A Marriage Grade in Heaven?
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh, no, it is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of Doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
We have been hearing quite a bit about love and marriage lately,
though mostly without great poetry. I thought that Shakespeare might
help, this Valentine's weekend. Even today, marriage and some form of
love are on the front page of every newspaper. For indeed, they are at
the forefront of our culture's contemplation. Although, again, without
a high measure of compassion, congruence, or conviviality. So I would
like to say something in support of marriage and in encouragement of
love. This will be the first part of a two-week exploration of these
issues with next week taking us further into the challenges of social
action, mission, and ministry. But grounded here today on two
lectionary scriptures that ask us to consider blessings and woes in our
lives, I want to learn from our heritage about marriage. I want to seek
something encouraging, whether we are single, widowed, divorced, or
married, about God's models for our communities. I want to pursue some
answers to our cultural debate and inspire some conversation for all of
So what is marriage? Well, 2400 years ago Demosthenes said the
following: "This is what it means to be married: to have sons one
can introduce to the family and the neighbors, and to have daughters of
one's own to give to husbands. For we have courtesans for pleasure,
concubines to attend to our daily bodily needs, and wives to bear
children legitimately and to be faithful wards of our homes." A
real traditional definition, that. Yet a little different than
Shakespeare in love. So what says the Oxford Dictionary? Well, marriage
is the "condition of man and woman legally united for purpose of living together
and usually procreating lawful offspring."
So far I'm a little under-whelmed. The ancient world and the modern
world seem to leave out a lot of my friends, a lot of God's people,
such as those choosing not to have courtesans or concubines or
children. But as has been said often of late, maybe the Bible can offer
us a better model. Christians like me turn to it as the source book of
faith, and politicians who have possibly never turned its pages
certainly seek its cover. What does the Bible say about marriage? Well,
on the one hand, "don't." That's the Apostle Paul's advice.
Unless, he says, you can't manage your erotic energies, stay single.
Which is also not much help and still doesn't address my experience.
Yet the books before St. Paul are also complex.
This is one review of Biblical models for marriage: Solomon, with
700 wives and 300 concubines. David, who kills a soldier to take his
wife, even though he loves another man. Abraham, who kicks out the
mother of his first son, pretends his first wife is his sister. Mary
and Joseph, on the verge of divorce, traditionally held never to have
had erotic energies, end up pretty good parents. It's a confusing group
even amidst people we like. So we must go a little further and deeper.
The Bible presents us with seven primary models for marriage, and if
you think your way through some of the famous characters and stories
you realize that you've run into most of them. They are, the
matriarchal marriage, where a man is taken into the clan and family
of the woman's household and subscribes to her culture. Moses, Jacob,
and Samson are examples here. Then there is patriarchal marriage
where authority and descent is reckoned from the father's household.
This is widespread in the scriptures and ranges from Adam's family of
Cain and Abel to Paul's advice that a man is the head of a household.
Next there is polygamous marriage and besides David and Jacob
and Abraham there were many more of these. Polygamy was widespread in
the ancient world and reported still in Newsweek just last issue. The
fourth model is monogamy, which has strong support in Hebrew
law. Adam and Eve got this started, and it lives to this day. The fifth
model is exogamy, which means marrying someone from beyond your
circle of community, and sixth is endogamy which meant, in the
words of West Side Story, "stick to your own kind, one of your own
kind." Finally there was levirate marriage where a widow
was remarried to her lost husband's brother. There is one that I know
nearby since this tradition has been valued by Armenian Christians who
so enrich our community.
With seven primary models reported, the Bible doesn't give us a
simple resource. Much of what it presents, from the perspective of our
modern lives and laws, is not palatable. So in our lives of faith most
of us still have to update and interpret its core values prayerfully
and in conversation with others. We choose some and discount others.
Jesus even does this: interprets and updates. Unless you believe a
recent popular novel, Jesus didn't give us a clear model of his own to
follow. But he did preach fidelity. And he did critique men who
divorced wives, which in the ancient world meant a man kept property,
and a woman was destitute. So he critiqued a traditional practice that
was unfair to the culturally devalued. He even critiqued one of the
central models of levirate marriage, fundamentally saying that when we
address this whole subject, especially in the light of God's new
creation, we have to think in new ways.
John Boswell, a Yale historian, says that in broad and meaningful
ways, from the Judeo Christian tradition and into the Greek, Roman, and
modern world, marriage has reflected two progressions. Once upon a time
it began with property (women were property), led to offspring or
children, and often, after years of life together, led to love. In the
modern world, he says, marriage often begins with love, still addresses
the issue of children, and ends up in conversations or disputes about
Boswell goes on to document that before the emergence of the
heterosexual marriage ceremony in the church, which really didn't come
about until the twelfth century, there were same sex union liturgies,
sixteen of them across the Christian world of their current day. I'll
talk more about that next week. But his insight is two-fold: marriage
has long been a model in evolution. And, if we long to find its core,
we have to look deeper than simple slogans and suppositions.
