Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Four)

What is the status of marriage in the age to come? As we’ve noted previously, this question will occur to many of our listeners this week. And both the question and answers will bother and even upset some of our listeners. This isn’t the primary issue in our text. Nor does it appear to be a major concern for Jesus. Yet, this question motivates the text and can, perhaps, assist us in our interpretation.

Is marriage a divine creation or a human institution? Spoiler alert – I think the answer is “yes,” but leaning heavily toward “human institution.” While marriage may not be a central concern in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, marriage is certainly present in the texts. In the first creation account, the emphasis is on human beings made in the divine image. And human beings are to be fruitful and multiply on the face of the earth. No marriage there.

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In the second creation account, we learn that it is not good for human beings to be alone. God wondered if one from among the animals might remedy the situation. But a fit partner was not found there. Therefore, God made a fit partner for the man. The translation of “helper” for the Hebrew word “ezer” is not helpful – not unless we recall that the other one called “ezer” in the Hebrew scriptures is God.

There is no subordination of the woman to the man in either of the creation accounts. In fact, what subordination we do find in the text comes as a result of the Fall. Therefore, that sort of power relationship was not intended in God’s creation. It may be some sort of accommodation to human sin. Or it may simply be outside of God’s intention. In either case, however, the subordination of women to men is not a feature that will be carried into the age to come.

Some readers might point to Genesis 2:24 as the basis for a divine institution of marriage: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). The word translated as “therefore” in this verse is actually two Hebrew words. The sense of the phrase is “because of” or “as a result of.”

Because the Lord made a fit partner for the man, and because the man recognized the woman as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” human beings (at least those who held these texts as sacred) took a customary course of action. There is nothing in the text that suggests this course of action was designed or decreed by God. The outcome, that they become “one flesh,” is certainly consistent with the man’s experience. But the text does not describe marriage as specifically designed or directed by God.

I don’t wish to denigrate marriage between a man and a woman. Nor do I wish to deify it. Marriage can be an important way to organize one sort of human connection. But as marriage exists in human experience, it is a construction rather than a “natural” state. The sheer diversity of marriage customs, practices, laws, and rules in human societies gives testimony to this fact. Relationships between human beings can be organized in an astonishing variety of ways. That diversity means that the organizing structures have been built by human hands.

This gets more complicated when Jesus is challenged to interpret divorce regulations in the Torah and the first-century practices that come out of those regulations. In Matthew 19:7, some Pharisees point out to Jesus that the Torah allowed for men to divorce their wives. Jesus returns to the creation accounts. It’s always interesting to me that Jesus quotes from both of them.

In the light of God creating men and women and allowing them to join as “one flesh,” human practices should reflect those realities. It’s clear that the Torah constructs ways to manage those practices for Jews. And further teaching and practice continue to build additional stories on to that ground floor. The additional construction must reflect the nature of the foundation, or the structure will collapse under its own weight.

The Torah begins with sexual differentiation, the need for procreation, and the need for human community. We human beings have built all sorts of stories, practices, assumptions, and institutions on those few “facts” of creation.

What we have constructed will not be necessary in the age to come. Sexual differentiation will likely be a continuing reality because the new bodies we have will still be “our” bodies. But that differentiation will not be particularly important because we will be “like the angels.” There will be no need for procreation since life with God will not come to an end. And human community will be part of the gift of the community of all creation, the “new heaven and the new earth,” as it is described in the book of Revelation.

So, I think our text urges us to hold on to our constructions lightly, not tightly. We humans slip too easily into assuming that what we build is, in fact, “natural.” When we do that, we are usually creating a story that gives life to ourselves and takes life away from others. Whatever gives and sustains life will find its way into the age to come. Whatever takes and destroys life will not.

For some perspective, let’s think about “race.” In biological terms, there is the human race. All other senses of “race” are social constructions. They are not genetic realities. Human beings show up in this life with a variety of phenotypes (how we express our genetic endowment as individuals). We have small variations in our genotypes (the genetic information we carry with us). But there is very little relationship between the variations in genotype and phenotype.

