Marriage in our time isn’t what it used to be! I bet you think I am referring to the innovation of same-sex marriage; but I’m not. Marriage used to be a financially oriented social arrangement by which a wife was bought for a dowry price to be owned by her husband for the purpose of bearing children and managing a household. Marriage was the social form by which the fortunes of two or more families could be combined and the inheritance passed on legally from generation to generation. (In my case, my wife and I combined our college debts!) The biblical family values were that a man should take as many wives as he could afford; the custom is still followed in Arabic Islamic cultures.
Sex was important in marriage for the bearing of children, and barrenness on the wife’s part was grounds for divorce. Because feelings of love are intimately related to sex, sometimes a marriage would blossom into a loving companionship. But love was not expected. The ideal for marriage was the mutual respect that one could hope would come from a productive, well-run household and family. Proverbs, chapter 31, famously puts the expression of respect this way:
A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household,
And tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
With the fruit of her hand she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
For all her household are clothed in crimson.
She makes herself covering; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the city gates,
Taking his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
She supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom
And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy;
Her husband too, and he praises her.
“Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
But a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
And let her works praise her in the city gates.
That is the biblical vision of marital success and respect. Ancient marriage structures densely define the wife in these economic, management, and reproductive roles and barely define the husband at all, even as provider, except as being bound not to approach other men’s women. As I say, there was no special expectation of love in the old ways of marriage.
Perhaps this is why Jesus took such a dim view of marriage and kinship family, using its metaphors for his voluntary association of those who love God as Father, but saying that he came not to bring peace but a sword among family members. I trust you will all come back for the service here tomorrow morning when I preach on that passage from Matthew in conjunction with the story of Abraham’s family with his wives Hagar and Sarah, and their sons respectively, Ishmael and Isaac. You will recall that Sarah insisted that Abraham throw Hagar and Ishmael out because Ishmael liked to play with his younger brother Isaac, the only expression of love in the whole Abrahamic saga.
Marriage in our time isn’t what it used to be, thank God! For a variety of reasons, marriage has come to be our culture’s principal social institution for the expression of love. Love is intimately bound up with sex, but extends far beyond that. Love develops through time as people grow, changing their identities in relation to one another. Love grows through shifts in careers and the jolts of haphazard circumstances. Love grows through the acquisition of new family members and friends. Love is never easy, because the initial attractions of sexual love get complicated very quickly. But love is the virtue most important to develop according to every religion I know. To become a full person is to become a perfected lover. Sanctification is perfection in love. For Jesus, the venue for perfecting love was the companionship of his small group of disciples. For many within the major religions, the venue for love was monastic life. But for our culture, the principal venue for perfecting love, for becoming a full person, for growing in sanctification before God, is marriage.
How wise it is, therefore, for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Council to insist that marriage must be open to people of the same sex! No reason whatsoever exists that would justify denying people the right to marry whose loving feelings draw them to people of their own gender. There is no legal, economic, or familial obligation that cannot be carried out by same-sex married couples. And in our time the right to pursue the deeply human sanctification of love requires openness to the life-time commitments of marriage. If marriage were only the economic and reproductive arrangement of the ancient world, this would not be so, because that kind of marriage was not particularly good for love. For us, marriage is the main venue for maturing love and needs to be fostered for all people who are called by God to love, regardless of their sexual orientation. For religions to fail to support same-sex marriage is for them to betray the value they find in love as the way to live before the Ultimate.
All this having been preached as the Word of God for our time, there still are some weird, not to say queer, things about this marriage of Darrick and Jim. Some of these weirdnesses are incomprehensible. For instance, why the both of them should voluntarily choose to be bald is beyond all canons of reason. Yet they egg each other on in this madness. And I shall not pursue the image of the egg any farther.
Other weird things are very comprehensible. For instance, their love for each other is weird because it is not measured out like an ancient marriage contract. It knows no measure. They are like the lovers in the Song of Solomon, which had nothing to do with marriage and everything to do with love. One says to the other,
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;
For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
Solomon’s text says that such love would scorn the wealth of domesticity for which ancient marriage was praised in Proverbs. The weird genius of Jim and Darrick is that they are bringing this ancient Solomonic love to the marriage-form of our time. By wedding them we seal their love upon their hearts with a strength greater than floods and fires, death and the grave. This marriage draws down love’s power that is victorious over all that might separate them from the love of God.
To be sure, let us hope that they can cook, clothe themselves, make a living, and contribute to the community as a couple. Let us pray most earnestly, however, that they might live through a long marriage in which they perfect one another in love, sealed by us here. Let us commit ourselves as their community of witnesses to defend and support them when the ways of same-sex marriage are difficult, when human misfortune and illness beset them, and when their relationship might be oddly threatened by improved hair styles.