What is marriage? Since romantic love is an invention of the
fourteenth century, marriage is something based on more than love.
Since property doesn't have the same meaning and content as four
thousand years ago, marriage engages more than property. Since children
are no longer property, and for the Protestant Church at least no longer a necessity of a fulfilled covenant,
what is left?
The answer could come in that word I just introduced: covenant. What
is left is something that has always been there in the scriptures and
is as central to Israel and the Hebrew's relationship to God as it is
to our sane and healthy relationship as individuals, nations, and
groups today: covenant. What is covenant? It is God's model for the
interaction of two or more. It is a flexible but binding promise to
enter a relationship that gives life, even if its costs are high. It is
an agreement that creates an identity that is more than the sum of
individual parts. It is not a contract, for you don't back out of a
covenant even if one party fails in its performance. You keep covenant.
For it is a pursuit with the participation of God to be a new creation.
Biblical covenants, although fundamentally unchanging, are always
growing. Those of us here today who were not born Jewish are proof of
that: God reached out to Gentiles. Those of us who shave our beards,
eat our lobster, and wear wool blazers with synthetic linings live by
grace, too. The old covenant that prohibited football, tenting on
mountains, and women sitting in certain pews has evolved. Covenants do.
We don't have to begin our marriage relationships with instructions
from our parents anymore, much as I intend to give them to my children.
We don't live as beggars or suffer stonings based on the opinion of the
head of our clan. We live with a new testament, that is, a new
covenant, and it is growing still.
I've given them less than honorable attention, but both scriptures
today include keys to our approach to this whole issue. The Psalm, in
six short verses, reveals that for God there is a past, a present, and
a future. And one moves forth from the other. And we're invited not to
get stuck in certain debates but to remain fixed on God, who leads to
the future. The Gospel offers four blessings and four woes. They are
worth lengthy examination for their content but also their intent: they
call us to a life of blessing and away from one of death. They address
us directly and directly state that those excluded for their best faith
today are at the heart of God's hope. Again, that's short attention to
pay them, but they linger behind my whole understanding that we are
called ahead in covenant, ahead in life, to grow into the future, into
blessing and its translation: happiness.
I learned something important about my own marriage this week. Forty
years ago it was illegal. You see my father's family came to the states
from Scotland in 1739. My mother's came from Sweden around 1900. And my
beloved wife's families came from Ireland and Sicily around that same
time. Yet in 1896 Celts, from Ireland, were deemed "roughly
similar" to emancipated Negroes, "lacking the solidity, the
balance and judgment, and the moral staying power of the Anglo
Saxon," and in 1922 a state court case ruled Sicilians non-white,
and national rules against mixed race marriages lasted until the
Supreme Court struck them down in 1967. I couldn't have married my wife
without the intervention of the Supreme Court just a few years ago. I love my wife and I'm glad for activist courts and
What can I say in support of marriage? It is a wonderful gift and a
strange institution. It is often, as Mencken quipped, the triumph of
hope over experience. It is a blessing that changes. It is, as Tevye
discovered while Fiddling on the Roof, the crucible of love growing
from a life of common effort. It is an evolving idea still yearning for
God's best vision. It is, as Christians know, a fallible effort. It is
an organism that takes care and feeding, time and nurture, rest and
exercise. Once upon a time it was required for priests. Once upon a
time it was required for Bishops. Once upon a time it was open to same
sex couples. Now at the intersection of church and fate we are again in
a moment of change. And we still embrace this blessed gift and promise.
We are still called to do our best.
This is such a modern thing to say, but for Christians since the
beginning and for Shakespeare in the end, a lot of every relationship
comes back to our acts of love. Two weeks ago I preached on Paul's
concept of love and reminded us that he offers that list specifying
just what it means to a community, a couple, or a country. He gives a
guide for all decision making. It lists patience, kindness, hope,
endurance, belief, rejoicing, and forbearance as ingredients of the
expression. Today we hear Shakespeare say that love has a compass and
measure that is timeless and strong. It is not shaken by tempests nor
by what the remover removes. It is a God-inspired guide for our own
navigation in this life of faith.
In our living this Valentine's weekend we could heed a little poetry
from the bard, some vision from Jesus, and
some faith from Paul. For we are still growing, too. Amen.
Copyright © 2004 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by
Shakespeare's Sonnet is number 116.
The quote from Demosthenes is found in John Boswell's
Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, New York: Vintage Books,
1995. This is also the source for his review of the history of marriage
and citation of same sex liturgies.
The quote regarding the nature of "Celts"
is from the Atlantic Monthly in 1896, cited on the website of Interracial
Voice in an editorial by A.D. Powell in 2001.
The court case involving Sicilians is Rollins v.
The Apostle Paul's discussion of marriage is
primarily in 1 Corinthians 7, esp. v. 1-8.