In biological terms there are no “races.” Yet, the power of racialized constructions is the power or life and death. We White Europeans have spent five hundred years constructing stories about “racial” differences that advantage us in every way. We have built entire cultures, polities, and economies on the fiction of “natural” differences between the races. In those stories, the White people are always the best, the most deserving, the winners.

When we construct such stories, we typically reverse cause and effect. For example, Victor Ray gives this brief assessment of the eugenics movement in the United States. This movement, not coincidentally at its height during the Jim Crow era, sought to root the racist system in America in “natural” differences between people.

“Eugenicists who attributed differences in life expectancy and literacy rates to biology,” Ray writes, “were laundering social prejudice through scientific jargon, by providing a defense of and justification for racial inequality, not an explanation of underlying causes” (page 10). The constructed system, by intention, produced differential outcomes. Then that system used those outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between White and Black people.

The same critique can be made of the patriarchal system at work in our text and still in our own culture. We see differential outcomes for women when it comes to average earnings, healthcare outcomes, and opportunities for advancement. The patriarchal system is designed to precisely produce those differences. Then the system uses the different outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between men and women. Of course, those differences don’t really exist. But the system does.

Therefore, even though “race” as a biological reality is not real, “races” as social constructions are very real. Yet, what has been built can be unbuilt. What has been constructed can be deconstructed. I’m not suggesting that this is easy or simple. We White Europeans have invested five centuries or more in building and sustaining the system of White Supremacy around the globe. It may take that many centuries to dismantle this damnable system.

I think that our text reminds us to hold our human constructions lightly. The moment those constructions take life rather than give it, destroy life rather than sustain it, those constructions must be attacked and abandoned. If the Temple system, for example, becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If human government becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If our theological system becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If the way we organize the relationships between men and women becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go.

One could argue that we’re comparing apples and oranges in comparing race and gender. However, that’s not the case. I’m not suggesting that phenotypical differences are an illusion. They are not. Nor am I suggesting that sexual differentiation is a mirage. It is not. What we do with those differences, however, makes all the difference. “Race” is a social construction. So is gender. What has been constructed, can be deconstructed.

And what is constructed are structures, not merely individual actions. “Structural racism doesn’t mean individual racism is inconsequential,” Ray writes. “It means individual racism is empowered by its incorporation into a system that can magnify its impact through biased patterns of resource allocation” (page 18). A similar description can be offered for patriarchal systems of power and privilege. And when such systems are combined, for example in the lives of Black women in the United States, the life-denying power in those individual lives is devastating.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims can bring a particular analytical lens to life, if we’re willing to apply it first to ourselves. We humans tend to build things that benefit us. Then we worship those things and pretend that things have always been this way. That’s called idolatry. That’s what is really at stake in our text and in this section of the Lukan account. What things have we built and then turned into deities? Will we let the Holy Spirit challenge and change those realities in our systems and in ourselves?

References and Resources

Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/69656828/Whose_Wife_Will_She_Be_A_Feminist_Interpretation_of_Luke_20_27_38?auto=citations&from=cover_page.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Ray, Victor. On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care. Random House, 2022.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part One)

22 Pentecost C/All Saints Sunday 2022

In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Kyle Brooks notes that some might compare the controversy in this week’s reading to the medieval question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Brooks does not reduce the debate to such triviality, but he doesn’t address the real and quite personal questions this text will raise for many of our listeners. For those in our pews and on our feeds who are widowed and/or divorced, this debate will have immediate resonance.

We can dispense with the notion that the wife might remain the property of a husband in the afterlife. We may return to that downstream, but for now, let us stipulate that this is not an issue worthy of our attention for the moment. Instead, the question that will ring through the minds of many is clear. In the next life, whatever it looks like, what will remain of and/or carry over from this life?

“Love you” and “forever” go together in our normal discourse like “peanut butter” and “jelly.” A large fraction of pop love songs would disappear if we did not have this notion of “eternal” love. Some religious traditions make this a part of their theological and moral foundations. The idea that marriages formed in this life endure beyond this life is common and treasured by many.

