Lections: Gen 29:1-30; Mark 10: 2-16

Jesus has now left Galilee, and he returns to Judea, following the pilgrim route to Jerusalem, before crossing over the Jordon, into Perea, where John the Baptist had had his ministry. The grief Jesus must have felt when he received news of John’s death coincides with his retreat from public ministry. He has since kept his whereabouts secret; back on John’s home turf, however “crowds gathered to him again.”

John had been martyred after Salome, daughter of Queen Herodias, danced for King Herod Antipas at a court banquet.  In return for her dance, Antipas promised to give her anything she asked for.  Salome first consulted with her mother and then asked Herod for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Salome’s request was motivated by John the Baptist’s denunciation of her mother’s marriage to Antipas. Herodias had divorced her first husband, Philip, a half- brother of Antipas, and ruler of territory to the east of Galilee and the Decapolis.  According to Josephus, “Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod Antipas.”  Under Jewish law, only a husband could write a certificate of divorce, so Herodias’ divorce was illegal.

Antipas, while he was still married to the daughter of Aretas IV, an Arab ruler whose territory encircled the south, east, and north of Israel, visited Rome and obtained permission to marry Herodias. Polygamy was acceptable among the Jewish upper classes, and Herodias’ divorce of her husband was legal under Roman law.[i]  John’s condemnation of Herod’s marriage was for marrying his brother’s wife, which Leviticus forbids; “for John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”” (Mk 6:18).

Herod had John imprisoned, and afterwards killed.  John linked the flaunting of Jewish law by a ruler of the Roman occupation to the coming of the Messiah, and his popularity in the region posed a risk to its political stability. This is what cost him his life, and this is the situation that the Pharisees are referring to, in their ongoing efforts to implicate Jesus in sedition.  To test Jesus, they ask a simple question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  The answer is “Yes,” but the intent is to trick Jesus into saying more, and he obliges them, but not in a manner they can use against him.  Instead of arguing from Law, he cites Genesis: “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  Then he adds, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

This is the same kind of enigmatic saying Jesus gives to the temple authorities in Jerusalem, the week before he is crucified: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Both sayings have a sky-like clarity that dissolves legalism, and both have been taken in a very limited sense and fashioned for manipulative purposes to justify political ends, without understanding or compassion for those who as a result suffer from injustice.

Weddings are festive occasions, across the globe and throughout history.   Are we to think that people everywhere naturally trust love?  Where are we to look in the legal codes of societies for what is freely given and freely accepted, for “What is always, what is everywhere, what is by all people believed?” We all know marriages can fail for many non-trivial reasons.  Often there is simply an absence of love.  Human sexuality has its challenges, and mental illness can take its toll. Not everyone who marries survive marriage. Women are often abused, psychologically and physically, by husbands who demonstrate no capacity for love while exhibiting relentless cruelty.  Protected by the sanctity of family and home, men can and do batter their wives, often while drunk, and show no compunction about their behavior, even in front of their children, who grow up traumatized.  Women, too, can be cruel.  There are innumerable instances of marriages that are clouded over with darkness.  What then are we to learn from today’s teaching about marriage and divorce?

Marriage in Ancient Palestine bore little resemblance to its modern counterpart.  Marriage contracts were negotiated between the father of the bride and the husband-to-be or his father.  Once the contract was signed, the couple were married.  Some contracts were signed when the couple were still children.  Even as youths, the contract might be signed but the couple live apart for several years, during which time the husband would need to put together his bridewealth, an amount of money specified in the contract for the husband to give to his wife’s father.  Only after the bridewealth had been paid were the wedding festivities arranged. Sometimes preceding the wedding banquet, and sometimes afterwards, the marriage was consummated.

The marriage of Jacob and Leah, narrated in Gen 29, follows this pattern.  Jacob sees “Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance,” and contracts with her father, Laban, to marry her.  His bridewealth is seven years of service, “and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”  When the bridewealth is paid, Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed. So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast.”  In the evening, when the marriage is to be consummated, Laban brings his daughter to Jacob.  Unfortunately for Jacob, as we know, Laban gives him not Rachel, but Leah, who is not so pleasing in appearance, and Jacob has to serve another seven years to get the wife he wants, although he is allowed conjugal visits after just one week’s time.

The Song of Songs is given to us in Scripture as a celebration of passion and sexual desire, but the considerations that took precedence in Biblical marriage had to do with wealth, family, and social status.  As we have observed, Jewish women were expected to be monogamous; men were not.  Jacob had two wives and later two concubines.  Men could divorce their wives, but women could not divorce their husbands.  Women, like children, were treated as property.  Men needed little justification for writing a document that voided their marriage contract, and Jesus refuses to condone the arbitrariness of such a divorce.  Alone with his disciples, he specifically condemns the marriage of Herod and Herodias.  Of Herod Antipas, he says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,” and of Herodias he says, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  Divorce is differentiated from adultery because the one is prohibited, while the other is not.

When the Pharisees say to Jesus, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send his wife away,” Jesus answers, divorce was put into place because of man’s “hardening of heart.”   Jesus is inaugurating his Kingdom, and here we see how this is intended to change marriage.  The indissoluble marriage becomes possible only after a long time of tutelage, while the human capacity to become one flesh develops.  The Pharisees reference to Moses is a red herring.  Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets; he is greater than Moses.  The benefits of his greatness extend to the bridal chamber; with the arrival of Jesus, more, not less, can be expected of our humanness.  The union between a husband and a wife, Jesus says, is decreed by God “from the beginning,” that is, in the Garden of Eden, before sin and death entered into the world. Romantic love is to be a path back to the Garden, a way married couples can work to restore the divine image of Adam.

Matthew’s Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew offers us a second image of marriage:  this is the marriage that each of us, through the sacrament of baptism, enters into with Jesus.  Our earthly lifetime corresponds to bridewealth, the waiting period between our contract and its consummation.   This is the time that flies, when we are sanctified.  The development and progress of love is the essence of sanctification, and the Kingdom’s banquet is the celebration of love’s completeness and our glorification.  The church frees us from the injustice and inequality of the world and blesses our romantic love so that we might taste its heavenly fruits. In Ephesians we read, “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.”  The one flesh of the lovers is a sign of the body of Christ:  the one flesh of the universal church.

If we doubt the soundness of this truth, we need only look at children; children belong to the Kingdom of God.  “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Children know the promise of love, even in the womb, before they experience love denied.  Children know trust before they know deceit.

As we are made one flesh in Christ, we lose our selfishness; only when we begin to relearn trust and make ourselves vulnerable to others – especially that big person of otherness we call God – are we able to overcome deceit.  The church is here for us as a place to find love.  Church is where we discover we are already loved, and we discover that we, too, can love.

Romantic love is brought to fruition by Jesus’ incarnation and his inauguration of the Kingdom life.  Incredibly, as we learn to love one person, we discover love for everyone, not just this or that person, but everyone.  In our families and marriages, we experience the potential – and sometimes the actuality – of love, but our families may be broken, our marriages fail. The church, however, will not fail; the church is not a human institution.  The church lasts forever. God, in the person of Jesus, is always present, through his Spirit, in his church:   and God is love.  Let us keep in mind this glorious blessing as we break bread and share the cup of the one flesh that is our Lord and Savior.  Amen.

[i] Aretas’ daughter fled from Antipas before he married, and was safely returned to her father. see Harold W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas:  A Contemporary of Jesus Christ.  Also William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (NICNT) and Craig A. Evans, Word Bible Commentary, Vol 34b.

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