Marriage, Family, and the Community of Creation – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the profound mutuality between male and female in creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday October 2-8, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
1 Kings 19:4-8
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51
This Sunday’s gospel reading will no doubt prompt much reflection on the sanctity of marriage. There will perhaps be broad agreement with respect to finding the meaning and purpose of marriage in the stability of families, to the benefit especially of children whom Jesus lifts up as belonging to the kingdom of God (Mark10:14). Differences will arise with respect to the range of different kinds of families that are thought to be able to benefit from such an understanding of the marriage relationship.
When read alongside the accompanying texts from the lectionary, however, our Gospel text invites a deeper, more integrated message concerning the importance of marriage and family, not just for the human community, but for all of God’s creation. Taken together, we would argue, the assembled texts offer the basis for what David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate have identified as “narrative ecotheology.” While their work concerns primarily the writings of the Apostle Paul (Greening Paul; Rereading the Apostle in a time of Ecological Crisis. Waco, Texas, Baylor University Press, pp. 49-62), their methodological suggestions apply equally well, we think, to the narrative structure built into the pattern of Sunday readings of lessons, psalms and Gospel. The meaning and purpose of marriage, we suggest, is anchored in its contribution to the transformation of human community, to make of it a more complete realization of life in the Garden of creation as God intends for it from the beginning of time. Not just the relationship between a man, a woman, and their possible progeny is at stake here, we suggest, but their collective relationship to the animals paraded before the human in our first reading, on the way to his discovery of a genuine helper, and indeed, to the entire creation in which they are placed. Jesus’ “powerful word,” the Letter to the Hebrews insists, “sustains all things.” This is true, we would argue, not only of Jesus’ teaching in general, but also of Jesus “words” about marriage and children.
Much recent interpretation of these sayings of Jesus has called attention to his critique of the pattern of patriarchal domination that characterized the context in which Jesus lived. As Neil Elliott summarizes the intention of Jesus’ saying on divorce, for instance, “Jesus seems less concerned here to prohibit divorce than to encourage the genuine intimacy of heart and soul, the becoming ‘one flesh,’ that makes the question of divorce superfluous” (“Sundays after Pentecost,” New Proclamation Year B 2000A, Easter through Pentecost; Minneapolis, Fortress Press, p. 183). Similarly but more emphatically, Ched Myers argues in his commentary on these verses that Jesus here “refuses to enlist in the legal debate over the divorce statue itself.” He instead “appears to set scripture against scripture, as if to suggest that the Genesis covenant (alluded to in 10:6) takes precedence over the Mosaic statue (Dt. 24:1, cited in 10:4);” and he thus “questions the way in which Pharisaic casuistry simply legitimates the already established social practice of divorce” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll. New York, Orbis, 1988, p. 265). Myers cites what has to be considered the definitive statement of this theme by Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza:
“Divorce is necessary because of the male’s hardness of heart, that is, because of men’s patriarchal mind-set and reality. . . However, Jesus insists, God did not intend patriarchy but created persons as male and female human beings. It is not woman who is given into the power of man in order to continue “his” house and family line, but it is man who shall sever connections with his own patriarchal family and “the two persons shall become one sarx” . . .The [Genesis} passage is best translated as ‘the two persons—man and woman—enter into a common human life and social relationship because they are created as equals’” (The quotation is from In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad, 1985, p. 143).
In Mark 10:9, Myers concludes, Jesus “protests the way in which patriarchal practice drives a wedge into the unity and equality originally articulated in the marriage covenant.” As in other respects, Mark “refuses to overlook the actual relations of power, no matter how “sacred” the institution. The ‘least’ in this concrete case is the woman, and Mark is making clear to his community that she can be protected only if she is no longer treated as object, but as equal subject, in situations of conflict resolution” (Myers, p. 266).
Relations of power within Jesus’ community are similarly at stake in the episode that follows, involving children and the attitude of Jesus’ disciples toward them. Jesus, Myers again argues, “is committed to inclusivity, his disciples to exclusivity. Jesus’ solemn pronouncement thus turns this seemingly minor skirmish into nothing less than a watershed challenge about participation in the kingdom (10:15)!” However, we would suggest that this constitutes a significant shift in perspective between these two parts of the reading. In the first place, the sayings are not so simply connected with each other as the association of children with their parents might suggest; and, indeed, the text does not mention parents at all; the children are brought to Jesus by anonymous people, and the suggestion is that they sought healing (“that he might touch them” 10:13). But more significantly, while Jesus has his argument regarding marriage rest on the classic creation text from Genesis, in this second part, his attention shifts to the future and the coming of the kingdom of God. Children, he insists, were not lifted up by Jesus for their metaphorical value as original exemplars of faith, but because they were persons severely victimized by the culture in which they were raised. “What is the ‘site’ of the child,” he asks,
“. . . vulnerable, credulous, and dependent, is in fact the very beginning point in the spiral of both exploitation and violence? Could it be that the discourse of Mark is arguing that if we are to forge a nonviolent way of life, we must weed out the structures and practices of violence at their roots? That the validity of nonviolence must pertain to the most basic building block of human social existence: the family?” (Myers, p. 269)
Mark, Myers suggests, “understood the difficulties his community faced in restructuring social power at the most intimate level: the household” (Myers, p. 267). Aligning his argument with the work of Alice Miller on family system theory, Myers understands Jesus’ saying “Unless you receive the kingdom as a child, you cannot enter it” to mean that “a new social order cannot be constructed unless and until we have dealt with the very foundations of oppression.” He cites Miller: “It is part of the tragic nature of the repetition compulsion that someone who hopes eventually to find a better world than the one he or she experienced as a child in fact keeps creating instead the same undesired state of affairs” (The quotation is from Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983, p. 241). Thus Jesus’ word to his disciples regarding the status of children invites us into “a new family system based upon both access and acceptance . . . . The child is not a mere symbol in Mark, but a person. To deal with this person is to deal with our own repressed past, the roots of violence, and the possibility of a transformed future, our own and our childrens’” (Myers, pp. 270-71). And the implication would be that this new family system is to be found, not in the family of origin necessarily, but in the new community of Jesus’ fellowship, anticipating the full coming of the Kingdom of God.
Thus we discover implicit within the Gospel reading a narrative structure, in the movement from the present situation in which children, with or without parents, finds themselves subjects of oppression, to an anticipated future in which they will enjoy the freedom of children of God. We can recognize something of this structure in the way in which children are used in our culture to embody the question of whether or not the future they will experience will be better or worse than our restricted present. For instance, people argue that present behaviors or governmental policy will be found lacking by the grandchildren of present adults, either on account of an overwhelming load of debt, and a disastrously depleted environment. A radical change of policy is called for in order to restore the possibility of that better future. Curiously, few in the public discussion see the connection between these two possibilities in our addiction to consumerism and the mandate for growth of the economy of capitalism. With respect to the present set of texts, however, the lessons and the psalm extend the narrative to encompass basic meanings embedded in the very constitution of human life, complete with proposals for human transformation that would lead into the experience of the Kingdom of God.
Genesis 2:18-24 has obviously been chosen for the complementary lesson because it is cited in the Gospel for the day. But as Walter Brueggemann has pointed out, proper engagement with this text involves both a near and far agenda, the near one having to do with the relationship between the man and the woman, which is of obvious relevance here, but also the far one with themes that touch on the more fundamental relationship between human beings and the rest of creation. The near agenda affirms that the creation of woman is presented as God’s remedy for an incomplete, indeed, imperfect creation. After the repeated affirmation that the creation is good in the first chapter of Genesis, as Mark Wegener observes, “readers will recognize the enormity of the pronouncement in 2:18, where the Lord God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (“Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost,” in New Proclamation, Year B, 2003: Easter Through Pentecost. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2003, p. 198). The text indeed provides a solid basis for the interpretation of Jesus’ teaching as presented by Myers’ in is commentary. As Brueggemann puts it, “Woman is the crowning event in the narrative and the fulfillment of humanity. In God’s garden, as God wills it, there is mutuality and equity. In God’s Garden now, permeated by distrust, there is control and distortion. But that distortion is not for one moment accepted as the will of the Gardener” (Genesis: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1982, p.51).
However, the reading calls inescapably for engagement with the “far agenda” as well as the near one. If it was not good that the human should be alone, what they will do together is fraught with the possibility of destructive behavior as they seek to take change of the garden on their own. “The narrative appears to be a reflection on what knowledge does to human community. . . . It asks if there are boundaries before which one must bow, even if one could know more. It probes the extent to which one may order one’s life autonomously, without reference to any limit or prohibition.” If permission is granted this couple (interestingly, in view of our preoccupation in late summer’s installations of the lectionary, the object of this permission is food), there is also prohibition; and both, Brueggemann emphasizes, have to do with the exercise of vocation: “From the beginning, the human creature is called, given a vocation, and expected to share in God’s work.” All three taken together, vocation, permission, and prohibition, characterize human beings before God; and “the primary human task is to find a way to hold the three facets of divine purpose together. Any two of them without the third is surely to pervert life” (Brueggemann, p. 46).
In popular understanding of the story, Brueggemann points out, neither vocation nor permission are given due attention; “the God of the garden is chiefly remembered as the one who prohibits” Brueggemann, p. 46. Just so, as the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees in our Gospel text about what God prohibits and permits, illustrates; but if so, might we not plausibly suggest that at stake here also for Jesus is the human vocation? Is his concern not fairly described as having to do with the human share in God’s work, for which humans are entrusted with the garden? Is not his understanding of the prohibition—in Jesus’ view not divorce, but adultery is the worse fault—aimed at the preservation of the couple’s life in the flesh as one life, a community’s life, extended through the timeful course of their relationship together? In most general terms, is not their relationship with each other part and parcel of their care of the garden, which has begun already with Adam’s naming of the animals, an act that actually concludes with the astonished awareness of full human community in his recognition of the woman as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”? The point here is that the church’s teaching on the relationship between man and woman ought to have from the outset the goodness of the creation in view as well as the living out of that relationship as work to further that completion and perfection.
This happens, Brueggemann argues, when the near and far agenda are brought together as “pieces of the same issue.” In the four-part narrative of Genesis 2 and 3,
“the ‘happy covenanting’ of Scene 22 (2:18-25) ‘is premised in acceptance of God’s vocation, permission, and prohibition. That is the context for the covenanting of “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.’ But . . . the distortions in human community in Scene IV (3:8-24) have come from a fundamental disobedience of the prohibition. The warning about taking the mysteries of God (life, knowledge) in our own hands is directly related to oppressive social relationships and to authoritarian and hierarchical ways of organizing life” (Brueggemann, pp. 52-3).
The narrative points in the end to the source of the problem, human anxiety in the presence of God, and suggests a way out:
“The story is a theological critique of anxiety. It presents a prism through which the root cause of anxiety can be understood. The man and woman are controlled by their anxiety (3:1). They seek to escape anxiety by attempting to circumvent the reality of God (3:5), for the reality of God and the reality of anxiety are related to each other. Overcoming of God is thought to lead to the nullification of anxiety about self. But the story teaches otherwise. It is only God, the one who calls, permits and prohibit, who can deal with the anxiety among us.”
With causes wrongly discerned, we continue to pursue an autonomous freedom, which in the absence of respected boundaries leaves us anxious. Personal resort to psychological, economic, and cosmetic strategies fails, because it does not deal with root causes; and a public life that “is largely premised on an exploitation of our common anxiety” seduces us into believing there are securities apart from the reality of God. Finally,
“The assertion of this text is that every embrace of reason must live with the power of pathos. Every attempt to control by knowing must reckon with the anxiety producing reality of God . . . . Anxiety comes from doubting God’s providence, from rejecting his care and seeking to secure our own well-being. Failure to trust God with our lives is death. To trust God with our lives is to turn from the autonomous ‘I’ to the covenanting ‘Thou,’ from our invented well-being to God’s overriding purposes and gifts. This shrewd narrative does not believe there are many alternatives” (Brueggemann, pp. 53-54).
In the context of this expanded narrative, accordingly, marriage and family, this suggests, are a primary arena for generating and experiencing this trust.
The psalm appointed for the day and the second lesson together provide full narrative scope for the meaning and purpose, not only of marriage, but of human life, as from beginning to end, God-given vocation of care of the earth. “What are human beings,” the psalmist asks, “that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet. . . .” (8:4-6). “Dominion” we suggest, needs to be understood here in terms of the vocation of the care of the garden from Genesis 2 (See Norman’s Wirzba’s brief but excellent discussion of the concept of dominion in his The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. New York; Oxford University Press, 2003. pp.123-128). Dominion has nothing to do with domination and oppression, and everything to do with service of creation. If the Letter to the Hebrews, on the other hand, suggests that “we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,” it also insists that we do see Jesus, the “appointed heir of all things,” the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being,” who “sustains all things by his powerful word,” as the “pioneer of salvation [made] perfect through sufferings” (Hebrews 1:2-3, 2: 10). The anxiety of human beings before God has been addressed in a way that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:22-28).
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.