For the millions of married Americans, the Bible offers startlingly few images of what a healthy marriage looks like.
Oh sure, things seem to start out ok in Genesis 1 (“The two shall become one flesh”) and may turn a little more patriarchal in chapter 2 &3 than we’d like today. But they plummet rather quickly from there. To the point it’s almost comical, and nearly impossible to find an example of a healthy family to focus on, unless of course you’re a polygamist (which is totally Biblical, it’s just not legal). Take for example the dysfunctional family Noah grew up in, or that Abraham, Esau, and Jacob each created. That’s to say nothing of David or Solomon, whose sex drives were epic and completely broke apart their family (Solomon had 1000 official women at his service). Certainly nothing I’d like to emulate!
I know, I know: what about Mary and Joseph? Didn’t they have a great marriage? Perhaps they did. But it was one forged through the fires of public ridicule and swirling rumors of Mary’s illegitimate pregnancy. The fact is, when it comes to narrative, the bible offers little help.
One could argue the Bible’s true merit in marital relationships is its legal references, particularly as they pertain to divorce and guarding against the abuse of power. But all the stoning prescribed reminds me all too much of Lord of the Flies and doesn’t really help me in my day to day life with Hannah.
But what about Jesus, as a single guy and only Son, does he offer anything of help? It’s important to note that in Jesus’ day the application of marriage laws were willfully imbalanced to favor men. Indeed, all the power was in the hands of husbands, with wives having no power and little protection from abuse. For instance the Pharisee Hillel permitted husbands to divorce their wife on any grounds whatsoever, even for burning dinner. But wives could only divorce in cases of witnessed adultery. In other words, husbands had the first right of innocence and wives the burden of responsibility.
Jesus words about adultery, divorce, and taking oaths in the Sermon on the Mount “pops” out in 3D when read in this context. He takes a different tact; rather than reinforcing male superiority and innocence, he directs his comments at dominant male culture saying, “You have heard it said ‘You shall not commit adultery;’ but I say to you that a man who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
In that one stroke Jesus rebalances marriage and empowers women by charging husbands with the first right of responsibility, not innocence. ‘Men, you think you are innocent of adultery, but if you so much as look at another woman you are guilty!’
And then he flips the script again, this time talking about divorce. He basically says, ‘You’ve heard it said you can give your wife a certificate of divorce, but if you do so you will victimize her. Yes! You will be the oppressor, causing her to sin.’
In a context of male dominance where men can do no wrong and wives can do little right, these words are wildly counter-cultural: freeing both men and women from a system of oppression and abuse. Again, Jesus turns the community of the damned into the community of blessing.
But there’s more. Jesus, human as he was, knew the depths of intimacy, beauty, and pain associated with our sexuality. He dissects lust by revealing its’ destructive capacity through the use of hyperbole, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out…and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off…it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Is the Suffering One advocating self-mutilation? Never. He’s teaching us about the fragility of our sexuality and how sexual impropriety can twist the DNA of our souls. To abuse this delicate gift, or to have our bodies objectified and abused, does irrepairable damage to our humanity. Jesus is telling us in no uncertain terms how carefully we must guard ourselves from the destructiveness of lust and porneia, which are around us more in this culture than his own.
Regarding the culture of marriage, there remain similarities between ours and Jesus’ context: marital monogamy & longevity is not celebrated, divorce is easy, lust is prevalent, woman still have not been elevated to full mutualism. So I offer a big thank you to Jesus for teaching me what Just Marriage can look like. It’s nice to know that with all that Jesus/God has going on to run things here on planet earth, his love extends into the intimacy of dining rooms and bedrooms; indeed, God’s love is for all of life!
And a huge note of appreciation to my parents, Ed and Sue Troyer, married for 43 years! You have embodied for me an amazing relationship. As your feelings have evolved, changed, waxed and waned, you have remained true to each other, and like Jesus commanded, allowed your “Yes” to remain “Yes”! May it be so for everyone.
[For the most important Biblical look at romance, check out the Song of Songs]
This is the fifth in a series of sermons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You can link to the others here: Part 1: Community of the Damned; Part 2: How Christianity blocks me from following Jesus; Part 3: Remedy for the World’s biggest problems; Part 4: Bridges to [the] cross: Dealing with Conflict Day to Day.