Working its way through the legislative processes of the Congress of the United States is a proposed amendment to the Constitution which declares that marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. It prohibits the federal Constitution or any state constitution, or state or federal law from being construed to require that marital status or its legal incidents be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups. [Bill # H.J. 56] Representative Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado is the sponsor of the bill. Eighty-seven other members of the House have joined her as co-sponsors.
“Proponents say the constitutional amendment would reaffirm what most Americans believe about the sanctity of marriage and would stop individuals and activist groups from going through the courts instead of state legislatures to secure legal rulings that benefit homosexual or unmarried couples.
“Groups opposing the measure call it ‘bigoted,’ and say it targets gay and lesbian couples for discrimination. Opponents also claim that the amendment is being used as a political weapon during a mid-term election cycle that otherwise has few distinctions to it” (Fox News Channel, May 16, 2002). Speaking in support of the bill in a Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia last month, Representative Musgrave said that the Federal Marriage Amendment would insure that marriage remains safe. “We need to ask God’s protection over our marriages,” she said. “Many people think Christians should be quiet in the public square. But I don’t agree with that,” said Mrs. Musgrave. “I think it is very important that we have our voice heard in that square” (www.worldnetdaily.com, September 13, 2003).
Part of the vocation of the Washington National Cathedral is to be a safe and accessible place where informed and faithful Christian voices may be heard in the public square. Since not all Christians view the Federal Marriage Amendment as a proper, necessary or effective way of preserving the sanctity of marriage, this is an appropriate place for another voice to be heard on the subject. And since the gospel passage appointed to be read on this October Sunday challenges us with the straightforward teaching of Jesus on marriage, this is also an appropriate time to comment.
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The Pharisees, as usual, are trying to trap Jesus on the question of divorce. They want to get him in trouble by tempting him to contradict the Torah. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they inquire. Characteristically, Jesus bounces the query back to those who ask: “What did Moses command you?” Their response reveals a hidden agenda, for they speak not of what the law demands but what Moses permitted. “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her,” they say. We can almost hear Jesus voice an “Aha!” before he points out that it is because of man’s hardness of heart that Moses wrote that commandment. What he’s referring to is that without a bill of divorcement in that day, a woman would be adrift with no means of support and unable to marry again. Then Jesus reaches deep into Hebrew Scriptures and reminds the Pharisees of the intention of God in creation. He explains that marriage two distinct and different beings are joined together and become something entirely new, “one flesh,” as Genesis puts it, and that new entity is meant to endure, even in the face of the destructive tendencies of human beings.
Three things emerge from this little lecture to the Pharisees. They may help us gain greater clarity on the issues raised by the proposed amendment to the Constitution.
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First, in his fleeting conversation with the Pharisees about the matter of divorce, Jesus moves the discussion from the constricting prison of legalism out into an open landscape where one can view the moral and spiritual landmarks that God intends marriage to have. The issue for Jesus is not what is legal but what is right, not what is required or demanded but what is redemptive and life-giving. The entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry of teaching was to liberate people from the tyranny of rules so that they could be free to serve God and their fellow human beings with compassionate and loving hearts.
Second, Jesus affirms the equality and complementariness of the two partners in marriage. This was a revolutionary notion in a patriarchal society where men dominated and women were regarded as the property of their fathers or husbands.
In concluding his discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus turns to the biblical understanding of creation, using the earlier rather than the later of the two biblical creation stories in Genesis. [These designations of “earlier” and “later” can be confusing, because the later account precedes the earlier account in the written text of Genesis.] In the later story—called “P” in scholarly shorthand because it comes from the Priestly tradition—man and woman are created separately. “Male and female he [God] created them,” is the precise wording in the P account. Here human beings are the culmination of creation with dominion over all that had been created previously.
Part of the earlier story—called “J” in shorthand because it comes from the Yahwist tradition—was read as the Old Testament lesson this morning. In this version of creation, man is made first, the animals are created next and are meant to serve him, and then woman is fashioned from man’s rib. This curious wrinkle in the J account of creation indicates that man and woman are of common substance and hence of equal worth. From the beginning they are one flesh. “Flesh” in Hebrew means the whole human person, encompassing the spiritual as well as the physical aspects of human nature. Created out of the same flesh, both men and women have the capacity to live into the full potential of what it means to be human. Any subordination of women to men or men to women, therefore, is contrary to the intention of God’s creation. Created with the obvious physical and psychological differences of gender, men and women are complementary to one another, enriching one another, completing one another.
Third, Jesus enunciates the intended permanence of marriage, but he does so with a realistic view of the fallen nature of human beings. “What God has joined together, let no one separate,” he declares. The moral standard is clear: the commitment to marriage is permanent. But within that commitment the capacity for trouble lurks. Human weakness or willfulness always threatens to distort and destroy human relationships.
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Mark’s account of Jesus’ teaching about marriage is straight, stern, clear and challenging.
It is clear that the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ is not built around a set of laws or regulations. From the perspective of the gospel, neither marriage nor any other type of human relationship will be rescued, saved, preserved or sanctified by legislation, whether civil or religious. We all know that the institution of marriage, as traditionally understood, is in decline and disrepair. Divorce statistics in the United States are only one indicator of that reality. But we deceive ourselves if we think that a constitutional amendment will fix the problem. We delude ourselves further if we think that a constitutional amendment will insulate or protect society from alternative forms of committed human relationships.
It is clear that Jesus’ use of the Yahwist version of creation indicates that partnership and mutuality are essential to stable and redemptive marriages. In marriages where one partner doesn’t dominate the other, where differences of personality and perspective are celebrated as gifts, where complementariness is seen as strength, and above all where love flourishes, there is a solid foundation for redemptive growth.
The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is often read at weddings. It is sometimes called St. Paul’s hymn to love. You know the words: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Moving and powerful words these, but a romantic attachment to them won’t get us very far as we attempt to live into them. Love in the Pauline sense is neither romantic nor sentimental. It is more than an emotion; it is also an act of the will.
St. Paul, of course, didn’t have marriage in mind when he compiled this inventory of essential components for a mature and redemptive relationship. His words were originally addressed to all of the relationships within the young church at Corinth. By extension, then, we can say that St. Paul’s list is at the heart of all intentional, serious and fruitful relationships between human beings.
If we see this list as a new set of rules to be obeyed, however, we miss the point of the liberating gospel of Christ and we have condemned ourselves again to the dark dungeon of legalism. If we are only going to set our jaw and attack this list with acts of the will alone, we are bound to fail. Love in all of its manifestations does indeed involve repeated acts of the human will, but nothing lasting is accomplished without the attending power of God’s grace. Will and grace were boon companions long before there was a television series with those same words in its title. Jesus said, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” To that I would add, what God continues to hold together no one can separate.
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It is important for Christians to enter the public square and address issues of pressing social concern, such as the troubling deterioration of marriage and family life. The reality we have to face is that there are many varieties of family life in contemporary American culture, ranging from traditional marriages—to single parent households—to situations where grandparents have sole responsibility for raising their grandchildren—to places where nannies do most of the parenting—to homes with latchkey kids—to families riven by divorce where the raising of children is shared in awkward ways—to committed same-gender relationships.
Instead of advocating political solutions, like inserting a definition of marriage into the Constitution of the United States, energy could be better spent by making sure that solid, redemptive marriages and other relationships are modeled within our communities of faith in ways that are persuasive and magnetic, and by creatively and vigorously sharing abroad in the public square the liberating news that when God is invited into a relationship like marriage incredibly good things happen.