Saturday, June 19, 2010

For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife

Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that he departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And great multitudes followed him, and he healed them there.

The Pharisees also came to him, testing him, and saying to him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" And he answered and said to them, "Have you not read that he who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." They said to him, "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery."

His disciples said to him, "If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry." But he said to them, "All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it."

- Matthew 19:1-12

Jesus has been preaching in the past several readings about the importance of humility, of mercy, and of forgiveness. In all cases, he has been teaching about the importance of relationships - how we are to maintain them among one another in the church, what is considered proper and good conduct, and righteous behavior. Today, this dialogue on relationship continues with an excursion into the concept of marriage.

My study bible notes on this passage in its entirety: "The Pharisees come testing Him with the question of the legality of divorce; hoping to catch him on the interpretation of Deut. 24:1-4, the basis of divorce among Jews. But Jesus looks further back to the original intent of God in creation (Gen. 1:27; 2:24) regarding monogamous marriage for life, and adds his own clear prohibition against divorce (v. 9)." Of course, there are exceptions in which divorce is permitted, as Jesus indicates here - but the emphasis is on relationship, just as his recent discussions on love and the practice of mercy have focused on right relationship. It's important that we focus on Jesus' intent to understand the spiritual purpose of the law in the first place, just as he did in the Sermon on the Mount, when he discussed laws against murder and against adultery -- and also when he discussed the use of the law to circumvent its true purposes, for material gain.

Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that he departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And great multitudes followed him, and he healed them there. Jesus is back in Judea. We are told that great multitudes follow him, and many are healed by him. So his popularity has spread to this central place, and no doubt this is heard by the leadership of the temple.

The Pharisees also came to him, testing him, and saying to him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" And he answered and said to them, "Have you not read that he who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." The Pharisees come to test him. Juxtaposed with the news that multitudes are following him and being healed in Judea, no doubt this is for the purpose of testing his acceptance by the crowds as a holy man. They seek to catch him by the use of the law, in which they are the experts of the temple. My study bible notes, "The yearning of a husband and wife for one another was planted in human nature by God before the Fall. The harmony of Adam and Eve with God and with each other was a great virtue. Adam considered Eve a part of himself (Gen. 2:23). When he cut himself off from the love of God, that harmony was broken. Jesus restores the marriage relationship to its original state, giving it a spiritual dimension." As in the examples I mentioned above (regarding the laws against murder and adultery; and the taking to task of those who would use the law to take money and support from dependent parents), Jesus adds the spiritual dimension -- what is the purpose of marriage in the first place, in God's sight? The law must be elevated to an understanding of its purpose and function in the first place - as a means whereby we are reconciled to God. It's important, also, to understand the spiritual perception of marriage as one in which we learn to practice love, to empty ourselves to another person. This becomes a function in line with worship: marriage has been referred to as the layperson's way to spiritual emptying, to metanoia (or "repentance") as we learn to cultivate right relationship in union with another person. In the Eastern church perspective, this is the spiritual purpose of marriage. In this perspective, children are a blessing.

They said to him, "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery." My study bible says, "Divorce is permitted only for sexual immorality, which destroys a marriage -- a teaching held also by the stricter school of the Pharisees. The reasons for divorce were eventually increased in the ancient Church to include threat to one's partner's life, desertion, and forced prostitution." It adds that although the church may grant divorce, it regards it "as a spiritual tragedy requiring great pastoral care." We live in a world that is far from perfect, and so we must take into account all the myriad reasons why relationships may fail, and may indeed be spiritually toxic for us in one way or another. The Church's role, it seems to me, is simply to do what Christ does here - to point out the spiritual nature of marriage, its purpose of love and right relationship, and to keep it on that track for those who are its followers. Just as in all of our other relationships, we seek to have a spiritual focus on the love of God and its reflection in the way in which we understand relatedness, so it is the same for marriage. Love is the purpose, and love is of God. It is an institution with the spiritual function of helping us to be more like God, as we are made in God's image. Jesus has said, "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." We strive to learn what it is to love; the Church's job is to help and protect and shelter and support institutions and practices as havens of love - to protect spiritual purpose. Jesus refers to the allowance by Moses for divorce as that which is due to "the hardness of your hearts." Divorce was especially hard on women who could easily become destitute and outcast because their husbands tired of them. Just as the law to protect dependent parents is circumvented by the use of "Corban" - so Jesus is saying that divorce is given in ways that circumvent the purpose of marriage in the first place. It is a case in which the emphasis on love and mercy is Jesus' clear intent - and a continuation of the previous passages' emphasis.

His disciples said to him, "If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry." But he said to them, "All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it." My study bible says, "Eunuchs are lifelong celibates. Jesus praises those who have made themselves eunuchs, that is, those who are celibate by free choice and according of God's will for them. Jesus does not endorse mutilation but the putting away of wicked thoughts. The first Ecumenical Council (A.D. 325) rejected willful mutilation." There are clear reasons for celibacy - and one of them is devotion to the spiritual. So, marriage as an institution is one way of practicing love, of being or becoming like God. It is a spiritual institution given for our sake. Jesus says here that marriage is not for everybody - indeed, he himself remained unmarried. His bride is the Church; my study bible has previously referred to the Church as a "divine-human organism" - this is another form of bond of love.

So, as we delve more deeply into an understanding of relationship, and the many forms of relationship we find in the world, we start today with the institution of marriage as a spiritual gift of God. How does marriage help us to learn to practice love? How is it a spiritual institution in which we are taught what it is to love, to empty, and by extension to learn to worship and to love God? The eunuchs of the world, those who are celibate by choice, also have ways in which to learn this same love - one can be celibate for the purpose of spiritual love and devotion. Let us consider, then, the whole issue of relatedness and the bonds of love. Jesus has, in recent readings, taught about humility and God's love for the "little ones" - how we are to relate to one another in the church, how we are to air grievances and to practice forgiveness "seventy times seven" if at all possible in all circumstances. And finally, the extension of love is given to all in the institution of marriage. In all cases, Jesus tries to extend love to be inclusive of all -- most especially, those who are the powerless and weak, who may become outcast and destitute. Whether he is speaking of the "little ones" (the humble) among his followers, dependent parents, or women who may find themselves outcast and destitute, his emphasis is on the spiritual purpose of relationship and the institutions enshrined in human practice and in the law in order to protect that original, defining spiritual purpose of love. He always asks us to return to this, to deepen it and strengthen it, and to learn to practice it more fully in our own relationships on every level. So, we continue in our readings with a question -- how do we more fully learn to practice love in its spiritual reality? How do we shore up this purpose of our institutions, and the role of the church in sheltering and supporting practices of love, including for those who are celibate by choice? How are we doing, 2,000 years later, in going back to his original purpose in what we do now?