St Alfege Church Greenwich
11 February, 1968
Septuagesima: Christian Marriage
Lessons as set: Genesis 2: 4 to end; Mark 10: 1-16
There is an ancient tradition going back goodness knows how long that on this particular Sunday in the Church's Year - the third before Lent or Septuagesima we should go back to the grass roots of our faith so to speak, and think again about fundamentals.
And the particular fundamental that the lessons for this evening point to is that of Marriage.
It should be hardly necessary to stress that this is a fundamental. When those who believed and practised the Christian faith first came to people's notice in the Graeco-Roman world into which our Lord was born there was no point at which Christian morality contrasted more sharply with the standards tolerated by the people at large. So it is fundamental in that sense.
It is also fundamental in the sense that the lives not only of individual people but of whole classes, nations, tribes and generations are affected for better or worse by their beliefs and attitudes towards it; and thirdly it is fundamental in the sense that Holy Scripture, from the Book of Genesis at the beginning to the Book of Revelation at the end has a consistent interest in it. Time and again we find the subject of marriage being referred to, whether with reference to myth, commandment, history, teaching, or parable.
To begin at the beginning then. In the first lesson from the book of Genesis we hear the myth of the creation of man and woman. At this point we are not in the least concerned about the historical accuracy of this account. What interests us are the words: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."
There are three points worth noticing here. Firstly the writer regards the relationship between a man and his wife as something intrinsic to the divine plan - it is no mere accident of creation; secondly it has a moral duty attached to it - a man shall leave his father and mother ..and the two shall become one flesh; and thirdly it talks of the new relationship between husband and wife as if it were itself a new creation - becoming one flesh. And these three things the narrative portrays the man as accepting with the words "This i-s now flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. "
The importance of this lies not in its historical value (which is nil; nobody of intelligence nowadays really believes that Genesis is even trying to be historical) but that it was written at a very early date and sets out a view of marriage which is incredibly advanced for its time. There may have been odd tribes here and there who looked upon marriage as being exclusive and lifelong at this date; but here we have the religious writer of a whole nation setting forward an ideal which has been held unchanged by various people all over the world to this present time. It has been held by various people. But the entire history of the human race from that day to this has been one of consistent attempts to do away with this ideal or to "make it die the death of a thousand qualifications" as the saying goes.
We only have to turn a few pages of the Old Testament to find people diverging from the ideal in one way or another. To be quite fair to them it needs to be said that at least some of these people lived before the time that the ideal was widely recognised as coming from God. The particular passage in Genesis quoted earlier was written somewhere around 850BC, though of course the ideal which it portrays may have been current before that. Saul and David and Solomon reigned from about 1025 BC to about 932 and already the scripture speaks about their polygamy with disapproval. Suffice it to say that the ideal was fairly and squarely placed before the face of the people of God eight or nine centuries before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And what happened in the meanwhile? As usual, there was a steady lowering of standards. A divorce was permitted here for one reason; another one there for another reason; then another and then another until in the so-called Deuteronomic code it became permissible for a man to put away his wife and marry another merely because he had grown tired of her.
But this erosion of standards did not go unchallenged. In particular two prophets were sent by God whose message it was to tell people how far some of them had fallen from the ideal.
Hosea, who lived about 750BC, was a man whose marriage was desperately unhappy. His wife Gomer was utterly unfaithful to him. Yet instead of divorcing her, as no doubt many of his colleagues advocated and some reading of the law he would have been entitled to, Hosea believed himself commanded by God to take her back to him, and in so doing he realised that he was acting a living parable of God's dealings with his chosen, but erring, people Israel. This parable is worth bearing in mind for I shall refer to it again in a moment.
Somewhat later, about 400BC, we have the prophet called Malachi the Messenger it means. From his writing we gather that once again the ideal has been widely lost sight of. He is far more outspoken and direct than Hosea and soundly condemns the widespread practice of divorce - "The Lord hath been a witness between thee and the wife of thy youth against whom thou has dealt treacherously: yet she is thy companion and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make the two of you one .... therefore take heed .... and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the Lord God saith that he hateth putting away (= divorce). "
And so we come to our Lord's own words in the Second Lesson tonight. By the question that was put to Jesus: "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?" we can gather that once again the ideal was widely disregarded.
Our Lord's reply, as so often, took the form of a question. "What did Moses command?" And his hearers proceeded to trot out the stock answer "Well, Moses said it was OK . "
"Moses may have said it was OK", replied Jesus, "but that was because of the hardness of your hearts (or as we should say 'your bloody- mindedness') but from the beginning it was not so. " And then Jesus proclaimed to them the ideal set forward at the beginning of Genesis, adding at the end "Those whom God has joined, man must not separate."
And in the house the disciples asked him again of this matter. And he said unto them "Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her: and if she herself shall put away her husband and marry another she committeth adultery. "
People sometimes complain that our Lord wasn't definite enough in his teaching, that he left too many questions open-ended. Well, here is one matter on which he was quite specific. Because his apostles thought they had misheard him they asked him again and he was even more definite. S.Mark, which is the earliest written tradition, and
S.Luke both agree on this. S. Matthew appears to make one exception, but there is good reason to suppose that this was simply yet another attempt to slip away from the ideal by a local church.
One would think that our Lord's word in S. Mark was the last that could be said. Unfortunately the history of the Christian Church, no less than the history of Israel before it, is one long story of attempts to beat the rules, to evade the ideal .
And that is why S.Paul 's insight into the nature of the marriage bond is so important. For it was S. Paul who recognised that in marriage is signified and set forth the mystical union between Christ and his church. Just as Hosea had dimly perceived that God the Father's relationship with old Israel was that of a husband to his faithless wife, so S. Paul saw plainly that the Church is the bride of Christ.
Is she faithful? No she is not. Is she lovely to behold? Her features are spotty and wrinkled. Does she love him? Sometimes but usually in rather a half-hearted way. But will he forsake her for another? Never, never, never, for she is his wife. One day perhaps she will be presented before him without spot or wrinkle as S.John says. Till then he is ever faithful, ever loving.
And so we come back to fundamentals. Those whom God has joined man must not separate. But man from the very beginning has been trying to persuade himself that the ideal doesn't matter or doesn't apply in this case or that, especially his own case. And time and again God has reminded him that the ideal is not man's creation but God's. In marriage we haven't got a man-made institution whose ideals can be altered to fit in with the outlook of the world; we have nothing less than an image of Christ and his church, and Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and for ever remains faithful for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health to his bride the Church.
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