Throughout the 6 day creation story in Genesis 1, God repeatedly looks at what has been created and says: “It is good” or “It is very good”. It’s all very positive and affirming of creation and of humankind. In fact, it’s not until verse 18 of Genesis 2, in a second, and in some ways significantly different telling of the creation story, that we hear, for the first time, a negative pronouncement from the Creator.
The Lord God said: “It is NOT good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”
And so God takes a part of the man and creates the woman – takes the flesh and bone of the man and creates a creature that is both the same as, and, at the same time, different from the man, not less than in any way. In fact, the words translated “helper as his partner” in the Hebrew carry the clear implication that the man cannot function alone. The man needs the woman, and vice versa.
But people, of course, have drawn all sorts of meaning from this Genesis story, and have formed theories about the rightness, and even the Godliness, of Western Society’s version of the “nuclear family”, often to the harm of those who do not fit such a simplistic image. But I think there’s a different point that we can draw from this. Simply put, we are made to be in relationship. “It’s not good that the man should be alone.”
All over our headlines for weeks now we’ve seen how various interpretations of this idea have played out. Who has the right to issue or to withhold issuance of marriage licenses to whom, and for what reasons? Do the courts have the right to define marriage or to set parameters on what some consider a holy estate? And we hear people defending positions based on various ways of reading Genesis.
But I want to lift up something that maybe you’ve never heard before.
Notice that in verse 24, the man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, which seems to point to a practice that is matriarchal in nature. It’s centered in and on the wife’s family. But by the time of Jesus, the practice of marriage had change, and marriage in Israel happened something like this:
The couple would become betrothed, usually by the agreement of the fathers, and the man would go to his father’s house, and he would build on rooms in which he and his bride would eventually live. Once those rooms were prepared, and no one really knew exactly when that job would be finished, the bridegroom would come to get his bride, and, having received a blessing from her family, he would bring her back to his father’s house, back to the place he prepared for her, and he would take her as his wife, consummating the marriage while the wedding feast began.
We hear echoes of this practice
- in Jesus’ parable of the bridegroom: No one knows the day or the hour of his return, so keep oil in your lamps,
- and in his promises to his friends at the last supper: I go to prepare a place for you so that where I am you may be also. In my father’s house there are many rooms.
And notice, it’s there that we see a change in how marriage happens. Is it that the man leaves father and mother and becomes joined to the wife and her family? Or is it that the man takes the wife and she becomes part of his father’s household?
Either way, both of these practices presuppose a particularly Western family structure that doesn’t always translate to other parts of the world and other cultures and societies. There are whole societies that are structured very differently, wherein the Western idea of the nuclear family – a father, a mother and their offspring living together in a single household – just isn’t a reality. But they still have families. They still cling to one another. They’re still in relationships that are formative and nurturing, and structured around interactions between people and groups of people, whether those groups look like what we would call a family or not.
And more, there is no culture in which every person is a complete individual, completely separate and responsible for only themselves, because the point of the whole thing, the real meaning of the Genesis text we have as our first reading today, isn’t about the nuclear family, or the defense of one sort of family over and against another sort of family. The real point is found right at the top, in verse 18. It’s not good to be alone! Created in God’s image and likeness, we are created to be in relationship with one another.
So with that as our underlying principle – with that as our understanding of what God is communicating to us by creating us with this built-in need for partnership, based on relationships that are life-affirming and that are about mutuality and nurture – let’s look at today’s Gospel story.
Some Pharisees come to test Jesus with a question about marriage and divorce, and while Jesus admits that Moses, in fact, allowed for divorce, he says it was only because people’s hearts were hard. God’s intention, from the beginning, was for people to bond in life-long unions that were, again, life-affirming, and about mutuality and nurture. But, guess what? We mess up! That’s what we humans do! We sin! And, much as he does in Matthew 5, where Jesus tightens the screws on those who are trying to justify themselves by playing around with the law of God, thinking they can somehow manipulate God into saving them based on their own good works, keeping some watered down version of the law, like:
- I didn’t swear by God; I swore by Jerusalem, so I’m ok
- Or I didn’t murder anyone; I just got angry, so I’m ok
- Or I didn’t commit adultery; I just lusted after people silently, so I’m ok
Jesus isn’t having any of it!
Yes, Moses gave you an out. Yes, he allowed you to write a certificate of divorce, but that doesn’t mean God recognizes it! No one can separate what God has joined together, and if you do, and then enter into another union, that’s adultery in God’s eyes, whether a man or a woman does it.
At which point we better all start squirming in our seats, because we’re all guilty, if not of breaking this law, then we’re guilty of breaking some other law. And if you are guilty of any one part of the law you are guilty of breaking the whole law. We’re all equally guilty. None of us is perfect. And perfection is the only standard God can accept. Perfection is the only standard God will accept.
So, let me ask you: How ya doing? Are you perfect yet? No? Well, then, you better not go condemning others for their failure to live perfect lives.
Here’s the thing: God saves us according to God’s saving love. God saves us because that’s what God wants to do, not because we deserve it, not because we keep the law perfectly, not because we always keep our relationships unstained, or honor, and nurture, and cherish one another as God would have us do. God saves us by grace through faith which are gifts of God, pure and simple. God saves us because God is mindful of us, even though we are mere mortals. God never breaks bonds with us, even though we break bonds with one another, because, you see, it was never about us in the first place!
It was never about whether or not we’re married, or who we marry, or what that marriage looks like, or who sanctions it or won’t sanction it. It was never about whether or not we manage to stay married to one person, or we fall into sinful patterns and end up breaking relationship with one another. It was never about our having to be perfect, or our having to prove our worth to God on some level by being good enough, because, in the end, there’s no such thing. There’s only one who is good, and that’s God in Christ!
And to make the point crystal clear, as he did a couple weeks ago, Jesus gathers and takes into his arms the children of the house, and he lays hands on them, and he proclaims blessings upon them – upon these who are of no social standing or value in his day, upon these who are ultimately powerless.
And he tells us that we must receive the kingdom as one of these little ones – as those who are completely dependent on being gathered up and blessed by God as those who are powerless to save ourselves.
And there’s the good news that cuts through all of our striving. There’s the good news that cuts through all of our law making. There’s the good news that cuts through all of our attempts to be good enough.
Jesus welcomes us as he welcomed the children. Jesus welcomes us in our powerlessness to save ourselves as, on the cross, he who is the exact imprint of God’s being becomes powerless himself, in order that we might be saved. He tastes of suffering and death, in order that we would all be lifted up to glory in and through him.
Thanks be to God through Christ who saves us!