The readings for this coming Sunday contain several landmines around which the preacher must step gingerly, if s/he is not able to defuse them. We are told that marriage is part of nature, and as such, absolutely indissoluble. The trouble with arguments from nature is that nature and culture are bound so closely together. An argument from nature is a culture’s way of saying this is so obvious that we shouldn’t have to explain it. Our difficulty is that we live is a such a vastly different culture than the ones which gave us the Genesis and the Mark reading for today. For us, marriage is primarily about romantic love. The primary myth of our culture is the myth of romantic love. If a story begins, “Once upon a time,” we all know it will end, “and they lived happily ever after.” We don’t even have to be told what comes in the middle. The myth of romantic love is a very recent thing, only having been around about the last 1000 years or so, beginning with Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances. Sex and (romantic) love have been linked forever afterwards. It is interesting that in the Arthurian romances, love and marriage are not yet linked; all the relationships truly embodying romantic love are adulterous (Guinevere and Lancelot, Tristan and Isolde). Marriage is still about making babies and passing on property.
About half the people in the pews on any given Sunday are divorced, divorced and remarried, or living in a marriage that they would end in divorce if they could. Another percentage have never been married; either single or in non-marital relationships, either straight or gay. How do these passages preach to those folks?
Particularly Jesus’ refusal of divorce seems absolute and without wiggle room. Interestingly, it is the only saying of Jesus (besides the institution of the Eucharist) which Paul cites, and then only to overturn it, to allow a believer to divorce a non-believer. Even Paul could set Jesus aside.
In this passage, I think Mark is arguing with the Pharisees on their own terms. “If you want to argue from scripture, here’s the conclusion you have to come to. Even Moses wasn’t right.” It’s been said before that Jesus’ exclusion of divorce is meant as a protection for women, whose status was then and is often now, seriously reduced by divorce. What I find even more fascinating is Mark moves directly into the episode of the blessing of the children. “Whoever does not welcome the kingdom in the same way s/he would welcome a child will not enter it, because the kingdom belongs to such as these.” Whose kids are these? Like the mustard seed, kids are marginal and inconvenient, especially kids of divorce. So, we had better be ready to welcome them, or we might miss the inconvenient kingdom. The kingdom is an entirely new kind of household, with mother and brother and sister defined as whoever does the desire of Jesus Father, and the kids defined as all these ones who are under foot.
The bit about the two becoming one flesh is as much descriptive as prescriptive. Anyone who has lived through divorce will tell you, no matter how amicable it may have been, that it was like major surgery — it proves a great insult to the system. That single flesh has to be cut or torn back into two. Genesis interestingly sets marriage into the context of creation. It is not about the man and the woman, it is about creation. I wonder what marriage and other relationships would look like if we set them in the context of the communion of the church and of nature; if instead of standing by clucking our tongues as couples in our midst go through the trauma of separation, we understood that the very fabric of creation was being hurt, and did what we could to heal that hurt, whatever the outcome. At the very least, we need to wrap those children in our arms.