One flesh?

The ‘Water of Life’ statue at Chester Cathedral hints at intimacy yet also distance, unity and duality (see the end of the reflection)

This week’s blog focuses on the lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday, Mark 10.2-16, though also giving attention to the Old Testament reading Genesis 2.18-24 and more briefly to the psalm, Psalm 8, and the Epistle, Hebrews 1.1-4; 2.5-12.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

I chuckled when I spotted where the lectionary passage from Genesis stops – with verse 24. Verse 25 (the last verse of the chapter) which has clearly been deliberately omitted, once nearly led me to end up in a rather embarrassing situation.

In 2004 I wrote the Epworth commentary on the Book of Genesis. In the introduction to the book, in which it is conventional to thank a number of people, it felt appropriate to pay tribute to my husband, Alan. I ended my remarks about him by commenting, ‘Together with Alan I am still in process of discovering what may be the full meaning of Genesis 2.24’.  Genesis 2.24 reads, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh’.  That was certainly the verse that I intended to include, and of course, in some ways I was trying to be ‘clever’ by including the biblical reference rather than the full text.

Only that sentence above was not precisely what I initially wrote. Due either to carelessness or mental aberration on my part the text originally said, ‘Together with Alan I am still in process of discovering what may be the full meaning of Genesis 2.25’.  For several drafts of the manuscript, including those which were checked by the copy-editor and proof-reader, the mistake was not spotted. It was only at the point when we got to the final pre-publication draft that I realised (with horror at the near howler and relief that it had been spotted just in time!) the error, and corrected it. In case you are wondering what the problem was, Genesis 2.25 reads, ‘And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.’ To have begun my great magnum opus on Genesis by proclaiming to the world (or at least to those who read the commentary) my husband’s and my unashamed nakedness was not perhaps the vision that I wanted to convey to people. Ever since I have always been super-careful in double checking any biblical reference in anything I write – even if I think I know it for sure. I have also decided that trying to be ‘clever’ is not usually a good idea.

I was reminded of that experience when I read the lectionary Gospel this week, Mark 10.2-16, not least because the passage actually quotes Genesis 2.24.  It is not an easy Gospel to preach on – at least not the first half of it. I rather suspect that quite a few preachers will focus on the latter part – in which Jesus welcomes the children. (It is one of those Sundays when a preacher might also be tempted to focus on a nearby saint’s day, in this case the much beloved St Francis, whose ‘feast’, October 4, falls on the following day.)

There are several difficulties with the first half of this week’s Gospel reading. Fundamentally of course a key issue for those of us who are members of the Church of England in the 21st century is that the vision of marriage that it holds up as an ideal has been challenged by the increasing prevalence of divorce in our society, and this has had consequences for church rules on marriage and re-marriage after divorce.

Another ‘difficulty’ however might be that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew do not exactly agree with each other when they present Jesus’ teaching on this topic. Matthew’s equivalent passage comes in Matthew 19.3-9 (or perhaps to verse 12). Mark is starker than Matthew in his absolute prohibition of divorce, while Matthew includes the well-known exception, ‘except for unchastity’ (Matthew 19.9). The other difference between the two Gospels is that Mark allows for the possibility that either the man or the woman might be the instigator of divorce, while in Matthew the assumption is that it would be the man alone who would take such a step.

Yet is it not possible that actually such differences can be helpful in our interpretation of this passage, and also offer a model for our understanding of scripture?

Within the Anglican tradition a range of views about the nature of biblical authority and biblical interpretation are permissible. I believe that my own view, that in the Gospels we hear the voice of the historical person of Jesus Christ and the voices of various early Christian communities and the voices of the individual evangelists who put together in ‘book’ form the documents we now call ‘Gospels’, falls well within the Anglican spectrum.  I do think that it was likely that the historical Jesus made a pronouncement on the ‘ideal’ of marriage, probably drawing on the text of Genesis 2.24. However I also believe that the differences in the versions in Matthew and Mark help to ratify my understanding that the perspectives of Matthew and Mark themselves, and those of the Christian communities among whom they lived, have affected how the text has been transmitted to us.

Matthew, himself a Jew, and writing primarily for Jewish Christians, was reflecting both a Jewish context in which marriage was normally cherished and taken very seriously, but also a context in which (as is still true even today) only a man could initiate a divorce. Mark, on the other hand was probably writing for Gentile Christians, and whether or not he wrote his Gospel in the city of Rome, was probably writing in a context in which the ‘Roman’ understanding of marriage was normative. Marriages were much more ‘easy come and easy go’, and often undertaken for temporary political or strategic reasons. It was however also recognised that women, as well as men, could initiate a divorce. Mark’s absolute prohibition of all divorce is intended as a challenge to the norms of this society.

So we can suggest that in these passages from the Gospels of Mark and Matthew we are indeed hearing both an authentic concern of Jesus, but also the reflection on his words by later Christians who took account of their own contexts. Something of this process is hinted at in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 7.10-12. In this passage, which is actually about marriage and divorce, Paul makes a distinction between the words of ‘the Lord’ and Paul’s own interpretation.

What does this imply for us, in our day, in terms of the varied contexts in which we live out our faith? The answer is not necessarily an easy or obvious one, but I believe that understanding the process of the formation of the Gospels as I have suggested above certainly allows us to take our own context into account as we wrestle with the Bible in our age.

It is interesting – and perhaps telling – that Mark 10.2-12 is one of the biblical passages explored in the resource book created for Living in Love and Faith. LLF Web Version Full Final 5 November.pdf (churchofengland.org) You might want to look at what this has to say.

I want to conclude my reflections by drawing attention to two additional points – perhaps tangential – but which I think worth mentioning.

The first is that I do not think that it is accidental that the verses about marriage and divorce come, in Mark, immediately before Jesus’ words about the well being of children.  There are often no easy answers when marriages are unhappy, and sometime divorce may be the better option for the happiness of a whole family, but the proximity of these two comments of Jesus hint that the welfare of children must be one of the factors taken into account in the making and breaking of the marriages of adults.

My second takes me back to my commentary of Genesis with which I began. The text I intended to quote, and which Jesus quotes in Mark 10.8, ‘and the two shall become one flesh’, hints at the interplay between duality and unity which I believe is a feature deeply embedded in the Book of Genesis. The central ‘thesis’ of my reading of Genesis is that God, God’s acts of creation and God’s interaction with the world involve a profound interplay between unity and duality, and the need to hold them in a creative tension. For example it is interesting to notice how the acts of creation begin with a series of divisions, and so much of the story of Genesis are the tales of competing brothers. Yet biblical, and certainly Jewish, interpretation has always affirmed the unity of God, most powerfully of course in Deuteronomy 6.4, ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one’.

 I have suggested that as the part of creation which is described as being ‘in the image of God’, it is the privilege and task of human beings to live in the tension between this unity and this duality more powerfully and perhaps also more painfully than any other part of creation. It also has implications for our understanding of the position and role of Jesus Christ who in his person holds together this exquisite tension of unity and duality, divinity and humanity more acutely and more painfully still. The reading from Hebrews 1.1-4; 2.5-12 which is our Epistle for this week, and perhaps even Psalm 8 (as read in the Christian tradition) seem to hint at this. Bearing this in mind it is interesting to turn for one last time to Genesis 2.24, ‘and the two shall become one flesh’. Does this perhaps suggest that in its ‘ideal’, marriage is intended to reflect in some deep way this tension between unity and duality which is at the heart of creation?

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