¨Friday was Saint Valentine’s Day. It is an occasion for the supermarkets and stores to sell us chocolates and candies as tokens of our love for someone. In the United States it is the biggest floral holiday of the year. More flowers are sold for Valentine’s Day than for any other occasion of the year. Roses are of course the favored flowers bought and sold that day. In Guatemala, it is el “día del cariño, y de la amistad”, or the day of affection and friendship. That perhaps broadens the coverage and scope of the day, and perhaps de-emphasizes the romantic love that is the center of the day’s celebration in America. It is an occasion to celebrate romantic love, or perhaps sentimental love, which may or may not be a part of true love.
Saint Valentine is a poorly documented legendary figure from second or third century Rome. He was a Bishop or a priest at a time when young men were forbidden to marry if they had not done their military service. You need to understand that military service was not a three year hitch. A soldier served until the age of forty, was then often rewarded with a grant of land, and was free to marry and start a family. Of course the soldier had to survive first.
In legend a couple of young lovers came to Valentine and asked him to marry them. He did so, in contravention of the law at the time. For this he was martyred. We do not know what became of the couple he married. We also know that the day appointed for remembering him was February 14, the day of a pagan Roman festival called the Lupercalia, which was traditionally associated with fertility rituals and courtship between young men and women. Early Christians co-opted the pagan festival, making it into the celebration of the romantic love of two young persons, and the martyrdom of a priest who married them in defiance of Roman law.
Saint Valentine’s Day was celebrated on Friday. Two days later we proclaim a Gospel which comes to us in the context of Jesus’ teachings on the mount. We interpret this Gospel as being an intensive seminar by Jesus for preparing his disciples for the kingdom. The rules of Jesus’ time are revised, and made more stringent and demanding. If the Law punishes murder, under the new rules anger will bring judgment on the angry person. If you have a quarrel, go and settle it with the other person quickly. The Ten Commandments forbid adultery-Jesus says that anyone looking at a woman with lust has already committed adultery. Nowadays we would have to broaden that definition to include women looking at men. In an interview with Playboy magazine before his election President Jimmy Carter famously confessed to having committed this sin in his heart by gazing on attractive women. He did get elected, confession notwithstanding. I know several women who find cyclists in racing gear wonderful to contemplate. I like to admire a fine feminine figure. I guess I am an ocular adulterer, although the line between where contemplation and lust begins is pretty much undefined. And besides I am over seventy.
Jesus then goes on to tell us to pluck out our right eye, or cut off our right hand if it causes us to sin-it’s better to be one-eyed and left-handed, than to burn in hell. At this point it becomes obvious that Jesus is using hyperbole to drive his point home. Really, no one is expected to mutilate himself for the kingdom’s sake. But in this ferocious context he goes on to further revise the Mosaic code. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce’. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery”.
Jesus returns to this subject in Matthew 19:1-12, in Mark 10:11-12, and in Luke 16:18. He is adamant in insisting that marriage should be indissoluble. What is the theological basis for Jesus’ revision of the Laws of Moses? It lies in the book of Genesis, chapter 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”. In Jesus’ view marriage is a covenant relationship in which two beings voluntarily assume obligations before one another, with God as their witness. The covenant is not between the couple and God, but has God as witness and sanctifier, if you will, of the relationship. The relationship is based on the couple leaving their family and cleaving to one another. This is the basis of the covenant. Now if one of the parties violates the covenant either through sexual immorality with another, or by abandoning the partner, the covenant has been broken, and ceases to be valid. There is no marriage.
Now the passages I have pointed out to you also include Jesus’ prohibition of remarriage. Why? I submit that this is in same vein as the injunction to pluck out your eye and cut off your hand. It is an exaggeration meant to drive home a point, which is that marriage is meant to be forever. It is aimed at the disciples and not at the general public where Jesus’ message has not yet reached. Are there special circumstances in the context of Jesus’ time that make him take that position?
I will argue that Jesus was concerned for the welfare of the women of Israel. Note that it is the men doing the divorcing in Jesus’ talk, and not the women. There was in Jesus’ time a school of rabbinical thought led by Rabbi Hillel, which held that a husband could divorce his wife for very small reasons. If she burnt a meal, for example, her husband could divorce her. Hillel was a leader of the Pharisees in Jerusalem when Jesus was a child. Hillel’s thinking continued to permeate the thought of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. In Jewish society women were powerless. A certificate of divorce might allow the more fortunate to seek another marriage, but for most women the prospects were very grim.
Girls lived with their parents until the onset on menstruation. At that point they were eligible for marriage. Since women did no work outside the home, nor earned wages, a family generally sought to negotiate a marriage contract for their daughters with someone suitable as soon as possible. The vast majority of girls did not know how to read or write. They were illiterate. Depending on the family’s means, a dowry was provided, so that a woman did not come empty handed to her marriage, but in many cases the family was too poor to provide anything but a token dowry. Girls would be 12-14 when they were betrothed, that is promised to someone, and 13 to 15 when they married. Childbearing began shortly thereafter.
