I have thought and rethought and chickened out on this sermon, and keep coming back to it. These two commandments have experienced the most theological and cultural change over centuries. They no longer mean what they did when Moses first gave them to the people or even when the scribes under Ezra finished compiling the book of Deuteronomy.
Some people may think that this is a bad thing, but it is not. In the time of Moses, a man was free to marry as many women as he could afford. The women were little more than cattle with no rights and no ability to divorce a cheating or cruel spouse. Parents could kill their children for saying a wrong word, or sell them into slavery.
By the time of Jesus some changes had occurred. In the Roman and Jewish cultures of the First Century there were ways for a woman to divorce a neglectful or abusive spouse. Romans had basically no fault divorce, but a woman in the Jewish culture had to go to her father or brother for help. Still this was an improvement over the abusive situations that many lived under prior to that time. Parents were discouraged from beating their children too severely and selling them into slavery was declining.
The historical developments in marriage and family life have continued to this day. Some think that we’ve gone too far. However, except in science fiction the clock does not run backwards.
Conservative Speech So maybe it would be useful to look at how Jesus treats those who fall outside our models of “one man-one woman, plus kids” family. These families were just as common in Jesus’ day. In fact, several forms of families that he met were legal then, and not now, like a polygamous marriage of one man with many women. We tend to prosecute them and divorce the junior wives by legal decree.
Jesus had nothing to say about this style of family. However, at one point he became involved in the debate of his day. He sided with the more conservative side of the debate in his speech. He restricts divorce to abandonment, adultery (and maybe) abuse. His other comments on marriage do nothing to restrict marriage to our “traditional” model, but restrict the availability of divorce and remarriage. Jesus sounded like a conservative.
Three Radical Examples
Jesus’ actions however are far more radical. Maybe it came from living as an outsider, a bastard in a culture where that mattered. If you look in scripture you won’t find someone calling him a bastard, but you will find him being insulted as a “drunkard” and “carouser,” despite a lack of evidence of these behaviors on his part. They seemed to be typical charges of bastards. So maybe it was his own experience of being a social outcast that made him more sensitive to others living outside the boundaries of polite society.
Three times he encounters people living outside of the bounds of a nuclear, one man-one woman family. The first example, though perhaps the least well attested in the documentary sources is the woman caught in adultery. Rather than joining in the stoning he uses a simple method to turn away those who are full of murderous rage. He begins recording the sins of the others in the sand. Only when she alone is left does he call her to account.
The second woman is a woman who had been divorced or widowed five times and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. This is a complicated issue. A legally documented marriage was restricted to the highest levels of society. There was no marriage ceremony in Jewish sources until the early Middle Ages, and the Church did not become involved in them until even later, as late as the twelfth century in some areas. So if she was living with this man who was not her husband, how do we know he was not her husband? By legal standards almost anyone who took up living together were married. Only blood relatives of the woman or a previous spouse would be excluded from that. Or in some culturesand that might include the Samaritana certain number of marriages made a woman into a prostitute, and therefore not eligible for marriage. Instead of hiding the man in the closet, Jesus tells her to bring him. His reaction and her response result in the conversion of the whole village.
The final encounter is the one we read earlier. Jesus meets a family that by standards of the day was relatively frequent and normal, but by the standards of today is illegal in all but one state in the union. Jesus is stopped by individuals representing a Roman soldier whose dear slave is ill. The man has sponsored several building works including the local synagogue. He is a good officer and administrator. However, like all Roman soldiers he was forbidden to marry while on active duty. That active duty lasted from enlistment for the next twenty-five to thirty years, barring disabling injury. Like many soldiers, who were well-paid by first century standards, this man bought a slave to keep house for him and serve whatever other needs he might have. In his case this turns out to be a young man.
Rather than rebuking this man for his relationship with the now very sick young man, Jesus grants his request and makes an astonishing statement. He has never met someone with so much faith!
What about Us?
Jesus’ example of holding up faithful lifelong commitments and then reacting to those who fall outside of his definition of those relationships should perhaps cause us to rethink the variety of “marriage and family” issues that we are facing today. These issues include those who are not married to their live-in boyfriend or girlfriend, the rising rate of divorce, blended families, foster parenting, adoption, and gay marriage.
If my reading of Jesus’ speech and actions is correct, then Jesus seems to be advocating recognition of families where mutual respect, love and protection are upheld. This may mean that we need to hold back judgments when a family member comes home and tells us that they have moved in with someone. It may mean advocating legal recognition for families who violate our religious sensibility. It may mean taking extraordinary care of a grandchild even though we’ve already done our duty. It may mean a lot of other things.
The commandments relating to the family are tricky. We can get stuck on the literal level and trap ourselves in a perpetual no-win argument. We can use them to divide good Christians from bad Christians. We can use them to bludgeon people who don’t measure up to a strict reading of them. Or we can use them like Jesus did, to lift up a principle of love, care and commitment, and leave the details to the people involved.
The question is not what would Jesus do, but what did he do? It seems the answer was quite simple: Jesus loved and honored those who loved. Amen
Prayer of Confession
Dear Lord and Father of us all, forgive us when we use our own definitions of family to exclude and even persecute other families. Remind us of the responsibilities we have to those who are orphaned; to single parents struggling to raise a child alone; to the children raised in homes by two loving parents who cannot marry because of our prejudices; and to all those grandparents, aunts and uncles who have stepped in when parents are unable to raise children due to addiction, disease, military service or incarceration. Teach us to look past our categories so that we may convey your love to these “non-traditional families.” We ask this in the name of an illegitimate boy, born to an unwed teenage mother living with her boyfriend, Jesus Christ. Amen.