A Sermon For The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Preached At Christ The King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 7 October 2012
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Gen 2:18)
Today’s readings, and particularly the linkage between Genesis 2 and Mark 10, invite us to think about marriage and divorce. The pairing of these two subjects, particularly on a weekend devoted to giving thanks, doesn’t seem especially inviting, does it? Many of us have experience with divorce, either first hand or through our families and friends. Those of us who know about divorce and still feel called to worship will probably not be pleased to consider the subject today, in church. After all, the church doesn’t have an especially good track record in speaking to divorce. Divorced people often feel condemned by the church, or abandoned by church peers who don’t know how to deal with them, or even feel unable to return to church because of they may feel shame and guilt.
Divorced people know that marriage is hard. Married people know that marriage is hard. It’s especially hard in the military. Stress, frequent time apart, and frequent postings all seem to stack the deck against military marriages working for long periods of time. I am not sure if the probability of divorce is higher in military marriages than in the civilian world, where the chances of divorce are now greater than 50%, but it feels that way.
What words of hope can the church say to those who are married, especially to those who are married in the military world? Given that one sometimes hears calls for the church to get out of the marriage business, it may seem that the church is bereft of words, or wishes to abdicate its role in the face of changing definitions of marriage and gender.
I think that if the church has anything to say, we need to recover and understand the words of our first reading today from Genesis: Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (2:18). However we understand Genesis, whether literally or figuratively, we need to understand it as God’s intention for the world he has created. All theology starts with the doctrine of creation, and that doctrine says, basically, God is good, and creation is God’s good and gracious gift to those God brings into relationship with him. Among the good gifts of God is community.
While God creates humans as being gendered, the traditional translation of Gen 2:18 is misleading. While it says “man”, biblical scholar Sara Koenig reminds us that the word man in the Hebrew, “’adam”, is in fact gender neutral. The verse could be translated as “It is not good that human or person should be alone”. So one key to understanding our human nature is that God never designed us to be solitary creatures. We are created for one another.
A second comment on the language of Gen 2:18 needs to focus on the words “helper” and “partner”. These words do not necessarily mean subservience. The helper or partner is not a servant. Again to quote Koenig, she notes that in Hebrew the word “ezer is used in the Hebrew most often to refer to God (e.g. Psalm 121:2), and it connotes assistance from a superior”. So humans, as exemplified in the book of Genesis as Adam and Eve, are created to be in community with one another as partners.
When I counsel people for marriage, I take them through the marriage vows and note that the vows are mirror images of one another. Neither the bride or the groom has a different job. Everything there, the sickness or health business, the better or worse stuff, is the vocation of both parties. If those vows are taken seriously and grown into, then the bride and groom will grow into a partnership with one another. Their marriage will become a community, expanding into friendships, relatives, and children, and children’s friends and their parents and so on, but it begins with the partnership at the heart of community. Perhaps if the church kept its nerve and continued to speak on this idea of marriage as a vocation, we wouldn’t want to get out of the marriage business. Rather, we might find that we have a better vision of marriage for a world which increasingly sees marriage as disposable or inherently flawed or obsolescent.
And what about divorce? What about those marriages that do fail, sometimes through no fault of one of the would be partners? It may be that such people, when they hear Jesus speaking in Mark 10, hear words of condemnation. In fact, I think Jesus is speaking words of condemnation, but he is in fact condemning a male-dominated society that sees women as disposable. There were divorces in Jesus’ day. Husbands could invoke “Moses” as per Deuteronomy 24:1-2 and get rid of their wives if they did something “indecent”, a word which could be interpreted as practically anything, such as being a bad cook. In a society where adult women had no place outside of marriage, the consequences of divorce were devastating and even deadly. So I suggest, with other commentators, that Jesus’ words here are part of his pattern of compassion and recognition of the women around him, such as the women he saved from stoning for adultery.
In invoking Genesis and the idea of community as the foremost intent behind creation, Jesus is reminding his audience of their interdependence. He is saying that no one is disposable. He is saying that human relationships, at their deepest level, are meant to be profound, sacred, giving us life and meaning. He is pointing to an idea of community, first seen in his relationship with the disciples (men and women) around him, and later seen, up to today, in the church.
Jesus’ prohibition against divorce in Mark 10 thus needs to be seen carefully. It may be that some marriages, sadly, have to end. Marriage exists in what we call the fallen world, and is subject to the influence of sin. Violence, injustice, betrayal and indifference are not just hostile to marriage, they are hostile to community. No community, whether a man and a wife or a larger group, can survive such threats indefinitely. They must be repaired in some way. It may be that the best thing that the church can extend to divorced people is a viable and attractive vision of community, one that doesn’t judge but which heals and restores. Ideally the church can play a role in teaching and exemplifying a vision of human community that will give the divorced hope that marriage, like all other aspects of lives, is not beyond God’s redemption.