(Proper 22. Yr B. Genesis 2, 18-24. Mark 10, 2-16)
In the discussions the churches are having over whether to approve blessings of partnerships or even marriages between people of the same gender, there are certain passages (colloquially known as ‘clobber passages’), which are often quoted against gay marriage. Then there are others which, although they don’t mention homosexuality, are often quoted to support the idea that marriage must be between a male and a female. The passages in the lectionary for today are two of the latter, so it’s useful to be able to look at their background, and what they actually tell us about human relationships, and particularly, about marriage.
The Old Testament passage contains part of the second creation story in Genesis. This one came from the Judaean tradition, and was probably written down in the time of King David. In contrast to the story in Genesis 1, written much later, after the exile in Babylon, where God is distant, and creates by word of mouth, in this creation story God is much more ‘hands on’, and creates like a potter, forming things out of the clay of the earth. First God creates a human being, an adam or earth creature, and breathes life into it. Then God makes a garden for the adam to live in, and trees and streams to enjoy, and commands the adam to cultivate it.
Then as we heard, God decides that it is not good for the adam to be alone. God in this creation story seems to work by experimentation. So first God creates animals to see if any of them are a suitable ‘helper’ for the adam. But none of them is. So then God creates a woman from the rib of the adam, and brings them together, and the man acknowledges with delight that she is a suitable companion for him.
An understanding of Hebrew makes this story read quite differently from the way it has often been understood. Adam is not a personal masculine name: until the creation of the helper, it just means ‘earth creature’, who doesn’t have a gender. The language of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘male’ and ‘female’ doesn’t come into the story until after the creation of the helper from the adam’s rib. Then the man, ‘ish’, recognises the woman, ‘ishshah’, as being a suitable helper and companion for him. The Hebrew also makes it clear that she is not his inferior; the term used, ‘etzer’, is also used in the Psalms about God as the helper and saviour of humanity. The woman is not actually given her name ‘Eve’ which means ‘life of all’ or ‘mother of humanity’, until after the expulsion from Eden.
Like so much of the early part of Genesis this story is a myth. Myths are not history (few people nowadays believe there was originally one male and one female from whom all humans are descended) neither are they science (women are not created from men’s ribs!). They are explanatory stories, evidence of how people tried to make sense of what they observed about human life, and related it to their understanding of God.
The first creation myth deals with the observation that humans are somehow similar to the divine, “made in the image of God”. The central point of this creation story, however, seems to be that human beings are sociable creatures, who need to be in relationships, especially intimate ones. Although animals can provide companionship, they can’t provide the deep intimacy that a lifelong marriage relationship does, when one spouse recognises the other spouse as the same, yet different, and their union makes them in some way ‘one flesh’.
In the passage from Mark, Jesus quotes this passage in a conversation with the Pharisees about divorce. There is another version of the conversation in Matthew 19. In Mark, the question the Pharisees ask doesn’t make much sense. Everyone knew that according to Deuteronomy 24.1 a Jewish man could divorce his wife. In Matthew, the Pharisees’ question makes more sense, since there they ask about the grounds for divorce. This reflects a disagreement between two influential rabbis at the time of Jesus, about whether adultery was the only grounds for divorce, or whether a man could put away his wife for trivial reasons, like being a bad cook, or a nag, because she hadn’t produced children, or simply because he’d gone off her.
This mattered to both husbands and wives. Only a woman (and her lover) could commit adultery against a husband in Jewish law. A married man having an affair with a single woman was not adultery. A wife convicted of adultery could be stoned to death, or the husband could divorce her without forfeiting her dowry or the marriage settlement in goods she brought on their marriage. If he divorced her for another reason, he had to return her dowry and her marriage settlement to her family. The certificate of annulment, specified in Deuteronomy, was therefore an important document, which assured an innocent woman of her rights and property, gave her some protection and might allow her to remarry (though she would always be ‘damaged goods’ and therefore not an attractive wife).
Jesus answers the Pharisees by asking what “the law” contained in Deuteronomy specified. He doesn’t, in Mark, pronounce on the controversy over the grounds for divorce, or disagree with the standards set by the law. As so often happens, he goes beyond the legal position to talk about deeper questions of human relationships. By quoting from the two creation stories, he takes the question back to the situation in the Garden of Eden, to that myth of perfection, to God’s original intention for human beings, to the ideal society that we long for, and which we believe will be realised in the new creation; to a relationship that is permanent, faithful and stable.
His answer recognises that the intimacy of marriage creates a deep bond between the spouses, and that family breakup inevitably leads to pain for all the people involved. Divorce may be necessary, given that human beings are fallible creatures; it may be the least bad option; but it is not the ideal. Therefore, once people are married, no ‘man’ (i.e. no husband) should be eager to break the bond. Divorce, according to Jesus, is not to be regarded as a ‘right,’ as many Jewish men thought of it; it is always a concession, a result of ‘hardness of heart’, the failure on the part of husband, or wife, or both, to live up to the best that they are capable of.
The second part of the passage, describing when Jesus and the disciples go indoors and he explains things further to them, is something that commonly happens in Mark’s Gospel. Many commentators think it shows Mark expanding the original story to apply it to the situation of his community, and so does not contain the original words of Jesus.
This section doesn’t actually address divorce, but talks about remarriage after divorce. If it reflects Jesus’ thoughts, it shows him being very radical about marriage relationships compared with his contemporaries He says if a man remarries after divorcing his wife, he commits adultery against her. But in contemporary Jewish understanding, a husband couldn’t commit adultery against his wife, who was his possession. This statement places both man and woman on an equal footing.
Then, the second statement applies the same standards to a woman, if she instigates the divorce. This is likely to be a Markan extension, to cope with the situation in Roman society where women could instigate divorce, but still it pronounces absolute equality between the sexes.
The conversation indoors is with the disciples, and so can be seen to be setting standards for the Christian community. Jesus always sets higher standards for his followers, standards which go beyond merely obeying the law to living out the life of sacrificial love that he showed us.
The final section which Mark adds about children reinforces this. Children, like wives, had no rights in the society of his time. Everything they were given they received as a gift. This is what the disciples, who set themselves up as gatekeepers, deciding who could or couldn’t approach Jesus, had to realise. Nobody has a right to be part of God’s Kingdom, since we all fall short of the standards required. Nobody therefore has the right to exclude others. Only when we accept that being included in the Kingdom is the gift of a loving God can we truly be part of it.
Since the time of Jesus, his followers have struggled to live up to his standards, in marriage and sexual conduct as well as in other areas of life. We try to do so, knowing that we will fail, but also that Jesus showed us a God who loves us in spite of our failure, and who forgives, and always allows us to try again.
As we seek to apply his teaching based on these passages in our own lives, we carry before us the perfect vision of human relationships contained in the story of creation, to which we aspire. But we also remember the warning contained in his admonition to the disciples when they tried to prevent God’s children from coming to him, that no-one has the right to set barriers which prevent God’s children from receiving the divine blessing on their deepest relationships.
“What God has joined together, let no human separate.”