November 10, 2019

Pentecost 22C

Biblical Marriage

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” Luke 20:27-38

In 1954, the movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” was nominated for best picture of the year. If this morning’s gospel were to be made into a film, it could be entitled, “One Bride for Seven Brothers”.

The question put to Jesus by the Sadducees, the religious leaders who, unlike their counterpart, the Pharisees, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, certainly sounds bizarre – except for the fact of its being a convoluted argument to invalidate the possibility of resurrection. For of all the important questions they could have put to Jesus, you would otherwise have to wonder, what on earth was going on in their minds that they would waste their time and His time with such nonsense.

After all, what difference would His answer make? Jesus could have said that in the afterlife the woman would have been paired for eternity with her first spouse, or with her last spouse, or would be given a choice among the seven, or that she would be able to claim all seven as husbands.

If men, at the time were able to have many wives, (King David, for example, had a least six wives in Hebron and married many more in Jerusalem), then an after-life correction might have been to accord to women the privilege that in earthly life had been exclusively claimed by men. In other words, in the after life women would be able to claim a number of men as their husbands.

Interestingly, this same David, referred to in the sacred text, as God’s favored one, we read in the book of Samuel, loved his friend Jonathan, more deeply and more passionately than any of his wives or many concubines. Isn’t that an interesting twist?

But we shouldn’t be that hard on those old white guys, those Sadducees. Wasting our minds and time on nonsense issues and foolish questions is a preferred human pastime in any generation. Isn’t it? And how many use convoluted arguments in an effort to make their pointless point?

If we are following the news of the impeachment proceedings, must we not be overwhelmed, by the number of convoluted arguments being advanced, by so many senators, administration lackeys, and FOX News talking heads, in their efforts to make pointless points? I guess when the facts are clear and the truth is obvious, the only option left for those who refuse to accept either or both is a flight into this kind of never-never land.

The biblical world and culture is quite at home with a number of arrangements that are called marriage. One man, one woman was only one expression. Polygamy, for men, who could afford many wives, was certainly another acceptable expression. For monogamists or polygamists to keep a stable of concubines on the side, again as did David, also did not raise eyebrows of social judgment.

What supported these various expressions of marriage was the assumption and deeply held beliefs that women were less than men, and that, in marriage, women became the property of men. And men with impunity could do with their property as they pleased, without the possibility of interference by the wider community.

Biblical marriage was a boon to men and, absent a naturally caring, sensitive, husband, could be a hellish ordeal for wives who had many responsibilities but no rights in marriage.

In a world predominantly ordered by the assumptions and biases of patriarchy, such as the world in which we live today, the suppression, abuse and victimization of women is commonplace and supported, in some cases, even by women. For example, it strains my brain to understand how any woman could have and could continue to support the predator-in-chief. But apparently some do.

In the New Testament narrative, Jesus doesn’t have much to say about marriage and its various expressions. Rather, what he does address is the nature of the relationship between married persons.

Revolutionary that He is, Jesus takes His misogynistic culture head on, and declares that the marital relationship is not to be conceived of in terms of property ownership but in terms of loving mutuality.

While power is more often than not a given in transactional relationships, loving relationships must find their proper ground in respect, devotion and care.

Saint Paul, who himself struggled to disengage from his own misogynistic impulses, is nonetheless constrained to advance this tectonic shift imbedded in the good news of Jesus Christ when he says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves this body the Church that He gave Himself up for her”. And the corollary of this would also hold true. “Wives love your husbands as Christ loves His body the Church.”

We take it for granted that marriage is about the love between two persons a la June and Ward, the Beaver’s parents. But in the time of Jesus, love was not a necessary part of marriage. Marriage was an economic arrangement. A wife was something a man owned. Adultery was an offense against another man’s property rights. If a husband loved a wife as well, this was beyond the ordinary expectation or requirement in marriage.

Though the meaning of His words have been misconstrued, misinterpreted and misrepresented as a categorical pronouncement against the possibility of divorce, Jesus, in fact, makes no such pronouncement.

What He does do is denounce the male prerogative and practice of unilaterally dismissing wives for any frivolous excuse. If a wife burned supper, it was within her husband ‘s rights to ask for a writ of divorce. Again, Jesus denounced the practice of frivolous divorce because this left a woman in a place in which she had no personhood and was entirely at the mercy of the many ways that society victimizes unclaimed and therefore unprotected women.

So when some people go on about biblical marriage, you can wonder if they know what they are taking about.

Are they taking about exclusive monogamy or polygamy or either of these with concubines on the side? But if you read between the lines you know full well that what they are advocating and fear loosing is that style of marital relationship that survives in some of St. Paul’s culturally bound assertions, like his saying that, “Wives should be submissive to their husbands in all things.”

Here Paul is unfortunately more taken by the misogynistic assumptions of his time, than with the thrust of the Gospel’s good news of liberation for women. But again, this same Paul is constrained to say, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.”

Getting back to the Sadducees and their question. To be contextually and properly understood, the response of Jesus could be phrased as follows, “The Kingdom of God is not about your silly levirate laws about securing progeny for a deceased brother and the interface of these laws with eternal life. It is not about your narrow and unquestioned assumptions about what is legal, what it right and what is wrong. The Kingdom of God is about being released from every form of bondage and being freed to live and thrive in relationships that are grounded and celebrated in mutual love.”

This is the essence of marriage. This is what defines marriage. And by extension this is to be the essence of every human relationship, of every relationship that is an acknowledgement and celebration of the interpersonal dynamics of the Kingdom of God.

Relationships of loving mutuality are the only relationships that matter now, and that will be the relational fare of eternal life. It is for disciples of Jesus to continually scrutinize all our relationships so that we remain vigilant about rooting out power dynamics and insuring the presence of that authentic mutuality that is love.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
November 10, 2019