What God Joins Together

“So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  What God has joined together, let no one separate.” — Matthew 19:6

Freedom is essential to covenant; it is indispensable to the truth of love.   The familiar words, “What God has joined together ” are often invoked at weddings.  They are drawn from the 19th chapter of Matthew’s gospel.  Is their message one of freedom or bondage?    That depends on our translation.

The discussion described in Matthew 19 is initially framed in the context of divorce.  Pharisees approach Jesus with a question: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”  The short answer, of course, would be yes (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).  But Jesus engages the freedom not to be bound by the narrowness of the question or the scope of their “test.”  He references  Genesis chapters 1 and 2:  “Haven’t you read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Jesus’ response is striking, even as he grounds it in the familiar.  This is not primarily the territory of divorce, he says,  but rather the promised  land of covenant.  He beckons them to explore the substance of  covenantal relationship.  I recall reading the poetic language of Genesis with a Confirmation Class nine years ago.  Some of the teenagers of that class are now in covenant relationships themselves.    I asked them to reflect on how we would understand, and translate, the spirit of “two becoming one,”  in a marriage or a friendship or life in a community.  The abused image of Adam’s rib was reclaimed as generative.  Andrew, the quietest among the confirmands, raised his hand and said gently: “It means we belong to each other.”

Those desiring to challenge Jesus into conformity struggle to regain their equilibrium: “Why then did  Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”  Jesus responds once again with untethered clarity: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”  In other words, God does not dismiss.  Anyone.  Ever.  The statute emanates from Moses, in response to the dismissive practices among God’s people. Prior to the institution of the statute, men were called to no formal accountability whatsoever.  They could dismiss their wives without any responsibility.  Deuteronomy requires that a certificate be written–a reason given, some minimal acknowledgement of the humanity of the spouse, who was hardly understood as a partner or a mate.  The wives were defined according to utility. One could accurately say that the words the men wrote on their certificates of dismissal   brought the judgment of God upon themselves rather than their wives, though those who were being discarded bore the awful weight of such action in real time. While some spouses may have been released from abusive arrangements, they were cast out into a religious and social culture that made little provision for their well-being.   When Jesus says, “For your hardness of heart,” Jesus transcends the chronological time between the historical Moses and the present- day injustice.  He also suggests that  his questioners are primarily seeking to justify things they have already done, not to consider what new life holds.

Jesus’ teaching adds suppleness and vitality to the ancient word. In the English version, “flesh” is the translation of the Greek sarx–the substance of a living body. The poetic image is of a relationship, a covenant, that is a living thing.  Might we imagine our relationships as living be-ings that require ongoing nourishment and nurture, that hold the promise of continuing growth and fulfillment?    This understanding is miles away–emotionally, spiritually, physically–from assumptions of  usefulness and self-satisfaction.  Jesus intends to show us the path from one to the other.

For his new dialogue partners and for us, Jesus clarifies that divorce is not primarily a legal thing.  In his wonderful sermon, “How Far is One?,”  Ted Loder gives Jesus’ lesson life-giving articulation: “The truth I want to share could be summed up by saying there is really no such thing as divorce.  Not really! Legally,yes, but not psychologically, or morally, or spiritually . . . Before anything else, it is what we cannot do.  Jesus says that we cannot actually terminate our relationships with each other because God made us for each other, and nothing can ever change that.  We can abuse, hurt, betray, oppress, exploit, even leave each other, but finally we cannot break our connections to each other.  Those connections are braided into creation itself and to our core.  They are grounded in God.  The inescapable truth is that whatever one of us does affects all of us, one way or another.  It continues to do so, especially in marriage, or after it.  It is a terrible, destructive illusion to think we are ever done with each other.” (Loder, Ted. The Haunt of Grace. Philadelphia. Innisfree Press, 2002, p. 68).  My personal experience confirms Ted’s interpretation.  This is very good news!

Dare to imagine, then, the rich meanings of forgiveness when relationships are understood in this light. There is freedom for each partner to grow and to have that growth encouraged and appreciated by their mate.  There is a transforming power at work that claims the disagreements and challenges that are necessarily part of intimacy and allows those very same events to open paths to new discoveries of two becoming one.  There is the freedom to get help, which is also freedom from fear.  An exquisite irony in Matthew 19:1-10 is that the one time that the verb apoluo ( a key NT term meaning “to forgive, release”) is  employed it is to describe “sending away” the rejected spouse; “cutting  them loose!”  Heaven knows, Jesus transforms the meaning!!!!!

In the Order for Marriage in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship, the partners are offered an invitation: “Before God and this congregation, I ask you now to affirm your willingness to enter into this covenant of marriage and to share all the joys and sorrows of this new relationship, whatever the future may hold.”  Each person speaks for themselves.  Later, when the time comes to make their vows to each other, the pastor begins: “By your covenant promises shared with us, unite yourselves in marriage and be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  There is recognition that it is we who are uniting ourselves with one another, that this is an act of freedom, a profound choice.  Invoking the name of God, and locating our reverence for one another and for our living relationship in Christ, we recognize the third partner in our endeavor.

So what is it that “God joins together?”  How is God’s communion with us, and fidelity to us,  manifested in the midst of our relational freedom?  This is fertile territory for communal discussion.

–First, we recognize that it is the faithfulness of God’s love that is the foundation of the covenant from which our partnerships might grown and flourish, not our own earnest or wanting efforts at any given time. We are never without resource!