Once married, a girl usually moved in to her husband’s family’s quarters, where she would be under the authority of her husband and her female in-laws. She would become another laborer in the household, spinning, weaving, milking, making cheese, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the small animals. Hopefully she would bear male children, and her husband would appreciate her for that. But if she was barren, or produced daughters only, a husband might want to take a different wife. Burning dinner was grounds for divorce. Children remained with the father. Alimony was unheard of.
A divorced woman, if she had only a modest dowry which technically should be returned to her, was often left destitute. If her parents were still living, they might take her back if she had a certificate of divorce, but her prospects were dim. She was second hand merchandise, rejected goods. Who would want her? If her parents were no longer living, she was on her own. What could an illiterate abandoned woman do to survive? Prostitution or begging were the alternatives open to her.
I think the social context in which Jesus spoke against divorce can be understood in the light of the lack of respect for the marriage covenant that was rampant in his time. That the leading Pharisee sages were proponents of easy divorce for men and showed utter disregard for women did not endear them to Jesus. Jesus speaks up against divorce because he sees the damage it does to the weak and poor. This compassion and concern for the weak and poor is characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. We have seen that he worked easily and comfortably with women on a plane of equality. Mary of Magdala was one of his closest disciples. Martha and Mary of Bethany are two other disciples. Jesus teaches Mary as he would any other male disciple.
We need to remember that Jesus in his parables addresses them to men and to women. The birds of the air need no granaries Jesus tells men. The lilies of the field do not need to spin, weave or sew. If the prodigal son comes home to his father who celebrates his return, the woman who has lost her silver coin rejoices when she finds it. He reaches out to men and women equally. He likens God to the father of a prodigal son. He likens God to a woman who seeks her lost coin. When a woman taken in adultery is brought before Jesus and he is asked whether she should be stoned to death, he challenges the person without sin to cast the first stone. When no one does and the crowd leaves, he asks the woman whether her accusers condemned her. “No” she says. “Neither do I” says Jesus to her. “Go and sin no more”. Mercy and compassion are the main characteristics of Jesus’ relationships with men and women.
If we look at marriage as a covenant between two people in which they pledge to lead their lives together and to enter into a relationship of sexual exclusivity in which they are one flesh we can see where that covenant often can be damaged beyond repair. Abandonment violates one half of the covenant. Sexual immorality is the other aspect that annuls the covenant. The party abandoned or the party betrayed cannot be asked to renounce the hope of entering into another, lasting, God blessed covenant. Still some churches continue to rigidly oppose not only divorce but remarriage. The penalties for remarriage are especially burdensome and unjust to the party which was wronged. The sacraments will be denied to her or him.
“Marry in haste, repent at leisure” says the old adage. I think notions of romantic love, of sentimental love leave people unprepared for the hard job of loving someone for better or for worse. Perhaps we have high expectations, or perhaps we have unreasonable expectations. Over half of all marriages today end in divorce. How are we to reconcile what our Lord says in the Gospels with what happens to over half of us in the course of our lives? If our partner breaks the marriage covenant we entered into, should we be condemned to remain celibate ever after?
The Episcopal Church holds that marriage should be forever. We recognize however that it often is not. In a situation where a divorce takes place we refrain from judgment and condemnation. God knows what is in human heart better than we do. There will be no excommunication. If we are to be consistent with the mercy and compassion that Jesus would have us exercise, then denying the sacraments to a divorced and remarried person is effectively to deprive them of the means of grace whereby they can repair their relationship with God. Do you think God wants us to do this?
In the Episcopal Church of Guatemala divorced persons can be married. However the Bishop must be informed and briefed on the particulars, because it is an exceptional situation. The canons call for special attention being paid to the care and support being given to the ex-wife and children of the previous marriage. If the former husband is meeting his moral responsibilities to his former spouse and children then the marriage can normally proceed. We believe that with God’s grace a person can put a failed marriage behind them, and that, a new and more mature covenant can replace the one which foundered. This does not change our belief that “marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately and in accordance for the purposes for which it was instituted by God” (B.C.P. p.423). I leave you with these thoughts. May your relationships be blessed by the grace of God. Amen. Ricardo+
St. Alban English Mission, Antigua, Guatemala is a outreach project of The St. James English parish, Episcopal Diocese of Guatemala, IARCA
The Most Reverend Armando Guerra Soria, Rector and Primate
The Reverend Ricardo Frohmader, Associate Minister
St Alban Mission holds services every Sunday at Noon
Casa Convento Concepcion, Antigua Guatemala
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