A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
The Armies of the Righteous Are Once Again Girding Themselves for Battle
Trinity XVIII – 2011
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses com-mand you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hard-ness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.’ So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
We all know, or think we know, that Jesus prohibited divorce; and it is clear that Mark, who wrote our earliest gospel, had no doubt that this was Jesus’ meaning. And if that’s what Mark thought, can we claim to know better than he did? No, we can’t know, but we can legitimately suspect, and that’s what I want to talk about. Our suspicions are aroused when we come to examine the parallel passage in Matthew – and note that Matthew seems to have had Mark as his sole source for the narrative, but neverthe-less has made significant changes of his own. Here it is:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to di-vorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one?” So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”
The first difference to note is that in Mark Jesus is simply asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Matthew’s account adds the words, “for any cause”. We shall see why when we come to compare the endings of the two excerpts. In Mark Jesus starts by asking what Moses decreed about divorce, and when the Pharisees tell him, he then quotes Genesis in order to question whether the Mosaic view should be regarded as absolute. In Matthew it’s the other way round: Jesus’ initial reply to the Pharisees is the quotation from Genesis, and it is the Pharisees who quote Moses to raise a question against Genesis.
The first point I want to make is that we can actually detect Matthew modifying the material before him to reflect his own point of view, and he does this very often. We can detect it because his major source – Mark’s gospel – has actually survived. We cannot detect Mark himself doing it because his gospel is the earliest; but it is very likely that he too did much the same. So the fact that in Mark’s gospel we find Jesus suggesting an absolute prohibition of divorce does not mean we can be sure that he did so. But one thing that we do learn from Matthew is that by his time mis-givings about such a ban had already been felt, and some softening of its rigour demanded and offered. That’s why in Matthew we get a whole sentence not found in Mark: “…whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” That has nothing to do with anything that Jesus himself said; nor did the Pharisees who first asked the question say anthing about “for any cause”. It was the con-gregation for which Matthew was writing that had insisted on a let-out if the ban was to be at all acceptable.
But why should we even begin to doubt whether Jesus pronounced an absolute ban on divorce, as both Mark and Matthew insist he did? The main reason is that Jesus does not seem to have been the sort of person who ever went in for absolute bans. His followers certainly have been, and that is why the notion has undoubtedly been popular with many Christians for many centuries. But Jesus himself comes across in the synoptic gospels as an uncompromising anarchist. If you showed him a rule, his immediate instinct was to denounce it – which is exaclty what we find him doing here in Mark: the Pharisees state the rule, and Jesus at once rejects it. Why should such a man state another rule even more burdensome and oppressive than the one he denounced? Another characteristic of Jesus’ outlook which is the exact opposite of that of most of his followers is his attitude to religionists who take a delight in the sheer inconvenience of religious regulations; it is not too strong to state that he actually hated such people. Here’s what he says about them:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their fingers.”
It would be hard to find a better example of binding heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on men’s shoulders than a total ban on divorce. Some say, “Never mind the inconvenience; that’s what God requires of us.” No; it’s what they require of us, and for their own satisfaction, and not God’s at all. God is much less unreasonable than man makes him out to be, and that is a most important part of Jesus’ message.
So what did he mean when he denounced the Pharisees’ statement of the rule, if he didn’t mean that there can be no divorce? I suspect – I cannot claim to know, but I suspect – that his real intention was to defend the rights of women in the case. The rule that the Pharisees quoted gave the man absolute right to divorce his wife whenever he chose; Jesus quotes Genesis to show that marriage is not simply a matter of a man taking a wife and then, if he wishes, discarding her; marriage is a union of the two of them. The obligation is mutual: she has an obligation to him, but then he has the same obligation to her; in neither case than these obligations be set aside at whim. That, it seems to me, was what he was really saying.
I’ve raised the point because we have another row brewing on the sub-ject of marriage, and the armies of the righteous are once again girding themselves for battle – and once again, it seems to me, entirely on the wrong side of the argument. Mr Cameron at the recent Conservative Party Conference declared his intention of replacing civil partnerships (which the righteous in any case already disapprove of) with above-the-board, no-nonsense-about-it same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church (predictably perhaps) has come out against it – in a fairly muted manner in England (as if they knew that opposition is unlikely to be effective), but north of the border in a loud and fierce denunciation, and having the support of the free churches, with a confidence that suggests they anticipate victory; and The Daily Telegraph also seems to be backing the opposition. The argu-ment this opposition mainly relies on is that such an innovation redefines the whole notion of marriage, and that is something we cannot do. Marri-age is to be defined as the union of a man and a woman, and neither state nor even church has the right to say otherwise.
