Sermon for Pentecost 19, Proper 22B, preached on Sunday, October 7, 2012.
Jesus is not trading rules but addressing the foundation on which marriage is built. That is made clear in the contrast between giving and taking. Now, no different than in other ages, we are severely tempted to see marriage as there for the taking. We marry because we have wants and needs we want fulfilled. Marriage works, then, as long as we take out from marriage what we want. So the success of marriage becomes the balance scale – are we getting as much as we are giving. When the time comes and we determine that we are not getting as much as we are giving, then the marriage is at best on the rocks or at worst completely over.
The temptation and downfall of marriage has always been the idea that marriage is there for the taking. The Jews of Jesus' day were quick to quote Deuteronomy and justify the divorce of a woman when she or the marriage becomes objectionable – as if any marriage or spouse or family does not become objectionable to us at one point or another. In other words, when you are no longer getting more from it than you are giving to it. Jewish culture guarded this right as one given by God, decreed by Moses, and therefore as sacred as the very gift of marriage itself.
Judging marriage on the basis of what you get is pretty common. Giving up on marriage that does not return what you think is faith is also common. And with it was the idea that, once divorced, the people were free to go on with their lives. This fragile understanding of marriage continues today – only the right of divorce applies equally to men and women. We have still muddied up what marriage is and what makes it a gift of God in creation and what makes this blessed relationship the image of Christ and His relationship with His bride, the Church.
Jesus insists that marriage is not for the taking but for the giving. He insists that this is not new teaching but the very essence of the gift of marriage when God created Eve and Adam. Adam did not exclaim that Eve was pretty or all he could have wanted in a woman. Instead he exclaimed in joy that at last he had flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, completing him and making him whole. Marriage will always be weak and vulnerable as long as it is defined by what it returns to us instead of providing the arena to give and serve the other.
Jesus says that in marriage there is no longer two, but one flesh. In other words, husband and wife give up self. They are no longer two in some kind of negotiated partnership but both have surrendered self in order that the new creation of their life as husband and wife remains. St. Paul insists that this is most fully visible in the self-less sacrifice of Jesus for us – giving up heaven and its glory to become incarnate, suffering and dying for us on the cross, and rising to impart to us the immortality that was His. Husbands love their wives as Christ loved the Church and died for her. They may not physically die but they die to self to love and serve the other. Such love is reciprocated by the wife just as the Church, the bride returns what she is given by Christ.
The whole nature of love is that it does not keep count or measure the giving and the getting. It is the nature of love that it counts nothing but the giving and it counts this giving as joy, privilege, and willing gift. In this love, it is not what we take or what we get but what we give that is important. The marriage Jesus speaks of and Paul writes of is one where the spouse comes before self all the time. The struggle in marriage is not between husband and wife but within each the battle to love without counting the cost and to give without bitterness, regret, or jealousy.
A marriage built up taking what you think you deserve is an easy marriage to discard and toss away. A marriage dependent upon getting more than you are giving is easy to dissolve when the tide turns against you. But a marriage forged out of the love that joyfully gives and serves as Christ has for the joy set before endured the cross and its death on our account. Well, how you can simply discard and dissolve such a marriage?
We admit this in the vows. We promise to love not only in prosperity, good health, and in good times but in poverty, in weakness, in need, and in trouble. This love is really not so rare. The truth is that I see it all the time. I see in the people in these pews whose life together endures despite the loss of job, the death of dreams, the loneliness of isolation, the death of a child, the test of affliction and illness, and the fragility of age and approaching death. You see it too. This kind of love and marriage is not so unusual but it does not call attention to itself. It draws attention to the other. In forgiveness and sacrifice and service we glimpse Christ’s love for us in those who love in His name husband and wife.
This is what marriage is. The romance and hope of youth are great but what endures is love that gives without fear, limit, or measure. St. Paul says look and you will see Christ's love in marriages all around you. God does not love us like husbands love their wives and wives love their husbands. It is the other way around. We love as husbands and wives as Christ has already loved us even to death on the cross. Love is defined not by rights or obligation but by service, sacrifice, and giving. We live a world of rights but Christ teach us the language of giving. It starts here, extends into the home and the world. And it changes everything we thought we knew about marriage, family, and home. Amen