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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Marriage Equality? What Would Jesus Do?

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October 3, 2021: 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Genesis 2:18-24

Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6

Hebrews 2:9-11

Mark 10:2-12

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A reflection by Ann Penick

As I thought about and reflected on the readings for today, I realized this was going to be a challenge! I cringed at how the passages from Genesis and Mark have been used to justify patriarchy, rigid gender roles, limiting marriage to heterosexual couples, and even staying in abusive relationships. Sometimes getting to the “good news” takes a little work!

In the larger context, Genesis 2 is part of the second creation narrative. This section of the narrative begins with God wanting to create a “suitable” partner, so that the first human would not be alone. After none of the animals proved to be suitable, God casts a deep sleep on the human, taking out a rib and with the rib creating a partner. Only after the creation of the woman (ishah in Hebrew) does the author of Genesis refer to the first human (adam) as a man (ish). Thus, the female is not created “for the male,” but rather the genders come into being together. (Perhaps a distant foreshadowing of our current understanding of genders as socially constructed!) There is an equality suggested in the text that most English translations miss. On the other hand, there is no hint in this new and equal partnership is the only appropriate human relationship. Notice the human chooses a suitable partner. In the divine plan, God offers humans agency. The passage ends by celebrating the gift of a man and a woman choosing to become one. But there is no evidence in the text that the same divine love which offered humans so many choices a few verses prior, now restricts them to only one.

The second reading from Hebrews continues this theme of agency, finding in Jesus a Messiah who chose to become one with us, one of us. So that all humanity, through Jesus the Christ, could come to embody this same divine Love that created us. In Hebrews, Jesus’ is an inclusive mission, encompassing not only all of humanity but all of creation. Each and every one of us, through the mediation of Jesus, is on a journey with Jesus to embody that creative, creating love.

The Gospel Reading from Mark takes up the subject of marriage-divorce-remarriage. So, let’s put this passage into some context! Do Jesus’ views fit into marriage equality as we know it today? Actually, I think they do! I’m sure even Mark’s original readers found Jesus’ statements about marriage-divorce-remarriage as challenging as we do today. Divorce in the first century of the Common Era was a generally accepted part of life, both among Jews and even more within the wider Greco-Roman culture. For the most part, people debated only the proper legal basis for divorce, not so much whether it was good or bad for their society. Men were presumed to have the right to dispose of their “property.”

Here is where the context of the story becomes even more important! The Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce, not with the intent of really entering into a discussion. This was a confrontation! They were challenging Jesus’ entire ministry. The Pharisees routinely spied on Jesus and the disciples because their behaviors threatened the status quo. The gospel of Mark depicts the Pharisees as misusing scripture and interpretive traditions while enhancing themselves at the expense of the Jewish people whom they claimed to serve. They were looking for anything to stop this Jewish renewal that Jesus was leading.

Then Jesus turns the conversation with the Pharisees away from the legal foundation for divorce to God’s design for marriage. Jesus describes the divine “plan” for marriage as a strong and unifying bond between two people. It is because marriage is meant to be so supportive that divorce is not in the plan.

Later, with the disciples, Jesus reveals more, saying that a person who initiates a divorce to marry another person, commits adultery. Notice, Jesus says nothing about the rejected spouse in a divorce nor about their remarriage. Instead, Jesus seems to be speaking specifically against those who leave their spouse for another person. The point Jesus is making is that divorce is not a legal loophole to justify a man simply getting rid of his wife. Jesus’ words are against those who would treat their spouse (and their marriage) as disposable.

In Jesus’ time, most cultures saw marriage as a way to ensure families’ economic stability and social privileges—birthing children to continue the family line, to continue the family business, and creating inter-family alliances. As for women? Their sexuality was essentially the property of their fathers and then their husbands. But Jesus gives women a place of greater equality in the marital relationship, depicting them as more than passive objects. Jesus speaks of a man committing adultery against a woman (not against her father or her past or present spouse). Jesus implies that adultery involves more than violating property rights of another man. It is about accountability to one’s spouse and not using divorce to get around the obligation to love one another.

There are certainly cultural differences between 2021 and the communities depicted in the gospels. In a number of countries now (29 according to the HRC), marriage is seen beyond an exclusive male-female model. The marriage bond has become less about economic alliances and children carrying on the family name, and more about people seeking mutual fulfillment and growth with each other. While divorce still often leads people (typically women) into financial difficulties, divorced women today do not always find themselves destined to the same social stigma and outcast status many of their female ancestors faced.

Jesus describes marriage as something that transcends contractual obligations and economic utility to be rooted in a mutually recognized humanity. Marriage is not a contract of convenience, casually formed and casually broken, but a loving commitment. Churches could promote and foster healthy marriages by supporting marriage equality, not to mention the equality of the spouses! Jesus fostered justice and equality in marriage and the Church would exercise authentic discipleship if it did the same. Alas, the Church has a long way to go on that front!

However, the Church can be challenged to be open to God’s grace. When certain bishops of the Church interpret words from Scripture as unchangeable, rigid commands to the whole People of God, the painful results are that the Church denies grace, love, and welcome for those who need it. We are all made in the image and likeness of God; thus, we can trust that God did not just design marriage for certain people. God made us as we are: gay, lesbian, straight, male/female, bisexual, transgender, binary, nonbinary of all colors. We are wonderfully made. God loves who we are. No exceptions. This commitment to each person’s sacred humanity should extend to marriage as well.

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Ann Penick is originally from the Chicago area. She and her husband, Jim, live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Ann was ordained a priest with Roman Catholic Womenpriests in 2011. Ann has been serving the faith communities of Dignity Washington and Northern Virginia Dignity as one of their presiders since 2017. She also serves as one of the board members of DignityUSA. In addition, she has been pastoring a faith community of young families in Washington, DC since 2013.

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