If that’s the case, though, there is an obvious question: Who does define it? The righteous are again ready with their answer: God defines it; God defined it in Genesis in the passage quoted by Jesus. Now the obvious weakness here is the assumption that when God says something in the book Genesis, that really is God talking, when it’s much more likely to be the author of Genesis talking – and how did he know, more than any of the rest of us, what is was that God wished to say? That’s not a fault of the book; it’s a fault of those who insist on making implausible claims about its nature and origin. In fact it is society that defines what marriage is to be – note: not what marriage is, but what it is to be. Those who deny that society has such a right are for all practical purposes claiming such a right exclusively for themselves. For them marriage is such and such because God says so. And how do they know God says so? Because they say so. I think most of us would prefer the claims to be a little more examinable than that.
Why does anyone want same-sex marriages? It’s really a question of practicalities. I’m not a great believer in arguments about rights; now-adays we simply pluck rights out of the sky. If there is anything we would like to have, then immediately we insist it is our right to have it. We need a better reason than that for advocating same-sex marriages. The first thing to note is that, if we go by observation, it looks as though both the heterosexual and the homosexual young have much the same needs and behave in much the same way. In late adolescence and early adult-hood they go through a period of boiling over, as it were; and once the frenzy is passed they both seem to desire a quieter, steadier, more relaxed style of life with a single partner.
It needs to be noted that although religion has always been aware of this tendency, and has to some extent accommodated it in practice, its official doctrine has never approved it. The strictly religious view is that the young must utterly contain themselves and come to the marriage bed as pure unsullied virgins – both sexes, though in practice it always applied to the girls more than to the boys. There were huge disadvantages to this outlook, and the poet Milton gives us a good illustration why. He married for the first time at the age of thirty-five, and after only three weeks of marriage his wife left him. When you read about how in later life he ruled his daughters, it is difficult to blame her. He then set about writing the first of his four pamphlets on the subject of divorce, making the point that it is precisely those who stick to the rules that are most likely to come a cropper in choosing a wife; young men who misbehaved were much less likely to be taken unawares. And this was always a frequent outcome when the religious rules were strictly observed. It is argued that marriage has been largely destroyed – and we have to admit that it has been largely destroyed – by the abandonment of those rules; but I think that much more influential has been the wider possibilities for women becoming financi-ally independent. In the old days the vast majority of them had to rely on their husbands for daily provision. But there has also been the pernicious influence of the benefits system, not merely making possible but actually encouraging the ever-growing number of one-parent families.
To return to the matter in hand: observation indicates that the pattern of homosexual behaviour, if not thwarted by society’s ignorance or disap-proval, is typically the same as heterosexual behaviour: the young boil over for a time, and then want to settle down. But during the many cen-turies when society either knew nothing about homosexuality or, if it did, reacted with uncomprehending horror – and I’ll give you an instance of that: during the trial of Oscar Wilde one society lady said to another, “But what’s he supposed to have done?” To which the reply was, “My husband won’t tell me, but apparently it’s much worse than murder.” In that kind of situation the problems that faced homosexuals inevitably drove them to behave in all sorts of inordinate ways, which were then siezed on as justi-fication for their persecution. They had no legitimate ways of meeting each other, and no legitimate ways of expressing their feelings for each other if they did meet. One can only gasp with relief that the madness has at last been put an end to, and gasp with astonishment at those who would like to persist with traditional attitudes and behaviours.
The prayer book sets out three reasons for the institution of marriage: first, it was ordained for the procreation of children; secondly it was ordained for the avoidance of fornication; and thirdly it was ordained for the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other. The first of these three principles does not normally apply in same-sex marriages; but the second and third are just as relevant to these as they are to conventional ones. Such marriages therefore solve a problem. It’s not a question of rights, much more a sensible accommodation of an obvi-ous need, for which we should all be thankful. Amen.
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