Whose Institution Is Marriage?

“the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
(Luke 2:27)

In the story of Adam and Eve, the Lord created a partnership between two human beings to fulfill their need for companionship. He did not create two human beings to fulfill some preconceived notion of what all marriages must look like. Jesus would later confirmed this when he said, “In the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” (Matt 22:30)

People aren’t married in heaven because, being with God, they no longer have the same human need for intimacy. Marriage was created to serve our needs while on earth. Marriage was not established to serve some theological need that God has to make sure that everyone is married in one particular (heterosexual) way. Marriage is an institution that was created for us, to fulfill our needs; people weren’t created to conform to any fixed notion about whom they must marry.

Jesus makes a similar point concerning the Sabbath, a very ‘sacred institution’ within his own religion and culture. Jesus was roundly condemned by the Pharisees because he healed and did good works on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the Mosaic Law which commanded that no work – presumably not even the good work of healing – should be done on the Sabbath. It’s important to note that the most serious charge the religious authorities brought against Jesus was that he healed on the Sabbath. “And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the Sabbath day.” (John 5:16)

For their part, the Pharisees seemingly had a very strong case because the Mosaic Law clearly states that the punishment for working on the Sabbath is death: “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD: Whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.” (Ex 35:2) Honoring the Sabbath was one of the original Ten Commandments. So for the Pharisees (at least in their own minds) Jesus was put to death for violating one of their most sacred institutions. They accused Jesus of healing by the power of Satan because they could not conceive how a man of God could routinely break the Sabbath, “This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath day.” (John 9:16)

In defense of his ministry, Jesus made the point that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Luke 2:27) He was saying that the Sabbath was (and that it still is) an institution created to fulfill a spiritual need that God recognized in people: namely, for a day to rest and reflect upon God. The rich couldn’t overwork the poor because God had set aside a day for everyone to rest from their labors and reflect upon His providence. People weren’t created to fulfill some preconceived need that God has to force everyone to keep a rigid Sabbath. The truth is, he rewards us whenever we pray or think about Him, whatever the day of the week. And God is still God even if we choose not to pray or to recognize the Sabbath. Just as with marriage, the Sabbath was an institution created for people, to fulfill a specific spiritual need that God recognized within us. Animals don’t observe the Sabbath or get married because they don’t have the same spiritual needs as human beings, created in the image of God.

With the Sabbath, our need for a closer spiritual relationship with God is sustained. While in marriage, our need for close human companionship is fulfilled. Both institutions were created to fulfill our needs.

In answering the Pharisees as he did, Jesus was pointing out that we should all be more concerned about fulfilling the need that God recognized within us, rather than serving the legalistic requirements of a rigid institution. This was exactly what Jesus was doing by teaching and healing on the Sabbath; because rather than merely reflecting upon God, Jesus was bringing people into direct contact with the healing power of the Lord. He was bringing a direct experience of the Kingdom Of God into the lives of the people who needed it the most – the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. In view of this fact, preserving some empty religious concern for maintaining a static institution was not as important. It would be as if the fire department were sent to put out a fire, but refuse to stop because they didn’t want to break the law by parking in the red zone – even though the sidewalk had been painted red so that they could put out the fire!

In the same way, Jesus was the Lord of the Sabbath and the Son of God, and the Sabbath had been created so that people could draw closer to him. Through Jesus, God was drawing closer to his people than ever before, while they were reaching out for him to heal them. This was exactly why the Sabbath had been instituted – to bring humanity into closer contact with the healing Spirit of God. It was not only permissible, but altogether fitting and absolutely necessary that Jesus should heal on the Sabbath.

In the same manner, marriage was instituted to fulfill a need for companionship that God recognized in all people, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Church tradition also informs us that marriage was intended to safeguard believers against the temptation of sexual promiscuity. God never condemned homosexuals to a life of loneliness and/or promiscuity, anymore than He had condemned those who were being healed by Jesus to a life of pain and suffering.

We have forgotten that marriage was created to serve the needs of people, rather than having people serve an institution. God never intended for gays and lesbians to have to lie to themselves and their spouses about their sexuality, or else to live out desperately lonely lives. Marriage was intended to bring two people together within the framework of an honest and deeply committed relationship, for the sake of their happiness and spiritual fulfillment.

For his part, Jesus finally lost patience with the Pharisees because of the hardness of their hearts. While he was curing people of a variety of serious, and often life-threatening, conditions, all that the Pharisees could see was that he was violating the Sabbath. They couldn’t get past their ‘sacred institution’ long enough to recognize all the sacred lives that were being saved and the human suffering that was being alleviated. All they could see was an affront to their religious authority.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter and the real reason that the Pharisees were so adamant: Their role in enforcing the Sabbath had become an important measure of their religious power and authority over the people. They weren’t as concerned about the people and their needs. They didn’t care why the Sabbath was created, or why Jesus’ ministry was its ultimate fulfillment. They were alarmed about his open challenge to their authority.

