Jesus said of marriage, “A man will leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two will be one flesh.”
What do we make of this statement today? Is this a universal statement about marriage, or is it cultural, and therefore dated?
Many may point to the fact that the statement is male-oriented – it is the man who leaves his parents, and that was clearly the cultural context Jesus was speaking into. But the notion of leaving and then cleaving, and becoming one, needs re-examining.
Leaving – in order to ‘cleave’
Firstly, each of the pair marrying has to leave their family of origin. When our daughter married, the first thing the minister said to her and her newly minted husband was, ‘Today you begin your most primary relationship.’ You can’t ‘cleave’, if you don’t first ‘leave.’ One couple I know had a beautiful, expensive wedding, but the marriage foundered after a few years partly because the bride’s mother was a constant and intrusive presence in their lives.
“And the two will be one…”
Obviously when a man and a woman marry, becoming one involves a full and complete physical union. A word now rarely used sums this up perfectly – the word ‘consummation.’ All that has gone before: getting to know each other, engagement, preparation for marriage and the wedding, then the actual ceremony and vows to each other – all of this culminates in an act of physical consummation. It’s a total expression of self-giving, and is the ultimate act of union between a husband and wife. (Traditionally, consummating a marriage has been regarded as so important, that a marriage can be legally annulled, if for some reason it is not consummated.)
Most of this understanding no longer undergirds a modern Western cultural expression of marriage. Often for a couple a wedding ceremony is the last item on the list after they have moved in together, maybe bought a house together, holidayed overseas, and perhaps had children together. In that situation, physical union may have been the beginning of the relationship and not the culmination of it. (And the physical union they have experienced may have happened many times before with other partners. It’s very rare now for both a bride and a groom to come to their wedding day as virgins.)
Or, a couple may have had a de facto marriage for years, and only later have they legally tied the knot and had a big party, if they could afford it.
A weekend supplement that comes with our newspaper has a feature called ‘Couples.’ Both partners in a relationship are interviewed about the other, and highlight key features in their partnership. The couples may be long-established or recent, of the same sex or heterosexual, married or unmarried – there’s no difference. They simply tell the story of their partnership. Frequently there have been earlier relationships – and usually there’s no sense that the couples are committing to each other for life. Sometimes there are children – his, hers or theirs.
While there are many good things to note in these couples’ relationships, there’s much that is missing – most notably a long term commitment.The relationships are good ones (they wouldn’t be interviewed otherwise), but there isn’t usually a sense of being pledged to each other - as the traditional marriage vows put it – ‘For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till we are parted by death’.
Becoming one is a life-long process
A wedding is not a marriage. Instead,the two becoming one that Jesus was referring to is what marriage is about, and it is much more than an act of consummation. During their years of marriage,a couple learns to live together in ways that enhance each other’s lives, as well as their own. They may bring up children, serve the community, provide hospitality and become part of each other’s wider families. A good marriage becomes bigger than the sum of its parts – as a couple, the power of their example, of the value of their lives together, can mean that a married couple can be a remarkable force for good in society.
Couples living in de facto marriages may indeed have good relationships and serve the community and society, just like married couples. But statistically they are less likely to. And the point of a wedding is that a couple is pledging themselves to each other, usually in the midst of their families and friends. A wedding is public evidence of that commitment, which helps to reinforce the step the couple has taken.
More than a ‘piece of paper’…
It is so sad that much is being lost in our society today because marriage has been down-graded to being no more than a ‘piece of paper.’ Sadly too, many have grown up in families where marriages have gone bad, and parents have split. It’s no wonder many have such a negative view of marriage. Yet even where marriages go bad, it’s possible for the survivors, both partners and children of such marriages, to build strong marriages themselves – I’m aware of several subsequent marriages where this has been the case.
My mother married at 19, and enjoyed 60 years of marriage. She endured a long separation when Dad was in the front-line during World War 2, faced financial challenges, health issues, raised four children, and worked hard. “We always knew we had to work at it,” was what she said about their marriage during their anniversary celebrations.
Marriage is still the most fundamental and important of human relationships, and statistically a good marriage is the best context for raising children.
Although Jesus never married, he knew what it was all about – cleaving together, and becoming one. That is what makes a genuine, real marriage, where each complements the other.
Liz Hay rejoices in living in a beautiful part of God’s creation in a high country mountain basin; and she also rejoices in hearing stories of God at work in people’s lives. One of her favourite activities is reading fascinating biographies that illustrate the wonderful ways God works uniquely with each person.