Back To Family
Well here it is … the passage in which Jesus forbids divorce without any exceptions. And yet here we are in the 21st century where divorce is quite common. So what happened over these 2 millennia? Basically there’s been an enormous cultural shift between the treatment of women in Jesus’ time and in ours; and there’s been an enormous shift in the centrality of the family in society.
Why did Jesus even talk about divorce? In our passage, Jesus just didn’t start talking about divorce. It was the Pharisees who once again were trying to trap Jesus into breaking the Law who asked if divorce was allowed. But why did they bring up that topic? There are a number of reasons. Jesus had spoken about marriage in Matthew and maybe they were hoping he would contradict himself. Or more likely if he condemned divorce then he would add one more reason for Herod to destroy him (which he did) – Herod had divorced his wife for another woman. Or they were hoping he would contradict the Law, which he did.
But there was a more basic here and now concern. And it was the status of a woman in Jesus’ society. Basically she had no legal rights whatsoever. She was completely subservient to the male in charge of the household, whether that was her father, her husband, or her eldest son. One of the results of this arrangement was that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason, while; a woman could not initiate a divorce – for example because she was being abused. She had to ask her husband to divorce her.
Further, economically a woman rarely had any means to survive on her own. Therefore if she were cast out by her husband, she very likely would face starvation or prostitution. She may be able to return to her father’s house … but in shame.
The Pharisees and Jesus would be very aware of this terrible arrangement. We often think of the Pharisees in negative terms and so think they were trying to entrap Jesus. But it may be possible that they too were concerned for the plight of women and were – maybe secretly – hoping for a solution from Jesus.
Jesus gave them a solution. And it fell to the husband to respect and care for his wife. Maybe a solution the Pharisees didn’t expect – particularly since it unravel a part of the Law they so cherished.
So what seems harsh to us is in fact a demand for security and a measure of freedom for women: freedom from fear of destitution.
But our age is radically different, particularly in the status of women. When John Adams was in Philadelphia helping to create the foundations of this country, his wife Abigail was left with the responsibility of making an income from their farm. She asked him in one of their many letters, why can’t she vote in elections too? John didn’t listen.
So years later in the 1840s, men had to start listening. In that decade at Senaca Falls in NY, women came together and formed a group to demand voting rights for women. They never gave up. In 1920, almost a hundred years later, women were given the right to vote and Antoinette Brown Blackwell one of the first suffragettes, at the age of 95, the last living suffragette, was taken to a polling booth by her son in Elizabeth, NJ where she voted for the first – and last – time.
Forty years later women once again struggled for equal pay, equal jobs and so forth. So now, by the grace of God, women have come along way to being independent. And I thank God that my three daughters have these rights.
But there was another great change from Jesus’ time and that was the industrial revolution happening in the same time period. Prior to industrialization most people lived on farms. A farm is a whole family job. Everyone in the family works, from the little children to mom and dad. The family was together constantly and the family was the basic unit of society. Note that the individual was not the basic unit. It was the family. You belonged to a family first.
And even if you weren’t on a farm, but had a small business, that most likely would have been a whole family effort, with everyone pitching in. You will still see this occasionally today in a family own business.
But with industrialization and its eventual ubiquity, that family center changed. The breadwinner … and that’s an industrialization term … each day had to leave the family and go into some strange factory and work often a 12 hour shift. It was usually the father, but occasionally it would also be the mother. This left the family unit fractured. Now home is where you went to rest if you were the breadwinner. Your family did not have the same coerciveness as it did on the farm.
The stay at home mom had to fend for herself during the day raising kids and having the primary responsibility for the household. New roles had to be established in the family and families learned to adjust and carry on.
Neither of these changes was wrong or evil. Indeed they were a boon to our lives and freedoms and prosperity. But they did require us to re-think what the family should be.
But of late, a new focus has reared its head and this one I think is self-destructive and does not offer advantages. And that’s the hyper individualism that plagues us now. We are beginning to believe that I come before You and before the community. We are becoming a self-centered society where an individual’s first concern – and often last concern – is the self. The community is only a convenience and when we don’t feel the community is helpful to ME, I have no responsibility to it and can abandon it. This selfish attitude has spilled into the family. This idea that selfishness is good is the foundation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy which you may have heard about in this current election cycle.
Our technological society allows a single individual to survive on his or her own. The physical need for family and community is not as strong as it once was. But what is being lost is our spirit and soul. The soul needs community and human relationships and human commitments. We are denying our souls and spirits those needs.
Divorce has been with us for a long time. My father had divorced is first wife in the 1940s. Both my brother and sister are divorced. But today in my children’s generation it is much more common. Indeed, some people aren’t even bothering with marriage any longer. We have friends who have children but no marriage … by choice.
The second part of our reading from Mark today has Jesus accepting the children into his ministry even though children were by and large invisible. He was teaching the importance of caring for children and adding one more expectation on the family.
I think if Jesus walked among us today, he would have replied to the Pharisees somewhat differently, “Raise you children in a committed, life-long marriage and treat your wife with respect and honor as a partner and not chattel.”
This age needs to overcome its hyper individualism. The bible speaks frequently to the community, from the tribes of ancient Israel to the house churches of Revelation. We humans need community. You cannot have a fulfilling life without relationships with other humans. You cannot survive without the community. Even those who choose to separate themselves from humanity cannot do so entirely. No one person can provide all their needs that our society demands.
And community starts with the family. It is in the family first that children learn to participate in a community. It is where they learn that the world doesn’t orbit around them. It is in the family they learn mutual care and commitment to others. It is in the family they learn to function with the chaos of human relationships. And one of the most important jobs we have as parents is to teach them how to function well in the community and to teach them how important it is to maintain the community.
But our hype individualism has dismissed the community. It tells us that the most important community is the community of one – of myself – which of course is no community at all. It teaches that you can go it on your own. And as a result we are raising a generation that does not see the value of community services and community support, from support for public schools to attendance in a faith community.
And this reflects back into the family, where the coerciveness of the family disintegrates. We know families where the parents never married and where the couple broke up just a few years after they were married. And I wonder – and believe – that not all of this is because a marriage was abusive. I think we are forgetting how to commit to the commons, to the community. Jean Vanier, a Canadian Catholic philosopher once said, “A community is only a community when its members make the transition from ‘the community for me’ to ‘me for the community.’” It is this we must return to.
By all of this I do not mean that divorce should be banned. A marriage that is abusive or where the parents just simple cannot function together is worse for the parents and the children than a break up would be. Indeed, Jesus in passages in Luke and Matthew, comes down very hard on family structure of his day where the father was a tyrant and women had to expect to be abused in a marriage.
But we have to ask in our own age if couples are entering marriage with the life long commitment of mutual support and mutual compromise to form a coercive unit of love and support. A couple needs the commitment that they will weather the hard times and rejoice in the good times. Each member’s individuality should be committed to enriching the family, not denying it.
I sense though that young men and women are beginning to miss that cohesiveness and support found in the life-long commitment of marriage. I pray that with our new found respect for women we are overcoming Jesus’ concern about families. And I pray that with our experiment in extreme selfishness, we are further realizing what we have lost by not being in a committed relationship. And I pray that leads us to a healthy, mutually supporting marriage.
Hopefully then the family as a basic unit of our lives will return and foster commitment to the larger communities of our neighborhood, town, county, state, nation and even the world. Jesus’ concern for marriage stretched beyond just justice for women. It also included maintaining the family as haven for children. Jesus was reminding us that the family is a critical and basic unit for a righteous and compassionate world.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …