October 4, 2015

God Made Them Male and Female

Passage: Job 1:1, 2:1-10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16
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But 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.”

The following observation about marriage is from an unknown source; perhaps the author felt it best to remain anonymous. “Marriages are made in heaven. But then again, so are thunder, lightning, tornadoes, and hail.” Marriage seems perpetually to be an explosive subject. It was so in Jesus’ day as in ours, albeit for different reasons.

In first century Israel rabbinical arguments raged over the question of what were accepted grounds for divorce. Today the questions of gender and identity and sexual orientation make conversation about marriage potentially explosive—particularly if you dissent from the prevailing cultural attitude. One only need consider the number of people who have been fired from their jobs for making comments not considered consistent with correct cultural orthodoxy.

It was, then, a loaded question that Jesus was asked by these Pharisees. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The question was sure to spark controversy. The admissibility of divorce was not in question. The law of Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce. The question was about the ground for such an action. Some argued that a man could divorce his wife for any reason; at the other end of the spectrum were those who said the only ground was sexual infidelity. The question was designed the get Jesus to commit to a position thus offending those who held other views. Judging by the disciples’ response it would seem that Jesus offended them all equally. (They asked him about it later—did you really mean what you said?)

As we approach this text today and attempt to reflect on what our Lord might say to us it feels like walking through a minefield where any misstep could set off an explosion. If the story were written today the question for Jesus might be—so, Jesus, what do you think about same-sex marriage? It is a different question, to be sure, but has the same explosive potential.

The first thing I invite you to note in Jesus’ interchange with these Pharisees is that he does not answer their question. He asks them one. Jesus shows us that often the problem is with our questions. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. The premises of our questions are flawed. We ground our questions on concepts of human rights, equality, orientation, or gender identity. Jesus moves the discussion to a different ground. “But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” In other words, Jesus points them and us to the Biblical picture of what it means to be human. The Pharisees want to talk about legitimate grounds for divorce; our culture wants to talk about equal marriage; Jesus directs us to consider the theological nature of being human.

1. Marriage along with other human relationships are understood from any number of angels of vision. We speak of them psychologically, physically, emotionally, politically, even communally. If we make love, for example, the overriding principle for marriage then the question is about people loving one another and what it means to love. In Jesus day the place of inheritance played a large role in marriage; sometimes marriage was guided by station in life.

Jesus invited the Pharisees to look past the Mosaic provision for divorce to the story of creation. He points us to begin in the same place. “From the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” First underline the word God in “God made them male and female.” To help us think about God’s intentions for humanity—including marriage—we begin with the story of beginnings. Please take note the central role God plays in the nature of our humanity. It is God who makes humanity male and female and individually male or female.

Professor Ray S. Anderson in his excellent book On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2010) in discussing the importance of this theological beginning point said “unless one assumes that this self-conscious life is itself response to a divine summons to be human, it will be interpreted as a variety of creaturely experience.” (p. 39). The various angels of vision that are common in cultural discussion of marriage, for example, come from this variety of creaturely experience.

In the creation story the human has creaturely existence, to be sure. But the human’s creaturely existence is not what determines the human to be a human. The thing that distinguishes the human from all the other creatures is the human is the one creature addressed by God. The human is made in the image of God. It is God’s summon that makes you human. Indeed we can deny and distort this summons but it remains that which renders the human a human.

Being in the image of God is not a religious overlay on our natural humanity. On the contrary, being in the image of God is itself fundamental to our true humanity. The point I underscore to you is that relationship to God is fundamental to our humanity. The sinful turning away from God is a distortion of what it means to be human. It is inhuman. God is the one who determines our humanness.

2. Let us take a moment now to underline the last part of the text Jesus cites: “God made them male and female. This isn’t to say that God created the world and we happen to find males and females. It is to say that humanity is purposely created as co-humanity. We should note that God’s making humanity male and female is a distinction God deliberately makes in our humanity. Humanity as co-humanity means that the singularity of being a human person is determined by significant encounter with another human person. We are created for relationship with God and the other person. Our identity or humanness is not found in self-examination but in the experience of giving our self for the other.

A careful reading of Scripture’s creation narratives informs us that the distinction between male and female is the only distinction (among all that differentiate people today) that God has embedded irrevocably in the creation itself. Other distinctions — alienating differences, for instance, of economics, learning, social position — can be overcome and should.
In the Genesis accounts the creation of land, water, vegetation, planets and animals is pronounced “good”, whereas the creation of man and woman is pronounced “very good” and is “blessed.” In other words, the man-woman complementarity (“complementarity” by definition restricted to two, and therefore always different from a “mutuality” that accommodates more than two persons of the same gender) is built into the creation, cannot be eradicated, and must not be denied or disdained. This complementarity isn’t an accident of history or a social convention.

It is on this ground, “God made them male and female” that Jesus’s says marriage exists. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” We must be careful to note in the declaration that God made them male and female this does not entail a set of stereotyped characteristics by which to identify masculinity and femininity. Those differences are worked out in relationship. They are determined by the man or woman in pursing the concrete instance of their own humanity.

3. It is clear that Jesus views God’s plan and purpose for marriage as the union of one man and one woman in a lifelong bond that death alone terminates. His comment about remarriage and adultery shows us what he believes this life-long commitment to be God’s intention for marriage. Jesus pronouncements may shock us; he shocked his disciples and they asked him in private to explain himself.

Now what about us who are divorced and remarried. Has Jesus thrown us overboard as disciples? Please take notice of Jesus’ comment about the Mosaic provision for writing a certificate of divorce. Keep in mind that in Moses day few people were literate. So if you can’t write you had to go to those who were educated and could, namely the priests or scribes, to get the certificate written. This law encouraged rethinking any move towards divorce. Jesus noted that it was because of the hardness of heart that the provision was made.

We must acknowledge that while Christians aspire after such a union the ubiquity of the Fall finds anyone’s marriage molested by sin. We ourselves are fallen creatures in whom the image of God is now partially obscured and defaced. Individually and collectively our humanity is distorted by depravities within and dangers without.

I remind you of Jesus’ welcome of the Samaritan woman he met at Jacob’s well one day. This woman had had five husbands and the one she was currently with was not her husband. She found in our Lord a ready welcome. (John 4:1-42) Recall that when God’s faithfulness meets our sin it assumes the form of forgiveness and a pardon is extended which none of us merits. We also know that our Lord’s love of sinners never leaves us the same but ever calls us to the freedom from sin that is in him. The woman at the well became an ardent witness to Jesus Christ. We also recall that to the woman caught in adultery Jesus said go and sin no more. (John 8:1-11) Divorce, even when necessary, remains a manifestation of death. The counsel I believe these texts call us to is that in whatever place we find ourselves our Lord calls us to put our house in the best order we can.

3. I would also like to say a word in favour of strengthening marriages. Marriage will remain resilient, in the face of the fact that we are fallen creatures, only by grace, God’s grace. Which is to say, marriage thrives as it aspires to reflect God’s resolve to be faithful to his promises declared to us in Christ Jesus. And since when God’s faithfulness meets our sin it assumes the form of forgiveness, marriage thrives as we extend that pardon which has been quickened by the greater pardon we have received. We must recall the foundation of God’s covenant-faithfulness whenever our proximity to each other fosters friction and magnifies irritability.

Marriage endures by faithfulness. The current myth that has left so many people tasting dust and ashes is that it endures by sentiment. Marriage must continue to thrive even on those occasions — whether short-lived or protracted — when two people are feeling less than enraptured.

I take you back to Jesus comment about the relationship between the divorce provision and hardness of heart. I would observe with you a corollary to Jesus’ word is that it is important to cultivate/keep/guard a tender heart towards one another. The danger of a hard heart is always lurking—and the evil one that we pray our Lord to deliver us from promotes heart calcification.

When things are running smoothly in our relationships it seems easy. For the mechanically inclined we liken such things to a well-oiled machine. What happens when we don’t guard a tender heart is akin to little grains of sand accumulating in the cogs of the machine until the addition of one little grain one day seems to grind everything to a halt. To the Ephesian Christians Paul wrote, “do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” (Ephesians 4:26) There are a lot of things you ought not to let the sun go down on in order to guard the tenderness of your heart towards a spouse. Do not let the sun go down on your resentment. “Resentment at an affront is sin”, John Wesley insightfully observed. You know those things that your spouse said or did that made you bristle and you tucked away so you could simmer and stew over later. Don’t let the sun go down on your bitterness, and so on. Guard a tender heart.

4. We live a world of competing visions of what it means to be human and therefore competing visions of the nature of marriage and human sexuality and all the related topics. AS Christians we ought to take our clues from Jesus on how to navigate the culture in which we find ourselves. To obey him is to abide in his love. In doing so I think we will find ourselves increasingly counter-cultural as indeed the disciples found themselves as first-century followers.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us why we ought to take our clues from Jesus. Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:1-4) Amen.