Hebrews 1:1‑4; 2:5‑12
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning we have the treat of Bishop Montgomery celebrating so together we can celebrate his 50th anniversary as a bishop. I’m delighted and grateful to mark this occasion, a moment to reflect on vocation, a fancy word meaning “calling,” and to recall that God calls each of us and offers us different ways and roles to serve. Being mindful of Bishop Montgomery’s years as bishop and priest, of Father Owens 63 years as priest, inspires me, and maybe can inspire each of us in our various callings. Following our calling can transform us, can shape our hearts.
Another vocation we celebrate by numbering anniversaries is marriage, and in today’s gospel Jesus discusses marriage and divorce with his disciples. These days nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Fewer Americans are married – only half of American adults, whereas 50 years ago over 70 percent were married. Some say that our culture’s esteem of marriage is declining.
In general, broad terms, people marry now because we love someone and expect that love to last. We also may assume and expect that loving this person will be relatively easy, not demanding too much for us. Writing in an online chat, a young woman wrote about getting ready to marry because she loved her fiancé, but she added, “However, if things change, I won’t hesitate to divorce him.” Well, sweetie, I guarantee you that things are going to change, and things are going to change radically; you need to be ready for some hard work.
As we consider a partner for life, our culture has shaped in us an expectation that we must not settle for anything less than Mr. or Ms. Perfect. Mr. or Ms. Good Enough is not romantic, not the perfection we expect for ourselves. Only Mr. or Ms. Perfect will do because he/she will make me look good, he/she will be easily compatible and make few claims on me, he/she will always excite and delight me, he/she will help me reach my personal goals.
Marriage has become much more about achieving self-fulfillment, be that fulfillment emotional or sexual or financial or whatever. Our culture stokes absurdly huge and impossible expectations about what another person can do for me: he/she should even be able to fix what is wrong in me and to do it painlessly.
Last week, some of us celebrated another 50th anniversary – James Bond. When I was nine, I first saw a Bond film, and I sort of fell in love: all fantasy and flash, luxury and panache, exotic adventure and derring do. For a while, I was a great devotee, even as I discovered that he’s a cartoon. He’s more than a bit adolescent and self-involved, saving the world for the kicks it gives him not because he cares about the world; but for some, he’s an aspiration: the ideal of masculinity, a real man, and his sexual conquests demonstrate it to us, as well as to himself. It’s a rather pathetic ideal of masculinity. Once upon a time, masculinity was about self-restraint and service to others and maturity.
The gospel would have us understand the purpose of marriage that way, too, that it’s one of many ways human beings may develop character, inner strength, self-sacrifice, one of many ways we can become more Christ-like. The Christian understanding of the purpose of marriage is that it reflects the love of God, it gives joy, it provides help and comfort, it nurtures life, it provides meaning, and it serves the common good.
In the last century or two, marriage has become less about serving God and community and family and more about finding individual fulfillment, less about public well-being and more about private satisfaction. Perhaps it’s out of balance. No doubt, we can all find some faults in the way our society understands marriage, the current state of the institution, but we could almost certainly find fault with marriage in every age and place, and while I find some of our cultural assumptions about marriage troublesome, and we have deep, heart-felt controversies about it, but marriage in our day strikes me as far better than it was in the ancient Near East.
In Jesus’ day, two individuals did not decide to get married because they had fallen in love. That’s a modern development, and one that is not normative throughout the world today. Back in Jesus’ day, for the most part, men and women inhabited different worlds. The male world and the female world didn’t overlap much. So marriage was not about friendship or companionship, and certainly not about self-fulfillment. It was about serving the family and raising children to perpetuate the family. In other words, individuals did not get married; families did. A wedding was a merger of two extended families, and so the families arranged it.
Two families of similar status matched their children. The men carefully and extensively negotiated a contract, exchanging gifts or services for the bride and making sure they got a fair deal, that neither family took advantage of the other. The bride’s family typically provided their daughter with a dowry at the time of the marriage. The bride essentially left her family and became a member of the groom’s family, but a stranger in that family, on the margins of family life, and she had no power. If she had a son, she gained status in the family and became closer to her new family. As he grew up, the son became her advocate, providing greater security for her.
Even with a son, she was still her husband’s property and extremely vulnerable. She had no rights, no legal standing. A man could divorce a woman, but a woman could not divorce a man. A divorced woman might be accepted back into her original family, led by her father or uncle or brother, who would be angry, dishonored by her divorced. A divorce typically led to a feud between the families – intense hostility and even violence. It shook up the community. If, however, the divorced woman did not have a family or her family rejected her, there’d be peace, but she’d end up on the street, a beggar or prostitute.
To me, it was terrible, and Jesus thought it unjust as well. In today’s gospel, Jesus’ interrogators grilled him about the legality of marriage. As usual, Jesus responded to their question with a question: what did Moses say? They knew that the Old Testament explicitly states that it is lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. Jesus quoted Genesis: God made us male and female, and two become one flesh – today’s Old Testament reading. His point: marriage creates deep bonds, and God allows divorce, but it’s not God’s intent for us, not what he desires for us. It’s also not what we desire for ourselves.
Then Jesus redefined adultery. In Jesus’ day, only a married woman could commit adultery - her sexual infidelity alone. The husband could not commit adultery; there was no such thing. Jesus envisioned marriage without the double standard. He said that a man who divorced his wife and married another committed adultery. Both parties of the marriage could be a victim of infidelity, not just the husband. Jesus sought equality of treatment.
All of Jesus’ teaching about marriage is in the context of the Kingdom of God, God’s rule. God’s purpose for marriage is to unify people, to bring us closer together, to shape our hearts. In the coming age, when God rules all things, respect, care, and love characterizes relationships – not legalities.
Today’s gospel ends with Jesus taking up children in his arms and blessing them. He cradled the weakest, most vulnerable people, those of no standing. This is the Kingdom of God where all are welcome and embraced, where our status anxieties and our pecking order disappear. He said that the little children are open to God’s rule; those at the bottom, humble and aware of their need, those receive God. The Kingdom, a richer and fuller life, does not come from following rules and laws. It comes from openness to God.
And here’s an irony. A broken-heart is a sure sign of life; a heart broken open is much more likely to be accessible and hospitable to God and to other people. Those who know the pain and sorrow of divorce may be more able to receive the Kingdom than those who don’t. If we understand our suffering and disappointments as opportunities for growth and for drawing closer to God, not as punishment, not as curse, not as shame, then we may be more open and able to receive the Kingdom as a child, and God will transform our lives.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, Dutton (2011), p. 22. Keller is the source for the marriage statistics and the quote below about not hesitating to divorce, p. 25. I also relied upon his discussion of the history of marriage and the search for a compatible “soul mate” (pp. 26-31).
 Ancient Near Eastern marriage information from Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), pp. 188, 331-2, 424.