Would Christ Turn Marriage Upside-Down?

RingsGeorgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and now Oklahoma. Christianity is under assault. But not in the way that the conservatives in these states who’ve introduced discriminatory laws would say it is. Like the Pharisees Jesus condemned, these Christians stand in the marketplace and loudly proclaim their objections to the actions of those whose behavior is far more Christ-like. Their hypocrisy in the name of religion should be obvious to anyone who seeks to follow Christ’s example.

If Christianity means being Christ-like, then it is under assault. And it is up to those of us who desire to live as Christ lived to show the courage of Christ and call out such hypocrisy just as he did.

Consider the first of these stories, from the Gospel of Matthew:

1Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” 3He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. 6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: 8 ‘This people honors me with their lips,  but their hearts are far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (Matthew 15: 1-9, NRSV)

Christ makes clear that marriage is a human precept.  When he is asked by religious leaders which of her multiple dead husbands a woman will belong to in heaven, he tells them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.  For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage…” (Matthew 22: 29-30, NRSV).

Every time Christians defend their views against same-sex marriage by invoking the phrase “traditional marriage, between one man and one woman,” aren’t they making void the word of God by ignoring everything Christ had to say about the two greatest commandments—to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves?

In fact, Christ directly addresses this in Matthew 23:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces…

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (NRSV)

Jesus might say much the same thing to Christians who try to impose laws tied up in the heavy burden of hatred that they lay on the shoulders of those affected by their laws. “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” they say. Their actions definitely convey the hatred of what they believe to be the sin of homosexuality, but how do they show their love? Where is the justice and mercy and faith of which Christ spoke?

Not once does Christ ever mention homosexuality. But he does, many times, challenge the religious leaders, pointing out over and over again that they are being self-righteous rather than righteous. He reasons with them when they tell him he shouldn’t heal on the Sabbath, and they walk away in silence and plot to kill him when they can’t support their claims with reason. The Gospel of Mark tells us, “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 1:5a, NRSV).

Ultimately, Jesus doesn’t convince the loudest and hardest of heart, but he dies trying. And he does convince the thousands he feeds, the multitude he heals, the quiet people with whom he reasons—the people to whom he shows justice and mercy and faith.

So what is the lesson in those stories for those of us who seek to model our lives after the Christ we follow? Like Jesus, in our humanness, we will sometimes be so frustrated that we resort to anger and name-calling. Like Jesus, we will be targeted by self-righteous religious leaders who say we are not Christian when we refuse to join them in stamping out what they view as sin.

But unlike Jesus, we live in a democracy where every citizen can have a voice. If we can, as Jesus did, feed the hungry, minister to the sick, and give voice to the disenfranchised, each one of those voices has a vote.

I’ve always been puzzled about those times in the Gospels when Jesus tells the people he’s healed to be quiet and not tell anyone about what he’s done for them. They do, of course. And if we give voice to the voiceless, they will bring about change and vote out the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

Christianity would not have survived for over 2000 years if Christ’s message had only appealed to the disenfranchised, though. In those crowds where Jesus spoke at length about justice and mercy and faith, he convinced many who quietly went back to their ordinary lives, changed forever by his message.

It isn’t the noisy, obnoxious politicians we need to convince, any more than Jesus convinced the religious leaders of his time. There are many quiet people in Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and other states who have been taught their whole lives by religious leaders that God is mighty and vengeful. But it’s hard to reject faulty reasoning that you’ve been fed with your mother’s milk.

Those are the people we need to convince. In certain parts of our country, it’s nearly impossible to find a church where religious leaders give the kinds of sermons Jesus gave—sermons that make you question everything you’ve ever been told about the nature of God, sermons that make you think for days about what it means to be made in the image of God.

Christ turns the religious world upside-down. He tells the crowds, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20, NRSV).”  He makes them think differently about what they’ve always accepted as true.

If our society embraces same-sex marriage, it would not be the first time that laws and tradition regarding marriage have been changed. In fact, when conservative Christians site the Old Testament in calling homosexuality an abomination, they are referring to a society in which some of the greatest religious leaders—Abraham and David and Solomon—had many wives. There are no such stories in the New Testament. Christ never speaks out against polygamy, but our society has somehow come to believe that marriage is between “one man and one woman.” Christian parents no longer arrange for the marriages of their children. Neither do we still require a dowry that reimburses the man’s family for the burden of taking on a wife.

Marriage is always changing, as society is changing. The one thing that has never changed is that the best marriages are grounded in love. And given that Christ called love the greatest of the commandments, love should be our aim for all marriages.

In what I find to be one of the most incredulous things Jesus ever said, he told his followers, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, NRSV).

I can’t imagine myself doing greater things than Christ did. But I am called to try. We are all called to try. Even when it defies conventional religious thought. Especially when it defies conventional religious thought.

If we would be Christ-like, we can do no less.