Friday, August 13, 2010

More marriage

I was at mass today, I try to go on Friday, and got what is one of my favourite Gospel readings, which I reproduce below with comments. This is the NRSV translation which, for better or for worse, we use here in Canada. I think mostly for the better but with some serious reservations that I will not discuss here. (My preferred translation would be somewhere between the RSV and NRSV).
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?"
I think the important thing here is not to rush to judge the Pharisees. Pharisee has become a pejorative term as if to be a Pharisee was somehow some sort of especially evil person. They were not. Much like the word "hypocrite", the word Pharisee should inspire us to be humble. We are all hypocrites and we are all like Pharisees sometimes.

Oftentimes when someone asks Jesus a question they do so to trip him up. The question "Should we pay taxes to the emperor?", for example, was a trick question meant to get Jesus into trouble. That is not the case here. Remember that so far as the Pharisees know, Jesus is just another itinerant preacher arrived in town. They quite literally mean to test him as in let's see what the guy can do with an important legal question.

So let's see.
He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at 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 flesh'?
This is an interesting move. Remember that Jesus has been asked a specifically legal question: "is it lawful?" We Pharisees should expect Jesus to quote a law here but he doesn't. He quotes the creation story. He doesn't give us a law but a purpose: as if to say, let me remind you why you were created and remind you what you are supposed to be aiming for in life. I know I've said this dozens of times before: the message is that the real me is not what I am but someone I am supposed to become.
So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.
Let no one separate! Not the man, not the woman and not anyone else. Do not be a stumbling block for someone else's marriage. The point here is not that there is some rule that you will break by doing this but that you will be interfering with God's purposes.

We Pharisees, we just can't help ourselves, want laws, so we try and get him back on the law.
They said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?"
A quick aside here on the law. Laws are not powers but procedures and controls. They protect the people involved. Over and over again, Leviticus hammers home the point that everyone is entitled to due process and we might remind ourselves of this here. To give a certificate is a formal process and it requires us to state a reason and that reason will be held against us. It had better be a good reason.

We Pharisees have mistaken the point of the law of Moses and taken it as a power we have when it is really a limit on our actions.

And Jesus will now hit us with that. Hard-hearted here is a reminder of how unfair we will be to women if left to our own resources.  That was not God's purpose.
He said to them, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that 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.
This is a challenging reading for Catholics because we will not allow divorce even in case of unchastity. Why not? I've never seen the argument spelled out. Does anyone else know?

Whatever the stated reason, I suspect the real reason is pragmatic. Allow exceptions and those exceptions will be abused. It's just too easy to use this as a loophole. And it should be not just hard but very hard to annul a  marriage. Is that a  good enough reason to disregard the apparently plain teaching of Jesus in this passage? That's not for me to decide.

I will say, however, that one issue the Church might address further is plight of the person who enters a marriage in good faith and is betrayed by their spouse. I say "address further" because current canon law regarding annulment already addresses the issue of the person who does not mean to enter marriage, does not understand what they are vowing to do or decide to tell lies rather than make vows. Anyway, it seems to me that there are too many blameless people whose spouses made legitimate marriage vows and then later violated these vows and it seems to me we should do more for them.

Let's move on. Note what the disciples say here. We are too suspicious of the Pharisees and not nearly hard enough on the disciples sometimes. Note that they are shaken by what Jesus has just said. Are they trying to convince him to soften his tone? I think they are.
His disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry."
We might remind ourselves here that the context here is a society where men have all sorts of rights and women do not. The disciples are feeling a little aggrieved here; the gist of their question is, "What do you mean taking away our special privileges?" Or, to put it more crudely, "Hey Jesus, don't mess up a good thing." Fat chance guys, he hits them hard, harder than he hits the Pharisees. Note the "but" below, if you are reading it right, it should hit you in the face like a sock full of quarters.
But he said to them, "Not everyone can accept this teaching but only those to whom it was given."
Stop griping about whether marriage is good enough for you and ask instead whether you are good enough for marriage!

By the way, this passage and what follows is sometimes mistakenly read as if Jesus were changing subjects here and talking about celibacy. As if Jesus were agreeing with the disciples that it is better to not marry. But he isn't saying that, he is saying that only those who believe they are strong enough to keep to God's purpose for marriage should marry. We might call this mistake Origenal sin in reference to Origen who is said to have castrated himself in response to what follows. (We don't know that the story about Origen is true and I certainly hope it is not.)
For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
I'm going to repeat myself: Jesus is NOT talking about the celibate priesthood here. When he says "made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" he means getting married. ANd this is kind of shocking.