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Even when the marriage ends in this life through divorce, the question still remains. That’s especially true for Christians. After all, Jesus is the one who emphasizes the “one flesh” nature of the marital bond. And he is the one who says that what God has put together no human being should put asunder. If one has forged multiple marriage bonds in this life, what part if any of those multiple bonds will remain and/or carry over into another life?

I am a widower. I have the great blessing of being married to two of the finest women ever to walk this earth. I am, of course, completely unbiased in that opinion (ha! Ha!). I should clarify that I have been married to these two women serially rather than concurrently. I believe and trust that the Holy Spirit has forged bonds in each of these marriages beyond human will and preference. If that is the case, to whom (if anyone) will I be “married” in the next and new life?

Therefore, the question from the Sadducees to Jesus may be one of the most contemporary questions possible for some in our pews (and pulpits). It is neither academic nor esoteric. The situation may seem comic in its exaggeration. But the question is serious in its implications.

“The sons of this age marry and give in marriage,” Jesus replies to the Sadducees, “but those who have been counted as worthy to obtain that age and to the resurrection from the dead shall neither marry nor give in marriage” (Luke 20:34b-35, my translation). Marrying and giving in marriage are both male activities in this context. Men marry women. Fathers give daughters. Those institutions will not continue in the age to come.

One reason for this change, of course, is that the need for procreation shall cease. “For neither shall they be able to die,” Jesus continues in verse thirty-six, “for they are like angels, and they are sons of God, being children of the resurrection” (my translation). As most commentators note, Jesus is not suggesting that people become “angels” when they die. The word is quite clear here. They become like angels since they are no longer subject to mortality.

More to the point, they are no longer offspring of human beings. That physical birth is not what begins and sustains their life in the age to come. Instead, they are “offspring of the resurrection.” It is the resurrection which gives them the life that is like that of the angels. That life is not rooted in human procreation. Nor is it rooted in a human “family unit.” Institutions of human family – whether biological or otherwise – do not have the same reality and force in the age to come.

I think this line of thinking can produce immense pain for those who have lost a spouse – either to death or through a painful divorce. It’s easy to hear in this analysis that our closest relationships in this life don’t matter much in the next life. Sometimes that sense leaches into our conversation in the here and now, with traumatizing consequences.

When my first spouse died, I was inconsolable. I mean that people found it hard to find the words to comfort me. And I was pissed off by most words of comfort. One well-meaning soul said to me, for example, that God needed my spouse. That’s why she died so young and so unexpectedly. I replied that as far as I could tell, I needed her more. You can imagine that it was an uncomfortable exchange for all. I experienced the comment as a way to diminish the importance of our relationship to one another. If only I could put my loss in that divine perspective, the argument ran, then I wouldn’t be so hard to console.

That’s the danger here, I think, for preachers. We can easily make these relationships into zero sum commodities. We can hear Jesus saying that being married is of value for this life. But it ceases to have value in the next and new life. The more we value our relationship with God in Christ for eternity, the less we must value our relationships and commitments in this life. If that’s how I must view my first marriage and my loss of my first spouse, then frankly I’m not very interested in the whole conversation.

This is the risk in any Christian conversation about this life and the next. We are so often tempted to make the next life “more” by describing this life as “less.” We are known historically (at least in White western Christianity) as describing this life as a “vale of tears.” We focus on how wonderful heaven will be in comparison. We describe the Resurrection as an escape hatch from this miserable existence and heaven as pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. We make the new life more by making this life less.

As we’ll discuss further this week, that’s not the New Testament view of the Resurrection and the New Life. For example, our connections and commitments in this life will not be discarded in the next and new life as unimportant. Instead, they will be fulfilled and transcended in the next and new life. Our ability to relate to one another as married people, for example, is possible because God has created us to not be alone (see Genesis 1-3). We Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ. Out of that connection arise our other experiences of Christian community.

When I think about the new and next life, I have a humorous image in my imagination. I can see my two spouses from our earthly life sitting together talking about me. They are laughing until they cry about my quirks and foibles. After all, who could understand one another better than two women who had been married to me? This sharing would have no malice in it. I will laugh as hard and enjoy the conversation just as much as they will. And we will have this conversation as siblings in Christ, living together in the eternal communion of the saints.

