From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Boot-polish and marriage: 4 October 09: am: The Very Revd Frank Nelson
- Psalm 26
- Job 1: 1, 2: 1 - 10
- Hebrews 1: 1 – 4, 2: 5 - 12
- Mark 10: 2 - 16
As I stand this morning to speak to the Gospel reading I want to offer you five separate but linked trains of thought. Firstly - to recognize that I have been singularly blessed in the twenty-seven years of marriage I have shared with Christine. There is a clear memory of us standing at the Chancel steps in our wedding finery with our celibate Bishop reminding us that marriage is about one man, one woman, together for ever. I also vividly remember the hours we had to spend scrubbing off the boot-polish my youngest sister and her pals had put all over my car, Christine’s car, my brother’s car and, for good luck or sheer perversity, my father’s!
Secondly, to speak about marriage in the context of this Gospel is to acknowledge that it raises hurt and pain for a number of people. This will include those who are caught in destructive or abusive relationships; those who have been deserted or divorced; those who long to, but have never been married; those who live in committed same-sex relationships unrecognized by the Church; those who have been widowed and find the days long and lonely. We should acknowledge that in today’s world there are a multitude of different life-style relationship options – many of them quite alien to anything found in the Gospels. And we should acknowledge that the Church, while being the Body of Christ on earth, is nonetheless made up of ordinary people like you and me, who can be just as hypocritical as the Pharisees who asked Jesus the question about divorce. I also recognize that there are many people today who have been blessed with a second chance and who are outstanding examples of love, fidelity and happiness.
Thirdly, we should acknowledge that thinking about marriage changes over the years – even in the Church. Compare, for example, the introduction to the Marriage Service in the Book of Common Prayer with that in today’s New Zealand Prayer Book (and most other modern prayer books). In the BCP we are told that marriage ‘was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of God… (and) for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry… and for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other…’ By contrast the first of the three forms of marriage liturgy in our NZ Prayer Book says ‘marriage is a gift of God … whose intention is that husband and wife should be united in heart, body and mind … is given to provide the stability necessary for family life …and is a way of life to be upheld and honoured.’ (ANZPB pg 780)
Fourthly, we must read the Gospel for today with at least some understanding of its context. The question of the Pharisees and the words of Jesus relate to a particular time and place and cannot simply be transferred into a totally different context and age. This is one of the challenges of biblical hermeneutics –the art of interpreting and understanding the Bible in today’s context. In fact, it appears that the marriage scene in Jesus’ day was just as complicated and multi-layered as it is in ours. The Pharisees question starts from a worst case scenario – where a man, simply by writing a bill of divorce, can put his wife on the streets, destitute and without support. The justification for this came from the Book of Deuteronomy: ‘Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house…’ (Deut 24:1) According to some rabbinical argument reasons for divorce could include the wife spoiling a dish or the husband finding another woman more beautiful! Whatever the reason the wife had no rights, and was seen as little more than another piece of the man’s property. Incidentally, it is interesting to notice the close link with Jesus and the children – for they too had little by way of rights in his society.
Jesus in fact takes us back to an earlier teaching of the Bible, that found in Genesis chapter 1, where God made humans male and female, each and both in the image of God. The world of the Greeks, the Romans, even the Jews, of Jesus’ day was very much a man’s world. The concept of male and female being equal was radical in the extreme. We can see something of this in St Paul’s writings, where he mentions several times that, in Christ, there is neither male nor female, nor is there difference between Jew and Gentile, slave and free. Yes, relationships go wrong, divorce happens, but that does not make the institution of marriage wrong.
Which brings me to the fifth point. Marriage is held up by Jesus as a particular ideal for the good of community. It is well worth reading through the Marriage section of our prayer books, and perhaps comparing the different liturgies and the way each approaches marriage, and leads the couple through the declarations, vows and prayers. They speak powerfully to our world, where marriage, if it is contemplated at all, is often entered into with an eye to a quick and painless exit, backed by a good ante-nuptial contract. To suggest that marriage is God’s gift (pg 780) to a man and woman is to cast a very different light on a relationship. From the beginning it brings God into the equation, presupposing a particular understanding of life, including the value of each unique individual. After all, if Jesus died and rose again for this woman, this man, then each must have value and worth.
I like the way in which the 2nd Marriage Liturgy (pg 785) talks of prayer. ‘Praying is an outlook, a sustained energy, which creates marriage and makes love and forgiveness life-long.’ It goes on to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation which are ministered one to the other. This is miles away from the romantic rubbish we so often have to watch on film and TV, and which too often is the only model of relationships available to young people today. There is a refreshing honesty in this second form of liturgy which goes on to suggest that ‘as they grow together, wife and husband foster one another’s strengths, they provide each other with the reassurance and love needed to overcome their weaknesses.’ The 3rd Marriage Liturgy (pg 790) states ‘marriage is the promise of hope between a man and a woman who love each other, who trust that love, and who wish to share the future together’.
A gift of God, needing the sustained energy of prayer, offering the promise of hope – these are powerful concepts, far different from the narrow legalism which lies behind the Pharisees’ question. In fact, when you think about it all relationships are a gift from God, all can usefully be sustained by prayer, all have the potential to offer hope. There is much more in these Marriage Liturgies that can usefully be reflected on – by those of us who share the joy and the pain of marriage; and also by those who find themselves more on the sidelines, as witnesses of a marriage, as those who are single (whether by choice or simple lack of opportunity), as those who have been or are going through the grief of marriage break-up (which may be from the death of a much-loved partner).
The place of marriage in our community today is beautifully recognized in one of the marriage blessings where the priest, in blessing the couple, prays: ‘May they reach old age in the company of friends and come at last to your eternal kingdom.’ (pg 804)