So finally, Jesus asked them even more plainly and to the point: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? To save life, or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9) Because the Pharisees would rather that lives be effectively destroyed by illness or crippling handicaps, rather than to violate the sanctity of the Sabbath.

National Association of People with Aids estimates that over 500,000 gay men have died of AIDS in the United States alone. But how many would still be alive today if they had had the right to marry? Millions of lesbian women and gay men have led lonely lives, without any hope of finding a legally sanctioned companion in marriage. If encouraging gays and lesbians to marry, and honoring their commitment, could save the lives of hundreds of thousands who might otherwise be lost to promiscuity or AIDS, and bring God’s healing provision for a deeper life commitment into the lives of many millions more – is it wrong? What’s the more righteous, lawful, and holy thing to do: to save lives by allowing gays and lesbians to marry, or to destroy their lives to preserve a very rigid, heterosexually-based definition of marriage?

Jesus might ask us today, “Is it wrong to allow lesbians and gay men to marry if it does good and saves lives?” But just like the Pharisees 2000 years ago, many legalistic Christians today would answer, “Yes, it’s wrong because it says so in the Bible.” They believe that an institution created to serve the needs of people, must be honored by needlessly sacrificing the lives of people. They are more concerned about worshipping a ‘sacred institution’ than with the lives of human beings.

Jesus also asked the Pharisees, “What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?” (Matt 12:11) Jesus knew that the Pharisees would break the Sabbath if it meant rescuing their property, even though they might not lift a finger to help their neighbor. In a similar manner, there are many Christians today declare that marriage a sacred and inviolable institution when it comes to gays and lesbians getting married; but when it comes to women marrying men for their money or wealthy men divorcing their wives so they can marry a younger ‘trophy bride,’ there never seems to be the same moral outrage, or the same campaign for a law to prohibit it. For Pharisees both old and new, the love of money will always excuse a multitude of transgressions.

What Jesus did by healing on the Sabbath he did out of love, because to love your neighbor is the highest and most complete fulfillment of the Law. But as with many Christians today, the Pharisees’ limited understanding of the sacred traditions was only used to maintain their power and authority. Though it was also an explicit example of their hatred towards their neighbors, and a direct violation of everything that the Mosaic Law stood for, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Gal 5:14)

The Pharisees hatred for their neighbor was demonstrated by their hatred and persecution of the Son of man, even though it was disguised in the sanctimonious robe of their concern for a sacred institution. What the Pharisees were doing was evil, not only because they were persecuting the Son of God, but by bringing an end Jesus’ ministry to the sick and disabled, they were taking action that would greatly add to suffering of their neighbors. Though they masked their hatred to make it seem as if they were defending what was sacred and holy. They acted as the righteous defenders of the Law, even while hating and persecuting their neighbors, and destroying everything that the Law stood for.

Very little has changed over the last 2,000 years. The religious people who imagine they are defending the institution of marriage are only looking for another way to express their hatred for homosexuals. Their passionate obsession over an issue that has absolutely no effect upon their own rights, or the legitimacy of their own marriages, is a fair measure of the intensity of their hatred. And though they presume to be speaking for God, they couldn’t be more wrong. Because it is always objectively evil and wrong to harm your neighbors by adding to their suffering in a very real way. The line between an authentic faith and a religious hypocrisy is in the way that our attitudes and actions affect the lives of others. As Jesus pointed out “every tree is known by its fruit,” (Luke 6:44) … and everything else is a sanctimonious smokescreen. This is especially true about sacred institutions.

As Christians, our hatred for our neighbors, though often disguised by our words and how we believe we ought to feel, is made plainer by our actions and how others are ultimately affected. Feelings can be counterfeited and our words serve as a smokescreen to disguise the attitude of our heart – even from ourselves. This is especially true in an atmosphere of false humility and superficial religiosity that seems to be so prevalent in America today. But our actions towards others and our complacency towards their suffering – these are objective facts that speak louder than words. This is what God sees, and that’s why you know them by their fruit.

The hatred in the hearts of the self-professed Christians, who stood outside the funeral for Matthew Sheppard with signs declaring that “God Hates Fags,” may have seemed very obvious and apparent on that day. But what about the hatred concealed in the hearts of the majority of Christians, who may have felt badly about what had happened and would never have carried those signs? As long as they support the same policies concerning gay rights and homosexual marriage, there is not as much difference as there may seem to be on the surface. And unfortunately, as long as that is the case, there will be more needless suffering, and even deaths. Because it’s not a matter of what signs you carry up and down the street, but what positions you advocate on issues like homosexual marriage, and how those positions ultimately affect the lives of other human beings.