As N. T. Wright so often reminds us, in the Resurrection nothing good in this life will be lost. We don’t have to make the realities of this life less in order to experience the hope of the next and new life as more. All that is good about my marriages will be kept for the life to come – not because marriage is “forever,” but because God the Creator is faithful. That’s the real punchline of this story in Luke 20: “but [God] is not God of the dead but rather of the living, for to [God] all are living” (my translation). We may get the chance to discuss “Christian presentism” in a downstream post. But for now, let’s be clear that whatever gives life in this life will be part of the next and new life.

I’ve been asked many times, “Will I see my loved one in heaven?” That loved one may be a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a child, a friend, or a pet. I always answer with firm conviction, “Yes, you will. I am sure of that.” Part of the question, however, often is like this. “Will I have the same relationship with my loved one in the next and new life that I’ve had in this life?” Some hope the answer will be yes. Others pray the answer will be no.

I think Christian tradition tells us that our relationships of love in this life will endure into the next and new life. However, what is broken in those relationships will be healed or discarded. What is good in those relationships will remain and be enhanced. Our relationships will be more in the next and new life, not merely different. We will be in the communion of saints, connected with one another and all of the New Creation in the ways that the Creator intended for us from the beginning.

While this line of thought is not the center of the controversy in the Lukan account, I am certain it will be in the minds of many of our listeners. I think it’s pastorally necessary in many settings to offer this sort of conversation and counsel this week. And it can lead to a fruitful conversation about the nature of Resurrection and trust in the Communion of Saints.

Text Study for Mark 10:1-16 (Pt. 5); October 3, 2021

Talk is Cheap, Even for Preachers

This text has come around a dozen times in my preaching experience. After one of those times, some years ago, a no-nonsense parishioner (who had been divorced and was remarried) came to me and said, “That was all very nice, Pastor. I’m impressed with your theories. But the text is the text. Jesus says that if I get divorced and remarried, I’m guilty of adultery. Nothing you say changes that. Nothing you say makes me feel less ashamed in church. Nothing you say changes how church people have treated me over the years. So, thanks again, but not much has changed for me.”

No matter how we think about it, preaching is an exercise in pastoral care. We can embrace that reality or evade it. But it will be there. And it will be there with a vengeance as we preach on Mark 10.

There’s no arguing with that parishioner’s experience. No matter how much exegesis and analysis we do, the realities remain. How do we address this in our preaching? I’m not suggesting for a minute that somehow I’ve gotten this “right” over the years. I have not lived through a divorce, so I cannot speak from inside that experience. I do have some pretty close connections with people who have divorced and remarried, but it’s still an observational reality to me.

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I think it’s critical to identify that up front. If the preacher has lived through one or more divorces, it’s important to say that. If, like me, the preacher has not, it’s important to say that as well. And for me, it’s important to repeat several times that I speak as an observer, not a participant. My thoughts should be evaluated accordingly.

It is also important, I think, to regard divorce as an experience of loss and even death and to speak about it accordingly. I think that a divorce is the public funeral for a marriage that has already died. Relationships can die in a variety of ways. Relationships can be starved to death. Relationships can be beaten to death. Relationships can be bankrupted or rejected. Some relationships just die of natural causes as well. And then there are the relationships which were never born or died stillborn in the earliest stages.

In all these cases, it is wise and caring to treat the reality behind a divorce as the death of a relationship. Therefore, one of the basic dynamics of life after a divorce is grief. Whatever the grief experience might be, I would recommend the resources of Dr. Alan Wolfelt as part of the response. Dr. Wolfelt has brought his expertise and experience to life after divorce. In particular, his book, The Wilderness of Divorce: Finding Your Way, will be helpful (See the “References and Resources for a link).

In addition, Wolfelt has resources for journaling and reflection as part of the grief journey of life after divorce. I think it doesn’t hurt to have some samples of such resources available on your shelf when you preach on this text.

Where there is grief, there will be shame. Loss always feels at some point or another like a failure. That is certainly true of the loss experienced during and after a divorce. Divorced people wonder over and over again what they could have done differently. Being human, they are equipped with the capacity to regret and ruminate endlessly. All of us have a thousand things we might have done differently on any given day. Life after divorce leads a person to reflect on the wrong turns, the missed opportunities, the hidden signals that led up to the end.

