The Complexities of Relationships
Sunday 7th October 2018 (19th Sunday after Trinity) Holy Communion at Clippesby
Genesis 2:18-24 Mark 10:2-16
TEXT: Mark 10:7-8. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Adam awakens from a deep slumber on the best day of creation. Beside him is a new creature, and although he’s never met her before, he recognises her immediately. Body, mind and spirit, she is known to him. He may never have dreamed of her existence. Nevertheless, from the moment he sets eyes on her, he knows that he’s been waiting for her his entire life. The loneliness he’s felt has been his missing of her. Of all God’s splendid gifts to him, this, without question, is the best.
“At last!” he cries. “Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!” He is in love. There is that feeling, that incomparable, defining human feeling. Our ancestor is experiencing it for the first time. His joy fills the universe.
Feel the joy with him. Remember it. Whether in real life or in imagination, it’s a joy we have all known. A partner who is everything to us. A relationship that makes us whole. The lover, companion, friend, soulmate whose presence is delight and fulfilment and blessing.
Think of the blessing of relationship, how two people grow into one another until they know each other’s very dreams. Think of the blessing of the bonding that exists between people who have loved each other well for fifty or sixty or seventy years.
And then feel the pain. The pain when one partner dies and leaves the other alone, that terrible loneliness. The pain when someone you embrace as lover, companion, friend, soulmate, turns out to be nothing of the kind, and love dies. The pain of separating. The pain of not separating. The pain of abandonment. The pain of abuse. The pain of longing for a partner and being unable to find one. The pain of seeing the person you love committed to someone else. The pain of young people measuring themselves against cruel and unyielding standards of what it is to be attractive, imagining themselves unlovable. The pain of being pitied as a single person in a society which believes no one can possibly be happy or fulfilled alone. The pain of being trapped in a relationship which is slowly suffocating you to death.
Adam’s experience is an ideal. The perfect partner. Two become one. It calls to each of us at one time or another. But if each of us has known the joy of Adam’s song as he looks at the woman beside him, each of us has also known suffering. A society – or a church – that holds up the ideal without acknowledging the problems is doing us no favours.
At first glance, Jesus would appear to be making the ideal into some kind of absolute. What God has joined together, let no one separate. What is it that God does to us? Are we made one with our partners like butter and chocolate melted and stirred together in a saucepan, two become one and separation impossible? We could almost believe it. No relationship is dissolved without the tearing apart of the two people concerned.
But how can it be? If two become one, joined together by God, then why are there so many days in even the best of Christian marriages when the two are out of step with each other, either in a frustrating but basically harmless way, or in a way that becomes very serious indeed for a time? Why the need for hard work in a relationship, for constant communication, for generosity and forgiveness? Why would you ever have to forgive a partner with whom you were one? It’s like in the old film, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Which of course is rubbish!
None of these things sounds like Jesus. It wasn’t his style to set up boundaries to human experience. No one has ever been more conscious than he was of the messes human beings get themselves into, or the creativity they were capable of. Nor has anyone ever been more openly committed to setting people free from their constraints and inviting them into new life.
The scholars tell us that the Pharisees themselves were at odds over divorce. The law of Moses had allowed a man to divorce his wife “if she [did] not win his favour because of something offensive in her.” Not the clearest of teachings! One group of Pharisees interpreted that to mean that the woman would need to have committed some offensive act in order for her husband to divorce her. Others said it was enough for her to have the kinds of faults and failings that over time offended him, so that she was no longer in favour with him. A far more casual understanding. Which line did Jesus take?
Jesus repeats to them not the law of Moses but the creation story from Genesis. “In the beginning,” he says, “God made them male and female.” And straightaway he’s moved the goalposts in their argument. Male and female are equal before God. It’s subtle, but it matters. “That is why a man leaves his father and his mother and joins with his wife,” he says, and although he’s simply quoting scripture, here again is a note of revolution!
In the society in which Jesus lived, it wasn’t the man who left his family to get married, but the woman who left hers. At worst in that patriarchal world she was seen as property, the property first of her father’s household, and then of her husband’s. Jesus’ answer is all innocence, but he’s challenged the basic assumptions of a divorce debate based on whether or not a man was still pleased with his wife.
So we’ll not be surprised that later on, in the house, Jesus’ disciples open the topic for conversation again. This time Jesus speaks his own mind, and what he says is quite extraordinary. “Whoever divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery against her.” Impossible! There was no such crime as a man’s adultery against his wife. It didn’t exist in Jewish law. Adultery to them was about a woman betraying the relationship, not a man
“And so too,” Jesus says, “if she divorces her husband and remarries, she commits adultery.” If she divorces her husband?! A woman wasn’t allowed to divorce her husband. It was unheard of. The foundations of society have just been well and truly shaken.
Can we as followers of Jesus affirm the life-giving intentions of God without imposing the straightjacket? We must surely join in singing Adam’s song of joy: love is God’s best gift to us. Can we sing the song and celebrate the anniversaries without condemning those who’ve not found relationship to be a blessing, or who’ve found their blessing in a single life instead?
Are we mature enough as a community both to encourage people to work at their relationships and to acknowledge with them when a relationship has died and should be allowed to end? Our ancestors took the attitude that marriage was indissoluble, believing themselves to be following the law of God, and the effects on people’s lives were sometimes truly horrifying. Have we not seen God’s grace in the lives of people divorced from one partner and married to another?
Accepting divorce doesn’t mean that we become careless in our relationships. We know, with Adam, the longing for a partner who will be a friend to our souls. Such friendships need great care. We know that our relationships will, at the end of the day, be the greatest accomplishments of our lives. They’re worth everything we invest in them. But God never meant for them to destroy us.
A tired church can either spend its time embracing the world with healing and hope, or it can dissipate its life in legalism and intolerance. Maybe that’s the choice of this chapter of Mark? Amen.