BIBLE READING: Genesis 2: 18-24 Mark 10: 2-16
"And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman for out of Man this one was taken." Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed."
We Christians have often done a bad job of listening to scripture. We have used the Bible, not to help other people fulfil God's intention for them, but to make them feel less than they really are. Take this week's readings from the book of Genesis and the gospel of Mark.
How many times have we heard jokes about this story from Genesis, and nearly always with a view to demeaning the place of women. 'Adam's Rib', we were told, was made as a divine afterthought. The man came first and, therefore, was superior. Such an interpretation argues an intention for humankind which is about as far from God's heart as hell is from heaven.
For this is a story, not about who came first, but who is missing, not about who is superior, but who one's opposite is; and if you have any imagination at all, then you cannot help hearing in the poignant cry of Adam - "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" - the deep longing of one who knows that they have found the one without whom they cannot feel wholly human. It is a story of human need for intimacy and recognition.
By the time of Jesus, this idea had become so distorted that sexual alienation and divorce had become as significant parts of the experience of marriage. Divorce was permitted under the law of Moses; and that regrettable fact is the backdrop for this week's gospel.
According to Mark and other independent sources, Jesus spoke against divorce on a number of occasions; and divorce itself became a controversial issue in the early church. All of these elements come into play when we try to decipher what is going on in this passage from Mark. Jesus words became the backdrop for what Mark wants to say to his readers.
"Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"
This was a controversial issue at the time of Jesus. This was a situation that was common in Jesus' day. Under Jewish law, only a man could initiate divorce proceedings.
Which means we must keep this in mind when we consider Jesus' response. In saying that divorce was never God's intention in the first place, Jesus was criticising the callous way in which men regarded their marital commitment.
Given the obvious problems with the passage, is it any wonder it has been mis-used by Christian people to rule out divorce on any grounds?
Well, we can twist Jesus' words any way we like, but you still have to decide whether you believe Jesus was a man who came to help others find the fulfilment God intended or whether or not he was a religious lawyer. Jesus knew that God's intention was the ideal of one man and one woman for life, just as everyone of us knows this as well. But he also knew that human beings regularly fail in their efforts to live that ideal, and sometimes fail to the point of turning the marriage relationship into such a twisted and broken mess that it is virtually impossible for two people to put it back together again. Divorce is a reality we have to live with because of the hardness of our hearts, both male and female.
But would Jesus have had compassion in applying the ideal and in giving those who had failed in their attempts to be loving partners another chance with someone else? If the Jesus you know is the Jesus I know, then you know the answer to that question as well as I do; for he was compassion personified.
There is another passage, however, that is worth considering if we are serious about understanding what God intended marriage to be. It happens a little later in Mark. Once again, Jesus is being tested about the subject of marriage; and a hypothetical question is asked: whose wife will a woman, who has had five husbands on earth, be in heaven?
Jesus responds by saying that marriage is not an issue for people in heaven, since everyone will be like angels there, and
...they neither marry, nor are given in marriage. - Mk. 12.25
Marriage is not for angels, in other words. It is for imperfect men and women in this life who are serious about being life-long married friends.
Mulla Nasrudin was sitting in a tea shop one day when a friend came excitedly to speak with him.
"I am about to get married, Mulla!" his friend said. "I am very excited! Tell me, Mulla, have you ever thought about getting married yourself?"
"When I was younger," said Nasrudin, "I used to think about it all the time. I very much wanted to get married; but I decided to wait for the perfect woman.
So I travelled to Damascus and there I met a beautiful woman who was gracious and kind and deeply spiritual; but she had no worldly knowledge. So I travelled further; and in Isphahan I met a woman who was both spiritual and worldly, beautiful in many ways, but we did not communicate very well. Finally, I went to Cairo and, there, after much searching, I found her: she was spiritually deep, graceful, beautiful in every respect, generous and at home in the world; and we got along very well!"
"And did you marry her?" asked his friend.
"Alas," said Nasrudin, shaking his head, "she was, unfortunately, looking for the perfect man."
What God had in mind and what Jesus, no doubt, would have wanted to remind us of, is that marriage is more than an indissoluble bond, but a relationship that sustains love. No matter how many cracks you get at experiencing such a love, the only people you get to do it with are flesh-and-blood creatures on earth just like yourself who, with all their faults and weaknesses, are prepared to risk opening themselves to such an incredible, miraculous gift!
Acknowledgement: Barry Robinson