Shame is a terrific burden for any of us. As preachers, we must do all we can not to add to that burden for any of our listeners. No one needs our help to feel more ashamed. Our success-oriented, officially optimistic culture reminds us every day in minute detail of our flaws and failures. It’s not our job to increase that load. Every divorced person in the crowd will be sure that the preacher is speaking directly to them and specifically about them.

It does no good to minimize the grief, the shame, and the sense of exposure our divorced listeners will experience during our sermons. Better, I think, to frankly acknowledge those realities. I have taken the opportunity during some messages to say that for a few moments I’m going to share with the congregation what I’ve heard from divorced people. I won’t speak as an expert but rather as a witness. Afterwards, I have been thanked by divorced people for that witness. It’s something we can do to be helpful.

It’s not a waste of time to describe the differences between first-century divorce and twenty-first century divorce. It’s important to equip people and give them permission to get some distance from the text and to begin to loosen its direct application to their lives. This text fits, as we have seen, into a larger framework and context. I don’t want people to think that I’m fiddling with the text in order to address an agenda. At the same time, I want people to have a more accurate appreciation of the realities of what we are hearing and reading.

So, a brief description of the differences between then and now is often useful and helpful. The same is true of the place of power in this text and Jesus’ critique of the systems of domination in the cultures both then and now. We don’t want to repeat the tactics of the Pharisees or the errors of the disciples. When we know better, we can do better.

Before we move on to that larger framework, I think it’s important to affirm marriages that happen after a divorce. While we can point to the text’s concern about serial divorce for the sake of personal preference, that’s not an accurate description of many marriages after divorce.

Instead, I like to talk about the fact that we are Resurrection people. If divorce is the public funeral for a relationship that has died, then there is the possibility of new life after that death. I have seen Jesus bless far too many later marriages with life and love, with joy and happiness, with grace and growth, to believe that they are not of God. This does not make our words about divorce any easier. But we can acknowledge what we see and thank God for the new life.

This may also be the opportunity to affirm and acknowledge that married life is hard. Our culture still wants us to believe that there are people out there somewhere who have blissful lives together with no problems now or on the horizon. I’ve not met any such people. Being married is a demanding kind of intimacy. We can help people by admitting that out loud as the norm for our human communities. And we can think together about how our faith communities can be supportive of all sorts of intimate and committed connections.

I’m also glad to be able to say now that marriage is not only an issue for heterosexuals. People are just people, and marriage is just as hard. Marriage is also not the normative standard for relationships. Friendship is hard. Being someone’s child or parent is hard. Being a sibling is hard. The standards Jesus describes for healthy marriage apply equally, but with different dynamics, to any human relationship we can mention.

That’s important because this text, which is in the section of Mark most about inclusion, can so easily exclude. The marriage between a man and a woman, as described in Genesis, is an example of human relationship – not the goal or the ideal. I have preached sermons that focused so much on marriage that the single people in the crowd felt like they should have stayed home. That was a homiletical error that I hope I’m not repeating now.

At some point, I hope we get to the good news in the text. It’s really the same good news as we had the first time we had a “little children” story in Mark. Let’s assume that we haven’t been successful in dealing with the grief, the shame, the exclusion, the arrogance, the injustice, the anger, and the pain in this text (that’s a fair assumption). The end of it is Jesus assertively embracing and blessing children brought to him.

Remember, children are not regarded as particularly valuable in this culture. They are, if anything, liabilities. Even if I come to Jesus grieving, ashamed, rejected, wronged, enraged, and suffering, I can expect him to hold me and bless with unconditional love and acceptance. Even if I don’t believe one word of that preacher who’s trying to make it all better, that won’t change my place in the Kin(g)dom of God one whit.

If that’s true for Jesus, then it must be true for the Church. There’s the challenge, of course. Is our congregation a hospital for sinners or a museum for saints? Do we welcome the broken with blessing, or do we expect people to check their struggles at the door?

