Fidelity Counts

wedding cake
Photo credit: <a href="">Shelley Panzarella</a>

Malachi 2:10-17

Don’t we have a common ancestor? Aren’t we created by the same God? So why have we abandoned each other? And why are we walking away from our ancestral deal? Judah has been two-faced, and Israel and Jerusalem have acted disgracefully. Judah has violated God’s favorite inner room, and has gone off to marry a stranger outside the faith. May God weed out from among us those who’ve done this, all the while pretending to speak for or make an offering to God.

You should cover the altar of God with your tears, because your offerings are no good here. They have no currency coming from you. “Why?” you ask. Because God knows about you and how you cheated on your wife. She’s your partner. That was the deal. God made her, one and the same spirit. And how will you have decent children if you run around on your wife and can’t control yourself? God hates infidelity. So says God. “It’s as if your very clothes reeked with violence,” God says, “so make sure you’re faithful.”

All your talking is just making God tired. “How?” you ask. By calling evil good and saying God approves of it, and then by asking, “Where’d God go?”

People marrying outside the faith upsets Malachi. People getting divorced for the purpose of getting remarried upsets Malachi more.

Many of the Bible’s writings, both Hebrew and Christian, view fidelity in marriage as symbolic of faithfulness to God. After all, if you can’t be faithful to a real person you’ve promised to share your life with, how can you be faithful to a person you’ll never see face to face this side of eternity? For Malachi, the rampant practice of ditching one’s wife for a trophy represented the “problem with Israel” in that day.

Little has changed. People still decry the divorce rate as a sign of the decadence and godlessness of society.

Malachi, though, identifies something many modern legislators of morality leave out: the real human cost of infidelity. Malachi says that for those cast off, it’s every bit as much an act of violence. In a world that relegated (and still often relegates) women to being property, Malachi affirms that “God made her, one and the same spirit.” In a world where children don’t count – where they were to be seen and not heard, and where they still don’t get a vote or a voice – Malachi asks, how can you expect them to behave when you set such a bad example?

Whether you believe in Malachi’s God or not, faithfulness in human terms still holds deep significance. Infidelity still has real human consequences, for individuals and for the “social fabric” of life. Even if we’re not of Malachi’s religion, we do well to listen to his call to faithfulness.

Just Because It’s Legal Doesn’t Make It Right

couple sculpture
Photo credit: Daquella Manera

Mark 10:1-9

He left there and went back to eastern Judea. Again the crowds gathered around him, and he began teaching them, as usual.

Some legalists came and to test him asked, “Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife?”

He answered, “What did Moses say about it?”

“Moses said a man can divorce his wife by writing a note to leave.”

So Jesus said, “Yes, he said that because of your callous indifference. But the prior law is that since, “God made them male and female, and therefore a man leaves his parents to be joined to his wife: the two are one entity. Because they’re no longer two but have become one entity, what God has created, a man shouldn’t destroy.”

This is a matter of people wanting self justification, and legal cover, for something they know is wrong without having to ask. And Jesus doesn’t play that game.

Jesus doesn’t deny that the statute is there, or that it shouldn’t ever be used. But Jesus is clear: it’s there because something has gone terribly wrong. And anyone who has been or is currently going through a divorce can tell you that it’s true. Something went wrong. And it has to do with callous indifference, or hardheartedness, somewhere in the picture. Could be mostly one partner, or the other, or both. But there it is.

The statute is meant as an emergency release, to allow people space to heal and move on after something terrible has happened. In other words, it’s purpose is healing and redemption. And it’s just as necessary today as it was then. God doesn’t intend for people to be locked into abusive relationships, for example.

But the legalists have made the statute into a means to commit a domestic violence, by using it as a free legal license to betray a sacred trust. It’s not the statute, but the circumstances in which it’s abused that Jesus objects to.

Same goes with any law that’s intended for people’s protection but re-interpreted and implemented to betray a sacred trust so that one person or group can gain an unfair advantage over another.

What About the Virgins?

Madonna: Like a Virgin album jacket, 19841 Corinthians 7:25-26

With regard to independent women, God hasn’t told me anything, but I’ll tell you what my opinion is (and you know my opinions are nearly always right). I think that, since we’re so close to the end of the world, you shouldn’t pressure anybody to get married.

[Credit: What follows is derived from some radical monastic characters I know of second hand, and who would probably be excommunicated if they said it themselves in public.]

If you comb through the writings of the early church fathers you will find a peculiar expression crop up here and there: “widows who are virgins.” It’s such an awkward expression that it sometimes gets mistranslated “widows and virgins,” or some such thing. But there it is. Could there really be that many sexless marriages out there that the first generation church would have had to deal with a whole class of people who are “widows who are virgins”?

Here’s an eye-opener. It’s well documented that the in that provincial Roman society being a woman nearly always required being attached to a man, whether by attachment to a father or brother, or to a husband. When a woman’s husband died, she either returned to a father or a brother, or got remarried. It’s just what you did. Otherwise, you were a kind of societal pariah. Women-as-independent-people was an unthinkable concept.

And yet, as a result of Jesus example, the first-generation church somehow got the idea that women were people too. Imagine! But if women are people, too, on their own, apart from the person-hood of whatever man they were attached to, what do you do about this whole new class of people? What do you even call them in a society that doesn’t have a word for such a person. What about the widow (who certainly has had marital relations) who is now independent, her own person, and who has not gone back to live with her father or brother?

Or could it be that the early church was so egalitarian in its view of women that they had to come up with a word for that class of person? Could it be that they picked a readily available word for a virtuous woman (parthenos) and applied it to this new class of virtuous Jesus-following women? Could it be that’s who the early church fathers were writing about when they had to deal with all these “widows who are virgins”?

What’s a church to do with all these “loose virgins?” Do you make them get married? Paul says, no. What’s the use in conforming the practice to the world’s practice? The old system, where women aren’t really people, sucks. And besides, the whole thing is slated for demolition? Don’t conform! Don’t pressure them to get married!

Too bad that kind of egalitarian practice only lasted a generation. But, hey, it’s not too late to start treating women like real people in the church again now!

[Bonus thought – get ready to have your mind blown: When Luke writes the Christmas story, 30 years after Paul has already written to the Corinthians about what to do about the independent women, and other early church writers had already been talking about “widows who are virgins,” what do you think he really means when he says that Mary was a young “virgin” betrothed to a man named Joseph? Luke’s use of the word has nothing to do with Mary’s sexual status. What he means is that she was her own person. And of course Joseph “knew her not before she had borne a son.” Having sex with a pregnant woman was taboo, and Joseph was “a righteous dude.”]