Q. What does Jesus have to say about marriage? A. Almost nothing.
Mark 10:1-12 is the most often cited passage in the marriage equality debate. And as is often the case, the differences between Christians on this issue are to do with the way scripture is read and interpreted. Here is how I read Mark 10.
The passage describes an encounter between Jesus and some Pharisees – people particularly concerned with the application of religious law. They want to know Jesus’ views on divorce. In his response to the Pharisees, Jesus quotes the story of Creation. From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’
In the face of the push for marriage equality, some Christians are getting pretty hung up on the “God made them male and female” part of that verse. Of course, these days we are able to see that God in fact made them male and female and intersex and transgender and decorated them with a marvellous rainbow array of human sexuality. But Jesus isn’t commenting on that. He is saying that the union we call marriage is founded in sex – it is a physical union that is part of the fabric of creation.
UCA theologian Bill Loader, a world authority on the bible and sex, writes: “This positive affirmation of human sexuality and sexual intercourse – something which needs to be aired in the church from time to time to counter contrary views – carries with it an implication. Sexual union (as part of total union) is so highly valued that we should not let anything undo the union it produces and celebrates.” It turns out that God’s contribution to marriage is not laws about who is allowed in and who is excluded, it is sex. Nice one God!
So is this passage teaching that sex and marriage can only be between a man and a woman? No, it is assuming that there are only two natural genders and one natural sexuality – things we now know to be untrue. But this doesn’t matter, because what the passage is teaching is that marriage cannot lightly be put aside because it is founded in sexuality which is part of God’s good creation. Take contemporary scientific insights into what natural human sexuality encompasses in God’s good creation. Put them alongside this teaching. Result, I am led to believe that such a theology of creation means contemporary marriage must be open to the full spectrum of human sexuality.
Of course marriage and other loving relationships are about more than sex. Among other things they’re about power. And in Jesus’s day all the power in marriage belonged to the male partner. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” ask the Pharisees – i.e. is it lawful for a man to get rid of one wife to take on another, like the disposal and purchase of property, but not for a woman to do likewise? Jesus says, “Yes its lawful, but it’s not acceptable.” He thereby affirms an equality of power within marriage: neither partner has the right to dismiss the other.
Thus, Jesus speaks on behalf of the powerless of his day, in this instance, women. But religious laws have always permitted divorce. Why is he holding his followers to this higher standard? Where is the space in his teaching for us to deal with human failure, with poor choices, with betrayal and violence? Where is the grace?
It is important in this context to consider Jesus’ approach to religious laws in general, and to read this one passage in the light of the whole gospel. Bill Loader writes: “Much of Jesus’ energy in controversy with his fellow Jews was spent trying to show that we must interpret scripture in a way which sees its priority as concern for human well being.” For example, one particular Sabbath day Jesus and his disciples were making their way through a grainfield, and as they went his disciples were plucking heads of grain (Mark 2:23-28). Now it is not lawful to reap on the Sabbath so the Pharisees had a go at Jesus, “Why are your followers disregarding the law?” And Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” This means the Sabbath is a gift to enable us to enter into the rest and peace of God, it is not an external legal demand. So, Jesus is saying, if you are hungry on the Sabbath, glean some wheat, if you are sick on the Sabbath, seek healing, if you are oppressed on the Sabbath, work for justice. What this story shows is that Jesus proclaims the spirit rather than the letter of the law. In the case of the Sabbath, the spirit of the law allows for doing less than the letter. In the case of marriage and divorce, the spirit of the law challenges Jesus’ followers to go further than the letter for the sake of the vulnerable. In both cases, his teaching is motivated by mercy, compassion and justice. In both cases, and in every case, the spirit of the law is love.
Marriage is also a gift not a legal demand. What a crushing irony therefore, when people took Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10 and made it the new letter of the law, shutting out the possibility of grace and healing, shutting out the possibility of resurrection out of the death of a marriage. The way this teaching has been applied in parts of the church – forbidding divorce, shaming the divorced, refusing to remarry divorced people – has gone against the very nature and shape of Jesus’ life while supposedly obeying his words. And it seems to me that much of the religious argument against Marriage Equality is doing the same. Jesus teaches that loving grace must be our first instinct in response to relationship needs, not legalistic condemnation.
Jesus said almost nothing about marriage, but he did affirm the importance of physical love in creation and marriage as an expression of this. He affirmed equality, justice and mercy within intimate relationships. And above all, he lived and died for an interpretation of scripture based not on legalism, but on love. All of which lead me to support Marriage Equality.