This is the real challenge of this text and this section of the Markan composition.

References and Resources

Dube, Z., 2014, ‘Welcoming outsiders: The nascent Jesus community as a locus of hospitality and equality (Mk 9:33–42; 10:2–16)’, In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi 48(1), Art. #1379, 7 pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ids.v48i1.1379.

Lewis, Karoline (1). https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16.

Lewis, Karoline (2). https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/dependence-needs.

Lose, David. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-19-b-communities-of-the-broken-and-blessed/.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-5.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-2.

Vitalis-Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-3.

Wolfelt, Alan. The Wilderness of Divorce: Finding Your Way. https://www.centerforloss.com/bookstore/the-wilderness-of-divorce-finding-your-way/#:~:text=Wolfelt%20describes%20ten%20Touchstones%20that,%E2%80%93%20a%20vast%2C%20mountainous%20forest.

Text Study for Mark 10:1-16 (Pt. 4); October 3, 2021

Who Benefits?

I worked part-time for several years as a mediator in Nebraska. Most of my work in those years was assisting divorcing parents in developing parenting plans to which both they and the court could agree. I entered the work with a lot of idealism about how creative and flexible, how careful and compassionate, how specific and, well, human, these plans could be. In our training we saw examples of such sprightly and serious plans – where novel solutions to difficult problems produced real results.

It didn’t take long before Reality set in. As far as the court system was concerned, my job was to help parents produce a plan that was as simple as was practical and that hewed to the court-produced template as closely as possible. Deviations from that template were carefully scrutinized and often rejected with little comment. Creativity was a liability in this work, not an asset.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Please understand that I am not describing the attitudes of particular people in that system. I met and worked with many folks who wanted precisely what I did from the system – a human and humane response to a difficult situation that was unlike any of the thousands of other difficult situations that came through the system in a given year. But the demands of the law, the limits of human endurance and patience, and the layers of administration worked against all of our best instincts and intentions.

In my experience, human parents and children were made for the system. The system was not made for human parents and children. It’s not that every parenting plan was the same cookie-cutter result based on the pre-determined pattern. But it was the case that if the requirements of the system and the needs of the humans conflicted, the system always won.

In addition, no system built by humans is either objective or innocent. At the very least, the family plan system in our state was, at least in those years, built by attorneys for attorneys. I am not an attorney (although it would be fun to play one on TV), and I was not going to be part of that system. I was often regarded as an amateur who was taking money away from real professionals who needed every penny they could scrounge in a highly competitive business.

Finally, despite what some groups might assert, the system continued to lean in favor of the fathers. There were efforts to address that imbalance, but they were only modestly successful. There were and are cases where, in fact, the father is poorly and unfairly treated. That should not happen either. But in general, it was and is a system designed by males, run by males, and evaluated by males – at least at the levels of policy and administration.

Again, I am not suggesting that individuals in the system in general had such male-centric perspectives and priorities. I worked with people of all types who wanted the system to be as compassionate and humane as possible. Many people recognized the liabilities and abuses inherent in the system and did what they could to correct for such issues. It was the system itself that was designed in this way and functioned this way pretty much on its own.

Why have I taken this trip down my avocational memory lane? The Pharisees who come to Jesus with their question about divorce law remind me of representatives of the marriage and family legal system. Perhaps they regard Jesus as a rank amateur when it comes to the interpretation of the Law in the Hebrew scriptures, and they want to sort him out on that score. The “test” may have been designed to put the upstart, extra-normal rabbi in his place. I experienced such treatment from the “real” professionals on any number of occasions.

More than that, the question they ask is about a case, not about any real human beings. There is no mention of the possible abuse the woman received at the hands of her husband prior to being discarded. There is no thought given to the fact that the woman would likely be cast into destitution (and perhaps prostitution) when the process was executed.

There are no children mentioned at all – perhaps because infertility was often a cause of such divorces. Men wanted male heirs to inherit their power, position, privilege, and property. The ancients had little idea about male infertility. It was always the woman’s “fault.” And as mentioned in a previous post, there was no acknowledgment that the textual basis for the position on divorce was a flimsy platform at best.

