Better Safe than Sinful?

Monday, November 25, 2013 — Week of Proper 29, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 106:1-18 (morning) // 106:19-48 (evening)

Joel 3:1-2, 9-17

1 Peter 1:1-12

Matthew 19:1-12

Last Friday, I volunteered with our Episcopal Service Corps members to make soup from produce that had been gleaned from our local farmers’ market. We worked under the watchful eye of a food safety inspector, who made the men in our group wear hairnets over even meager beards, and who asked us all to remove our jewelry. He himself did not wear a wedding ring, since he would need to remove it almost every day. Instead, he proudly showed us the wedding tattoo that encircled his finger.

A wedding tattoo: What an admirable symbol of a permanent bond, of a marriage in which there are “no longer two, but one flesh.” In today’s gospel reading, Jesus affirms the enduring bonds that men and women establish in marriage. He teaches that the divorce procedures permitted by Moses were mere concessions to people’s hardness of heart. Although . . . Matthew takes a page out of Moses’ book and inserts an escape clause that wasn’t in the earlier record of this teaching! In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus appears to approve of divorce in cases of “unchastity”—but in Mark’s gospel he made no such exception. Divorce and re-marriage would always constitute adultery.

Given the extreme difficulty of Jesus’ teaching, we might reach the same conclusion as the disciples: We are better off not taking the risk of marriage than setting ourselves up to become just another divorce statistic and having all of our subsequent relationships condemned as sinful. As the disciples put it, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But are we really better safe than sinful?

In the world of human relationships, there is no easy way to opt out of the difficulties and dangers of offering our hearts to one another. If we enter a relationship with someone else, then we open ourselves to the possibility that that bond will break, often with painful and inescapable consequences. Moses was wrong: there is no paperwork that will make the break clean and uncomplicated.

If we try instead to withhold ourselves from relationships altogether, then, Jesus warns, we are forging an equally if not more difficult path for ourselves. According to Jesus, celibacy is not just an option that anyone can choose, but a gift that some receive. Jesus makes a distinction between people who have “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” and “eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others.” The former have the gift of celibacy and singleness in order to serve the kingdom of God; the latter eunuchs were forced into celibacy by their society. Celibacy was not a norm enforced by Jesus, but a possibility offered to a few.

In the end, Jesus gives us no easy answers. He simply presents the real risks and difficulties that face anyone trying to live a life of loving faithfulness. Our relationships do not come with clear exit strategies, yet celibacy is not a very accessible alternative. But whatever our relationship status is this morning, we can ask to experience it as a gift from God for the sake of the kingdom, and we can step more deeply into the perils and possibilities that come from loving others.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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