bible blog 1357

This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headlne frm world news:

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MATTHEW19

The Journey to Jerusalem

At the conclusion of this teaching, Jesus withdrew from Galilee, and went into that district of Judea which is on the other side of the Jordan. Great crowds followed him, and he cured them there. Presently some Pharisees came up to him, and, to test him, said: “Has a man the right to divorce his wife for every cause?”

“Haven’t you read,” replied Jesus, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said — ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and be united to his wife, and the man and his wife will become one’? So that they are no longer two, but one. What God himself, then, has yoked together people must not separate.” “Why, then,” they said, “did Moses direct that a man should ‘serve his wife with a notice of separation and divorce her’?”

“Moses, owing to the hardness of your hearts,” answered Jesus, “permitted you to divorce your wives, but that was not so at the beginning. But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of some serious sexual sin, and marries another woman, is guilty of adultery.” 10 “If that,” said the disciples, “is the position of a man with regard to his wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 “It is not everyone,” replied Jesus, “who can accept this teaching, but only those who have been enabled to do so. 12 Some men, it is true, have been eunuchs from birth, while others have been made eunuchs by their fellow men, and others again have become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Accept this if you can.”

This is a profound and troublesome teaching of Jesus. Jewish law permitted husbands to divirce wives for “any serious defect” although the fidelity of Jewish family life was admired by other contemporary cultures. The Hebrew bible is witness to the fact that the oldest traditions clearly permit polygamy, although this custom had ceased by Jesus’ time.

adam_and_eveThe crucial quotation from Genesis used by Jesus brings together a verse from chapter one about the creation of male and female in God’s likeness; and a verse from chapter two which follows on the creation of the woman from the man’s rib; in effect explaining the sexual partnership of man and woman as a consequence of them both coming from the original body of Adam: they want to get back together again.

Jesus however re-interprets the verses using the concept of the “beginning”, which is for him a definitive moment of God’s action. God meant men and women to be attracted to women and men from other families and to become, in sexual intercourse and daily companionship, “one flesh”, one bodily unit. Breaking this unity, which is established for the good of human life, is contrary to God’s intention. In particular for Jesus, any careless act of separation that deprives a woman of her “partner in the flesh”, that is, of the one who has fathered her children and provides protection, is “hard-hearted”.  If a woman has already broken the unity by sexual activity with someone else, then and only then may the man divorce her. In Mark’s gospel, even this minimal allowance of divorce is absent. There Jesus simply states God’s intention that the marraige bond should be unbroken.

Of course, Jesus was teaching in a partriarchal society in which women had fewer rights than men. Some scholars see this inequality as the motive for Jesus’ severity: he was protecting the interests of women. Certainly Jesus treated women as equals and encouraged them to follow him. His reference to God’s creation of men and women (in His likeness) does point to an equality of male and female in the purpose of God but it also affirms sexuality and marriage as part of God’s creative plan.

The Pharisees might well have agreed that these were God’s plans “in the beginning” before his human creatures had to be kicked out of Eden for arrogant disobedience. In the world of God’s adjustment to human disobedience, His Plan B permitted available divorce. Had they presented this argument, Jesus might well have told them that in his ministry God was reverting to Plan A, by bringing his “kingdom” into the world. His own disciples show how used they were to Plan B, by suggesting, in almost comic dismay, that without easily available divorce a man would be daft to get married.

Still Jesus holds to the requirements of the kingdom,  while recognising that not everyone will accept them. He goes on to say that some men have given up sexual activity alltogether for the sake of the kingdom. His use of the word “eunuch” suggests that he did not see this as an ideal condition for all but as the  temporary and specific sacrifice of something good.

Was Jesus one of these? It has traditionally been assumed that he was, and certainly although his brothers and sisters are mentioned in scripture there is no mention of his children (peace to Dan Brown et al). It’s perfectly possible that he had been married and that his wife died before they had children; just as he may have become a “eunuch for the sake of the kingdom.” In either case, Jesus’ teaching on sexuality and marriage is overwhelmingly positive, so much so that it’s very difficult to see how the miserable Catholic view of sexual pleasure as sinful could have developed as swiftly as it did. It is of course part and parcel of the dominaton of the church by a smelly culture of celibate men which perssts to this day, in neglect of Jesus’ teaching.

If we were to revise the teaching of Jesus to include homosexual attraction and marriage, it would be a very extensive revision, including the alteration of the creation narratives in Genesis. steveAccording to some LGBT theology, God did not “make them male and female” in his likeness, or if he did, he had no expectation that male and female rather than male and male or female and female should become one flesh. In other words, those who argue that the establishment of “gay marriage” involves a significant alteration of the meaning of marriage are right both for civil law and Christian tradition.

I am completely committed to gay marriage as a means of giving equality to gay relationships but unsure if the traditions of heterosexual relationships can simply be transferred to homosexual ones. It seems likely to me that Jesus’ emphasis on fidelity between partners is more important than his exclusive focus on male and female, but I also think that gay people have work to do in fashioning or rescuing narratives of homosexual attraction, courtship and marriage which can stand alongside heterosexual narratives, and liturgies which can stand alongside our present liturgies.  Equality is as much a matter of imagination and poetry as it is of law.

But as regards divorce? Yes, I think Jesus was right in teaching that life-long marriage was God’s intention; and right in recognising that not everyone would want it.

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