Giving, Getting, and Being
I read the text of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as case law enacted to protect a woman from serial exploitation, especially exploitation by the first husband mentioned in the case. This emphasis is lost in the history of interpretation upon which the Pharisees depend in the discussion reported in Mark 10:1-16. The history of interpretation has extracted a set of permissions from this case law – permissions that were assumed in the case rather than somehow granted in God’s commandments.
Jesus identifies, I believe, this error in assumption and interpretation. Instead of choosing a side in the ongoing interpretive tug of war, he cuts through the debate to the deeper issues. Jesus points to the Creator’s intention that relationships within the Creation are covenants rather than contracts.
While in modern legal vocabulary, these terms are essentially synonyms, I don’t think that’s the case in the Hebrew scriptures. Contracts are transactions conducted between self-interested individuals, each seeking to further that self-interest. Covenants are agreements about the ongoing nature of human community and the gifts and obligations of each partner in those ongoing agreements. Covenants are not transactions of self-interest but rather transformational relationships that build community.
Relationships within Creation, therefore, are not transactions designed to facilitate what I can get. Instead, relationships within Creation are rooted in covenants designed to enhance who we can be together. While, for example, I don’t see marriage as a “sacrament” in the way that the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions might see marriage, I certainly believe that all Christians should see marriage as “sacramental.” People, relationships, and communities are transformed when marriages happen.
I don’t want us to pretend that first-century Mediterranean marriages are the same as twenty-first century American marriages. That’s just silly. Most American marriages don’t involve the merger of the honor and status of two families or the cementing of political alliances (although some high-profile marriages still do exactly that). First-century Mediterranean marriages weren’t subject to the demands of a capitalist economic system and several centuries of Romantic mythology about love, home, family, and self.
If we move directly from the first century to the twenty-first century with no considerations of the intervening centuries, then we will do precisely what the Pharisees did. We will extract some sort of principle to guide decisions. And it will likely be a principle that undergirds power structures and enhances the exploitation of the vulnerable.
Of course, that is precisely what has happened. Regardless of the mythology around love and marriage, we have gotten a primarily contractual and transactional understanding of marriage. That contractual and transactional understanding is really just one example of the larger way that we understand relationships in our framework of neoliberal late capitalism. Everyone and everything is a resource to satisfy my desires. When that resource is found lacking, the market says we should move on to something better.
It’s not that selfish desire has no place in our story about marriage. In fact, if it weren’t for such desire at the beginning of a relationship, there would likely be very few marriages at all. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we usually get into relationships for what we can get. The “getting” may not be material or financial. It may be psychological, social, physical, and even spiritual. I would argue that such desire is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s what gets us together in the first place.
The problem arises when that initial desire is treated as the finish line rather than the starting line. If I never move beyond this desire to get satisfaction from others (human or nonhuman), then relationships must by definition be transactions. An authentic relationship grows from getting into giving. That’s when, for example, a marriage takes a turn toward the long run – when the partners begin to take joy from what they can give to one another rather than only taking pleasure in what they can get from one another.
It’s not that the getting stops and the giving begins. That’s not how we’re wired. Instead, the giving grows out of and builds upon the getting. Most modern marriages find their way into this new, more transformational chapter about seven to ten years into the marriage. Those marriages that don’t make this turn tend not to last much longer.
I’m not saying that all the ongoing self-focused marriages end in divorce. That’s hardly the case. Instead, I have observed that some marriages solidify into relatively comfortable arrangements of two single people sharing a home and family together, but little else. Some people find this situation to be more than enough, and I’m glad for them. I know I wouldn’t find such a situation sustainable, but perhaps that’s just me.
For those people who continue to focus on marriage as a transaction for getting one’s needs met, there usually comes a point where the marriage fails more and more in that regard. As the marriage fails in that way, the need arises for a story to justify one’s dissatisfaction with the relationship. John Gottman describes this story as the “Four Horsemen of the Marital Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
For a brief summary of these destructive invaders, I’d recommend going to this site: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/.
When we move from getting to giving, we relax into our dependence on one another. That dependence is a deep relational reality. It is a dimension of the intimacy for which the Creator makes us. I really appreciate Karoline Lewis’ 2015 reflections on dependence on the workingpreacher.org site. Lewis notes that our relationships provide someone(s) whom we can expect to be dependable and someone(s) on whom we can and do depend. I would add that our relationships also provide someone(s) who depends on me – and I find that to be a deeply meaningful part of any relationship.
“Putting the Mark texts (divorce and children) and the Genesis text side by side,” Lewis (2) writes, “reveals how essential dependence really is.” She notes that one reason for modern divorce is when such dependance has been disappointed and trust has been lost. This reality may be a result of the work of Gottman’s four horsemen, I would add, or it may be facilitated by the work of the four horsemen. In any event, it is central to human relating that we need others, and we need to be needed by others. The essence of our relationships is mutual dependence.
Lewis (2) observes that such a description contradicts our culture’s assertion that independence (aka autonomy) is the hallmark of individuality and the highest good. In our culture there is no worse statement than “I have lost my independence.” Lewis notes that our cultural model of independence is really a “selective dependence.” No one in our culture is truly independent. Just turn off your water and electrical connections for twenty-four hours and see how that works out.
“We convince ourselves of the need for dependency,” Lewis (2) argues, “but only if absolutely necessary, and if we can pick and choose the situations in which it really matters.” Mutual dependence is essential to human flourishing according to the Creator’s design, but such dependence is a necessary evil and a last resort in our cultural understanding. It’s no wonder that following Jesus makes so little sense to so many modern people.
I think that dependence is not, however, the finish line for marriage or any other human relationship. In my experience, we grow from getting to giving to growing together. Social scientists have noted that the longer people are married (or in long-term friendships or have been close colleagues for decades), the more the people in question begin to look alike, sound alike, act alike. It can make for some charming and amusing photo opportunities, but it is certainly true.
For years, I have talked to people about marriage as a process of “growing together.” On the one hand, married people have the opportunity to facilitate and support personal growth in the other person. Being part of that process is a great gift to each person and a source of joy in any healthy relationship. On the other hand, people who have been together for a long time grow “toward” one another as well. The similarities that I mentioned in the previous paragraph are signs of that kind of “growing together.”
After decades, a long-term relationship becomes a project of “being.” The getting and the giving don’t stop. But they become subservient to the building together of a life – a project of meaning and purpose, of joy and hope, of shared suffering and loss. Our relationships are meant to leave the world a better place than we found it and to do that together.
Lewis (2) points out that our relationships are to be mirrors of our relationship with the Creator. And those relationships, when healthy, will lead us into a deeper relationship with the Creator. “Why?” Lewis (2) asks, “So that you might know that dependence on another is but only a foretaste of the promise of the dependence you can entrust to God. God asks you to be dependent, needs you to be dependent, on God. Why?” Lewis concludes, “So that you can be you and so that God can be God.”
Rules about permissible ways for men to exercise power in ending marriages are hardly the priority, Jesus says. Let’s focus on what God intends for our relationships and then try to act accordingly. Stop legislating, he says, and get on with the business of loving the Other for the sake of the Other.
That’s the definition of human community, by the way. More on that in the next post.
References and Resources
Lewis, Karoline (2). https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/dependence-needs.