This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
New President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernandez
Questions About Divorce
19 Now when Jesus finished these sayings, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan River. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
3 Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 Jesus said to them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way. 9 Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the case of a husband with a wife, it is better not to marry!” 11 He said to them, “Not everyone can accept this statement, except those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.”
Most modern discourse on sexual behaviour assumes that sexual pleasure is good and that people should get as much of it as possible. Doubtless there should be certain restraints imposed by commitments made to partners, but these may vary according to the nature of the partnership. All varieties of partnership are considered equally valid provided all partners have entered the relationship freely and are treated equally. As Lenny Bruce said, “It’s all just huggin’ an’ kissin’.”
I may think this view is inadequate but I believe it to be more humane than any view based on the assumption that sexual pleasure is sinful. The Roman Catholic Church in many centuries has expressed this view, imposing life-denying disciplines on the faithful and distorting the sexuality of its priests by enforced celibacy. In comparison with that, Lenny Bruce is a prophet of God.
Today’s Bible passage is certainly not life-denying but it does contradict many modern assumptions. Let’s look at what it says.
Jesus is asked a question about divorce. Mosaic Law permitted a man to divorce his wife by stating a cause of dissatisfaction. In a culture which allowed a man to have several wives, divorce, the sending away of a wife from the marital household would have been an even greater “disgrace” than in a strictly monogamous society. Jesus appeals over the head of Moses to “the beginning”, that is, to the will of the creator God revealed in the story of creation. This is the first difference from what I’ve called the modern view: Jesus refers to a belief in God and a scripture that reveals God’s will.
Jesus quotes the verse from Genesis 1 which states that God “made humanity in his own image; male and female he created them”. This assumes that sexual, that is, anatomical, difference is fundamental and also that it determines the gendered roles of man and woman. Because God has made humanity in these separate sexes, they will always be drawn to each other. The man will abandon his natural unity with his own parents to be joined to his wife. “And the two will become one flesh.” The second difference from the modern view is that there is simply no consideration of sexual orientation other than the one which is biologically determined. The third is that in this view, the sexual act is more than pleasurable; it is a fundamental goodness that joins one man with one woman so that their lives are shared. The creator has joined them, Jesus says; no one should dare to challenge God’s will.
Of course, Jesus admits there are circumstances in which they may have to separate. Infidelity is the one he mentions. But he leaves his disciples with a clear statement of the intention of God. When they protest that this is too restrictive on men-if we’re really stuck with a woman forever, who would ever get married, they ask revealingly-Jesus indicates that celibacy is an option for those who have given themselves to the work of God’s kingdom. But he is very careful to emphasise that such a thing can never be commanded. Here is another difference from the modern view: there are things more important than sex. Some people may forgo all sexual relationships so that they are free to serve God’s goodness in other ways.
These clear assertions are made in this scripture. I am not setting them out as my view or as a proposal for church policy. But I want to look at them clearly. They are teachings of Jesus. (There are all sorts of arguments about where we have the precise words of Jesus. I’m by-passing these. This is an important element in the bible picture of Jesus, who is the only Jesus we’ve got.) What does it mean to say we belong to Jesus, or follow Jesus or that Jesus is our Lord, if we think he was completely mistaken about sexual relationships? The right and traditional answer to this question is to quote Jesus’ words about the Spirit bringing a deeper understanding of his teaching and leading his followers into all truth. I agree with that theology and the freedom it gives for development; I agree that God is more concerned with the fidelity of sexual partnerships than with the sex of the partners. That seems to me a legitimate development of Jesus’ teaching. But could some developments really mean that we should just remove Jesus from the letterhead?
I suppose I’m wondering whether there may not be a necessary kind of fundamentalism in biblical faith. I mean, if one has chosen to to put one’s trust in a person described in a set of texts, can we logically ignore what the texts say? Of course, texts have to be interpreted, and I give my wholehearted support to anyone who engages with the texts. But if I find myself saying, “To hell with the scriptures; I know what’s right here,” have I stopped being an orthodox Christian and become a Quaker? And would that be a bad thing?