–God gifts us with the continuing opportunity to see (Luke 4:18), and more fully receive, the deep humanity of our partner.  This can and will unfold over time, promising that even in partnerships lasting decades, the gift may be ever-new.   The more we see and receive one another in love, the more we explore our  “joining” by God. I often tell couples preparing for marriage that, given the dynamic nature of our lives, they may very easily have met someone else and been planning for a future with that person.  It may even have been a good relationship with a promising future (At this point they wonder what I’m getting at!).  But I remind them that they can never have with someone else what they can have with one another.  Their relationship is a gift, one with a unique creative mix. I have long resonated with Frederick Buechner’s statement that while both partners in a relationship still have their separate ways to find, “a marriage made in Heaven” is one where the the partners might become more richly themselves together than they would become on their own.

–Since God’s faithful and inclusive love is the foundation of any covenant where God is a partner,  Jesus’ teaching has particular meaning for couples  who have been historically  excluded from dominant marriage practices  and who have been culturally marginalized as less-than-full in their humanity.There is, and has always been,  welcome, affirmation, and promise for LGBTQ couples committing themselves to each other in God’s realm!  The history of interracial and interfaith couples blazing trails in the past overflows with God’s blessing.

–“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” is vivid language that draws attention to the formation and the powerful set of expectations we bring into our covenant partnerships.Our experiences in our families of origin have a powerful impact on our new relationships.    The words Jesus claims from Genesis remind us that our mates need not labor under idealized roles or unfinished business  that we bring with us from our previous households.  A Prayer of Thanksgiving in the inclusive version of the UCC Order for Marriage offers grateful expression to God:  ‘We thank you for all who have gone before us.  We thank you for our own parents, and for all , whether married or single, who are mother and father to us, and for countless parents whose names we do not know.  We  thank you as we grow to the fullness of stature in Christ.”  We are to grow.  Thus, couples who claim “”God’s joining” must be committed to “getting help” when they are struggling.  A faith community committed to wholeness can develop and offer resources that support  its many  partnerships.

–“God intends for us to live together, to love, to be just and fair, to treat each other as equals, to be accountable for what we do, whether we fulfill those purposes or not (Loder).”  This is what Jesus gets at the when he asserts that dismissal is not original, “from the beginning.”  We are constantly part of a whole, as our our unions.  From the beginning, as Andrew says, “we belong to each other.”  We are part of each other, not just as marital partners, but as community members,  children of God, recipients of God’s grace,  residents of the earth.  This is true in our all our frailty. The yearnings, pains, visions, loves  of our mates are not ours to dismiss.  We are not called to be faithful to an ideal; we are called to be faithful to each other, and to God.

Now there are times when  some couples can no longer live with one another the same way.  In such instances, our articulated distress can become an avenue to healing. “What God has joined together” is never a prison.  Sometimes, estranged partners come to realize that though they had joined themselves together,very little attention, care, and honor were subsequently given to the presence of God’s gifts in the relationship ,to  the Spirits enlivening and healing movements,to  the gracious discoveries within and without awaiting our discernment.  It is a painful realization when we recognize that we have practiced “dismissal” even as we have shared a home and a bed!

This doesn’t have to be the end. For the majority of us who have experienced covenantal brokenness, our partnerships have been a mix of grace and failure.   When couples come to me and are considering separation or divorce, I often ask them to make a time-specific commitment (maybe 6 months) to a counseling process where they can be supported in the hard work of healing, whether they ultimately stay together or not.  In many cases, their histories have included much that is significant and positive; their unions have not always been in their present condition.  For some, this time period is the first time they have  seriously considered “what God has joined together.”  Many engage opportunities to mend and to heal their relationships; this rarely if ever means restoring them to a past state.  They choose a new path together years after their wedding.  This freedom,as individuals and as partners, is indispensable.  What has been failure in the short-term can be transformed into a grace (albeit painful) that enlivens the partnership.  But this does not happen on its own!

Others will no longer be able to live under the same roof.  There may be too much hurt.  In the case of physical and emotional abuse, separation is a necessity, and people who have been damaged need the God-given freedom to choose grace, to be unburdened from responsibility for the violence inflicted on them.  For others, there will just be too much distance emotionally.   No matter what the circumstance, God’s power will not be absent. We are never done with one another.  Our years together, and all that has been in them, are part of us.  The brevity of our initial plans does not discount the “belonging to one another” that we have indeed lived, or God’s presence in all of it.

–In the wake of previous failure and brokenness, God’s grace may enable a fresh beginning  in a new expression of covenant.  Such is the nature of forgiveness.  It is important that we do not accept the grace of God in vain.  The “forgive us, even as we have forgiven” language of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us of the deep interconnection  of our social order.    We are freed to learn deeply from our past, to the necessity of confessing our own sin fully and honestly, to the industry of  making necessary amends, and to the honoring our continued–if reshaped–relations, in order to be free to embrace new life entrusted to us.  To do less is a manifestation of unfaithfulness.

–Jesus says that  divorce does not give definition to marriage.  The magnitude of covenantal richness and possibility reveals the tragedy of imitation. To understand marriage as the avoidance of divorce would be a severely impoverished notion.  Sometimes, when I hear people speak as though their marriages are a kind of indentured servanthood, I am concerned that their definition is too small!  What God offers is far more wonderful, and at the same time requires nothing less than the best we have.  We need to be free to bring all of that–our best–and to receive it from our partner. Freedom is indispensable to the truth of love.  This is what God joins together. experience love’s truth.