Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 19:1-15) transports me to a battle of sounds in my Oakley house, circa 1971, where the Family Stone singing It’s a family affair came from the eight-track player of my brother Dave’s room, while the hotly contested drama of Divorce Court re-runs blared out for Granny to shake her head at in the living room. Judge Voltaire Perkins would have had a field day with the kinds of family affairs separating husbands and wives back in Jesus’ day. The marriage relationship was a totally different animal in that day and time. The culture of family was far removed from our modern day romanticized version where first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes somebody pushing a baby carriage. Remember the old 70s show, Love, American Style? Well, this ain’t it. In ancient Middle Eastern style, first came an arranged marriage, then a baby carriage. Sometimes romantic love entered the picture, sometimes not.
Moses instituted rites of divorce way back when because the men were becoming fairly heartless when it came to the women folk (if they were ever hearty at all). Back then, women were completely dependent on being married for their economic survival. Single women just didn’t make it on their own. So when a man got tired of his wife’s burnt biscuits or her fading glory, he would simply boot her out and find another wife, a better chef maybe, or a more attractive piece of arm candy to tote around to parties. The rejected wife then had no visible means of support. Moses’ writ of divorce was introduced as a social justice instrument, to give an abandoned woman the opportunity to remarry and regain social security. So when the holy rollers put Jesus to the test, asking him about divorce, trying to pin him down in one camp or another, he rejected their question and went back to the original intent of God in creation. One flesh relationships, marked by lifelong fidelity. And when people carelessly and callously rip that one flesh apart in the pursuit of something better, those greener pastures are likely to produce a thorny and complicated, aka adulterated, life. This was one of those passages that my parent’s generation had many an intense dialogue over, with some sticking to the literal words of Jesus (and Paul), following the logic of 2 + 2 = 4, reasoning that if someone married a divorced person, it was adultery, and since no adulterers would inherit the kingdom, condemnation was in order. There was that one exception granted, of course, leading to the old joke, where a man comes in with some bad news and some good news. Bad news: he just got a divorce. Good news (exceptionally good news) – his wife had been cheating on him. Ha. Joking aside, the hard line (with one exception) was the bold and clear stance of some, until divorce complicated their own family lives, and a fresh reading of scripture was in order. However you read it, though, Jesus was lifting up an ideal, a standard, for our aspirations of both family life and social justice.
The disciples thought this standard – sticking to one woman for life – was a bit high and out of reach, and Jesus admitted that the the holy estate of matrimony between a man and woman is not for everybody. There are people for whom the gift of intimacy with the opposite sex hasn’t been given and shouldn’t be attempted. Men who have been castrated in order to serve as private security for a rich man’s harem (ouch!) – they’re off the hook. As are people who choose to live the eunuch’s life and avoid the complications of marriage in order to devote full attention to the Kingdom. Off the hook. As are people who are created to be eunuchs, that is, born that way. Off the hook. Instead of Here Comes the Bride, all these exceptional folks who might be pressured by family and friends to go the conventional route can sing someone saved my life tonight, sugar bear, you almost had your hooks in me, didn’t you dear, you nearly had me roped and tied, altar bound, hypnotized, sweet freedom whispered in my ear, you’re a butterfly. Jesus seems to be telling his rough and rowdy fishermen followers, if you’re a butterfly, you’re free to fly, but if you’re not in one of these categories of footloose and fancy free folks, then suck it up and figure out how to get someone to the altar. One flesh. Fidelity. For life. This is the core principle we can derive from Jesus’ teaching. Be faithful. It’s a principle that Elton John and David Furnish and other same-sex couples calling for marriage equality share with husband and wife couples. Semper fi, til death do you part. Otherwise, you’ll have somebody besides Elton twanging in your ears: It will be pure H.E. double L for me, oh, I wish that we could stop this D.I.V.O.R.C.E. (anybody name that artist?) I’m just grateful that I lucked out and put the golden band on the right left hand the first time, so I can introduce Kim to strangers as my first wife.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith?