The recent court decision overturning Proposition 8’s ban on same sex marriage in California pulls the issue back onto the front burner of social and religious commentary. Most religious commentary—or at least the loudest and most amplified by public media—has opposed same sex marriage and vigorously promoted a traditional marriage between men and women (sic: one never says “women and men” in these circles, or any circles, for that matter). These folks argue from the standpoint of both tradition (this is the way it’s been for all of human history) and biblical testimony. I think it’s fair to say that neither the Bible nor Jesus envision marriage between men or between women; to the contrary, if Jesus or biblical writers could have envisioned same sex marriage, I am sure they would have condemned it. For biblically based Christians, then, it would seem that the matter is settled.

However, like many other very important social issues, the evolution of social conscience on marriage is challenging biblical authority itself—over our choices as individuals, over our social mores, and over social policy in a pluralistic society. Examples of changes in social conscience that have moved beyond biblical testimony abound: slavery, the place of women in the family and in the religious community, and even marriage itself.

For there is no one ‘biblical testimony’ on marriage. In the roughly fifteen hundred years during which many editors and writers labored to gather the library we now call the Bible, the institution of marriage and these writers’ religious attitudes towards marriage have morphed several times. In the case of Paul alone (or Paul and the post-Pauline disciples who published in his name), we can see some significant shift from one letter to another. Writing at the far end of this trajectory from the ancient traditions about the patriarchs or the stories of domestic violence in Judges, Paul lives in a completely different world than those earlier traditionists.

And it is a trajectory, of sorts. It’s not a gradual refinement of a single religious principle or structure for the institution of marriage. The evolution of marriage forms and attitudes in the Bible is rather punctuated, lurching at times quite radically from one form to a new one. Most disconcertingly, the lurch almost always takes place offline, out of sight, not clearly visible in the pages of one of the Bible’s books. Sometimes you can see the struggle at work, see the issues at play, identify the players and their stake in the issue. But you almost never get to see the community making the decision. The one sharp exception is Ezra, whose book describes how he forced men to divorce their ‘foreign’ wives—women they had married from the communities they found already settled in old Israel when they returned from exile in Babylon—and decreed that marrying outside the congregation of Israel was illegal.

Furthermore, it’s worth observing that accepted forms of family life and sexuality have changed at key moments in the life of the tradition and these changes have led to conflict, and sometimes to violence. The book of Judges is full of women and men who were murdered or sacrificed over changing patterns of family.

So this post begins a series on the punctuated evolution of biblical testimony on marriage, family and sex. I see at least seven forms of marriage or sets of teachings on marriage to explore. After the biblical canon was settled and no new biblical testimony was forthcoming, the institution of marriage continued to evolve in Western Christendom, and we’ll end with some comments on this history. In the next post, I’ll start with the first two forms of marriage described and sanctioned in the Bible, practiced by the patriarchs and matriarchs of ancient Israel.

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The Son of Man as Thief

August 4, 2010

No one can enter a strongman’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first binds the strongman. Then he can rob his house. (Mark 3:27)

Jesus did not just rail against the rich with curses, prophetic oracles and forceful teachings about the dangers of going in through the wide gate of wealth. And he did not just promise the poor—with blessings, prophetic oracles and hopeful teachings about what lay beyond the narrow gate—that their fortunes would be reversed, that he had “good news” for them: he would cancel their debts, relieve their suffering and provide for their needs. He actually put cash in their hands—cash he had stolen from their rich and powerful oppressors. In at least one instance, Jesus stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The Son of Man was a thief.

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. so you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:42-44)

Jesus had already demonstrated in concrete terms what he meant by this cryptic warning about judgment. In this concrete instance, as in the more eschatological sayings about the ‘Son of Man’, the “strongman” was Satan, and also his minions—the priests, scribes and lawyers who ruled Judea as collaborators with Caesar. The “house” was the temple. The “theft” was the so-called ‘cleansing of the temple.’

After the triumphal royal procession into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passion Week, Jesus’ first royal act was to enter the temple complex, go to the foreign exchange office of the treasury, and stage a raid.

Going into the temple, he began to throw out those who were selling and buying in the temple; and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and he did not allow anyone to carry a container through the temple. And he was teaching and saying to them, “Has it not been written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of brigands.” (Mark 11:15-17)

Imagine the scene: The tables topple, the jars of coins crash to the pavement, the money spills in piles and rolls out into the court, some officials desperately seize what jars of money they can save and try to make it out of the court, but Jesus and his followers intercept them, people are scooping the money up from the floor into sacks, hauling off the jars they have captured. All the while Jesus is shouting above the cries, the bellows of the cattle, the mewing of the sheep, the flutter of wings, the laughing of his followers: you have made this a den of thieves! Ever the master of prophetic irony and sarcasm.

It is a small victory. The poor are very many and even this Robin Hood raid will not see to all their needs. But it is real money, after all. And its symbolic power is tremendous. The Son of Man delivers.

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. (Mark 11:18)