It was a system designed by males, for males, and solely under male administration. The system regarded the sexual functioning of women – female bodies – as the property of a male. If a woman’s body was not the property of her father, then it should be the property of her husband. If the husband renounced that property right, the woman’s body did not become her own. It became the “common” property of any man who might take advantage of the situation.

It might seem that Jesus not only subscribes to the system in the end but raises the stakes regarding divorce and remarriage to the highest possible level. The Markan composer continues their practice of portraying Jesus’ public position to the crowds and then offering an insider’s view of the instructions Jesus gives to the disciples. Jesus takes the disciples “into the house again,” and this is where the action really happens.

Here the disciples inquire of him concerning the public position. Jesus says to them, “Whoever might divorce [release? Abandon?] his wife and might marry another commits adultery against her, and if she divorcing her husband marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:10-12, my translation).

Matt Skinner makes some helpful observations about these verses in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “When Jesus talks with his disciples in 10:10-12,” Skinner writes, “he says nothing about the rejected partner in a divorce and his or her remarriage. He seems to be speaking specifically against those who leave their partners for others. His point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery,” Skinner argues. “That is, his strongest words are against those who initiate divorce as a means to get something else,” he concludes, “sacrificing a spouse to satisfy one’s desires or ambitions.”

It continues to be important to situate this text in conjunction with Jesus’ three Passion teachings. In Mark 8 Jesus tells the crowd along with the disciples that Jesus’ followers are cross-carriers. Those who pursue the ethic of individual advantage (“those who want to save their life”) will fail in the end. Those who pursue the ethic of self-giving service (“those who lose their life”) will find the Real Life that comes in the Kin(g)dom of God.

The other end of the conversation then happens in Mark 10. The “greater than” game comes to a real head. Jesus declares that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life, a ransom for many. The self-serving, self-interested, self-absorbed power game of the world shall not be the “system” among the Jesus followers. That’s the game we disciples must simply refuse to play.

In the midst of this rhetorical stretch, we get our passage. Serial marriage was a normal reality, especially among the elites, in Greco-Roman culture. Divorce was not going to be one more tool in the self-interested tool bag of those who had the power – men. Nor was it to be, interestingly enough, a tool available to women who had the standing, the resources, and the nerve to pursue such a strategy.

Skinner points out that in his words in the house to the disciples, Jesus elevates women to places of greater equality. The Markan composer assumes that women can initiate a divorce. In addition, “by speaking of a man committing adultery against a woman (and not against her father or her past or present husband), Jesus implies that adultery involves more than violating the property rights of another man. It concerns,” he continues, “accountability to a partner, just as marriage does.”

Jesus’ description assumes that the control of a woman’s sexual functioning is not the “property” of a father or a husband. It is the “property” of the woman. That’s a revolutionary perspective in the first century and still, in some quarters, in the twenty-first century. No human relationship is to be for the advantage of one party in the relationship. No human relationship is to be a casual convenience for the powerful. No human capacity is to be the “property” of another human being.

David Lose puts it well in his 2015 comments. “In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically for the man who sought a divorce – and pushes his interlocutors to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable….The law is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting,” he continues, “and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.”

If Jesus is saying what I think he is saying, then human systems should be biased. Human systems should be biased in favor of the vulnerable and as a protection against exploitation. This will mean that systems should be biased against the powerful. After all, they don’t need any help. They are already powerful. Enlightenment notions of procedural “fairness” will not create such systems. In fact, such notions of “fairness” are mostly camouflage for the features of systems designed by and for the powerful.

The Church is many things. Of course, the Church is – among those things – a human system. We have a long way to go before we are the kind of system that is biased in favor of the vulnerable.

References and Resources

Lewis, Karoline (1). https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16.

Lewis, Karoline (2). https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/dependence-needs.

Lose, David. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-19-b-communities-of-the-broken-and-blessed/.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-5.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-2.

Vitalis-Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-3.

Text Study for Mark 10:1-16 (Pt. 3); October 3, 2021

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.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Pexels.com

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 (1). https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16.

Lewis, Karoline (2). https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/dependence-needs.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-5.

Vitalis-Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-3.