and the cultural and practical realities of a time and place, each make a great deal of difference. Indeed, sometimes nowadays, and for many and varied reasons, divorce is the logical, reasonable, and necessary resolution to an unhealthy and destructive relationship. To do otherwise, might well itself be sinfully unjust and destructive.
So to focus on the Genesis text, a central insight of the story is the wonderful complementarity which can ideally describe a husband-wife relationship. That they are “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” means that they are both human and intimately connected. The task given the man of naming all the animals indicates that the man had a superiority over other creatures and that the human task participates in the workings of God. The first thing that God said to the man in the verses just before this passage was, “You are free...” Then at once there follow some limits on that freedom. The freedom and the limitations are designed to keep the man from the tremendous moral burden of distinguishing between good and evil. The dangerous myth of eating the fruit of or even touching “tree of knowledge of good and evil” is a metaphor for the coming of age which necessarily occurs in all human development today in the ordinary course of growing up. God’s overriding desire that the man not be lonely and God’s providence of a profound intimacy as an essential part of human life give this story its genuine importance. Intimacy is the dynamic referred to in the final words: “That is why a man leaves father and mother and clings to his wife.” Culturally, it was more typically put that the woman leaves her parents to go to her new husband, but in this case, even the strong male character in the drama is really attracted to, and rightly moves towards the newly created woman, his complement, or “better half” (in a 20th Century compliment). This seems a bit surprising in a patriarchal society, but it reveals perhaps a different source of wisdom than we might otherwise expect. The insinuation is that a healthy man seeks the companionship and partnership of a woman. One can imagine the power of attraction is not so culturally determined as many assume.
Jesus’ prohibition against divorce can be considered from various frames of reference. In Mark’s text, he considers none of the various situations which might use divorce as a practical and healthy resolution for an increasingly difficult or impossible domestic situation. He simply and forcefully asserts the importance of marriage. He does not defend marriage. No one can defend marriage effectively except by living one’s own marriage with all the dignity, fidelity, affection, and generosity called for in the marital community of life. Marriage defends itself by being well-lived. No law, no religion, no culture, no force or fear can make marriage healthy or permanent. The spouses alone must work to make the relationship successful in all those ways which are good for them, their family and society.
The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews has no direct relationship to today’s Old Testament lesson or Gospel lesson. The lectionary has moved us from the Letter of James into Hebrews in order to expose the Sunday assembly to a broad selection of the non-Gospel New Testament books. The anonymous author of Hebrews seems to have been writing to Christians of Jewish ritual background so some theological reflection on the nature and importance of the Temple high priest fills these pages. Jesus is asserted to have replaced the earthly high priest as the new and eternal high priest “made perfect” through his Paschal Mystery. This description imagines Jesus as both the sacrificing priest and the sacrificial victim. As priest he suffered the destruction generally imposed upon an animal sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple. Next Sunday we will hear yet another important insight about the high priest. Today, we are reminded simply of the importance of suffering for us as disciples, the unbreakable connection between genuine discipleship and the Cross of Christ.
Perhaps an insight in all three scripture lessons today hints at God’s great desire that our lives be fully human and genuinely holy. The ancients considered that God had fully and deliberately blessed the intimate relationship of marriage for very real human purposes. Jesus asserted the importance of marriage somewhat negatively by prohibiting the breaking of the marriage bond. Hebrews claims that Jesus’ ministry has a priestly component which is holy precisely because of the suffering he accepted and endured. Marriage, divorce, and ministry all engage the power and Grace of the Cross of Christ in the real world. We reflect on the ideal, but we live the real. We trust in the power of God to save and redeem through the one who is most holy, Jesus Christ, the great and eternal high priest of the New Covenant. Thanks be to God!