It's hard to conjure up a sense of just how shocking the teachings of Jesus must have been to those who first heard them. This one must have had them clutching their hearts and gasping for breath.

To get a  feel for that, let's remind ourselves just how one sided the law about adultery was for most of history (and remember this all started with a narrow question about the law put by us Pharisees). To commit adultery meant two things. It was adultery for a man to have sex with a woman who was married to someone else and it was adultery for a married woman to have sex with a man who was not her husband. Laws against adultery were primarily intended to protect the rights of the husband and these rights were often conceived of in terms of property rights; the rights of a man to make sure that the son he passed his property on was really his son. David Hume still saw it that way at the time of the "Enlightenment".

Jesus is telling us something very different than that. He is telling us that to get married is to make yourself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of God. Let me put it really crudely: the next time you have an erection look down at it and consider that that erection now belongs to your wife as much as you. You can only use it when the two of you are together and only with her consent. Forsaking all others until death do you part.

That would have shaken the men in the crowd right to the core. And now we can go back and read the disciples question again and read it as the fearful and outraged statement of guys who see their accustomed privileges being taken away from them: "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." They mean, "Hey, if that is the way it is I don't want anything to do with this. This is too hard, I'm taking my favourite toy and going home."

And if you think Christianity is anything like Islam, this should set you straight about how different it is.

This also raises an interesting question: Can this teaching be reversed and applied to women? I would say only in a limited way and only with great caution. I'd argue that women now have freedoms and rights much like those of men so yes, we can start saying that this hard teaching applies to them. But, and this is a huge BUT, we cannot forget that for most of history the legal system was loaded heavily in favour of men. And it was so when Jesus taught this lesson; that is, he meant this as a corrective for men. He meant this as a message for men first.

Finally, Jesus says,
"Let anyone accept this who can."
And here we might note that this is the opposite of what is sometimes taken as the implied message of Paul's saying it is better to marry than to burn. Jesus is not saying marriage is the choice for people who are not strong enough to be celibate. He is saying that marriage is only for those who are strong enough to accept the serious commitment that it is.

This point was made very nicely at a renewal of marriage vows I attended a few years ago. The priest was a very rigid, very conservative man and so we sat down for his sermon expecting him to lay down the law about marriage. Instead he said that it is wrong to take priests as the model for husbands. This was a jolt because priestly or religious vocations are often given as the exemplary life that the rest of us should look up to. Instead, he said, "When I consider what it is to be a good priest I have to look to the example of men I know who are good husbands."

Not just any husband. mind you, but a good husband. Which brings me back to the legal question. Laws should state the minimum requirements. Where many Catholics go wrong, it seems to me, is trying to invent laws that will deal with every possible occurrence. This makes for a huge number of laws, many of which are onerous. Laws are only the starting point. The real point is God's purpose. And here I finish by standing by my praise of the ideal of marriage. Not everyone can do it and not everyone who aims for it will succeed. Just about everyone will slip from that ideal, I certainly have, but marriage means aiming at that very high ideal.

1 comment:

  1. You raise many good points here, including the historical context in which Jesus was speaking. In response to your query, I believe that the Church's disallowance of divorce even in cases of unchastity is in keeping with the spirit of Jesus' words about marriage and divorce. As Margaret Farley so effectively demonstrates in "Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics," the earliest proscriptions by the Church against divorce and pre- or extramarital sex were based on concern for women and some very practical considerations, specifically, who will take care of the woman (and the children who were likely to result). Back then, women were considered property, first of their fathers and then of their husbands. These admonitions by Jesus about cleaving to one another and the two become one flesh, and later proscriptions by the Church were to put men on notice and say "wait a minute, you can't just use women and then cast them aside." Divorce made the woman a pariah, a woman of dishonor, in the street with no means of support for herself or her children. So, what Jesus was trying to do was to elevate the status of women to the level of a full human person with rights and dignity. Of course the men were uncomfortable with that! Some have even made a compelling argument that Jesus was the first feminist.

    Times change, women are no longer considered property, can support themselves, own property in their own name, and at least in theory have all of the rights and priveledges as men, including when and with whom to have children. So I think the question for us is how can the spirit of what Jesus said be applied in 2010. For some couples, the best way to live up to that ideal that Jesus spoke of, which amounts to love and respect for one another, is to divorce.