Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
My parish, over the past few weeks, has been engaged in a study of Wendell Berry. This past Sunday we read Berry’s essays, “Health is Membership” and “Damage.” This week we’ll be discussing the essay, “Healing,” and the short story, “Fidelity.” With those works on my mind I could not help but hear our scriptures for this Sunday with an echo of Berry’s voice. From our lesson from Genesis 2 to Psalm 8, the opening of Hebrews and Jesus’ engagement with the Pharisees, we find the themes of the membership, damage, healing, and fidelity.
Wholeness and Holiness
In his essay, “Health is Membership,” Berry begins with the etymological work of reminding us that health shares a lineage with holiness and wholeness. “To be healthy is literally to be whole;” writes Berry, “to heal is to make whole.” And yet, as Berry argues, wholeness is not something we achieve alone—a self-sufficient being. Our health, our wholeness, is made through our membership in a community of life—“a place and all its creatures.” It is a community that extends in widening circles, but finds a settled expression through the unity of the two who become one—the marriage partners who have turned their desire for connection into a partnership of singular fidelity. In its fullest expression, as the church has long recognized, this union is a fecund wholeness—it makes space for the life of others. In its most basic way this finds expression in the birthing of new life, but it can also be found in the hospitality extended to others, especially to children.
I know of couples who have no children of their own who are go-to godparents and take that role seriously. There are others who in various forms serve the role of what anthropologists call “allo-parents,” members of a community who help care for a child in connections that extend well beyond biology. It is no accident that our Gospel reading moves from a discussion of divorce to the call to welcome children. A community of wholeness and health will be one in which faithful lives will always make room for the children in their midst.
The picture we find in Genesis 2 is that human life is meant to be shared, both with animals, and in more complete unity with other humans, particularly a partner with whom we can find both full joy and interdependence. This interdependence, though, is never the isolated pairing of two people, but is rather a couple living as part of the life of a community. The presence of married couples in our midst is a witness to the human vocation as creatures, our reflection of God’s image, an image of fidelitous love into the world. As Berry writes in his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” echoing the Imago Dei bearing vocation found in Psalm 8 and Hebrews 1:
“The sexuality of community life…is centered on marriage, which joins two living souls as closely as, in this world, they can be joined. This joining of two who know, love, and trust one another brings them in the same breath into the freedom of sexual consent and into the fullest earthly realization of the image of God…The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to Heaven and earth.”
We know, of course, that while a good marriage is beautiful to see and inhabit, human relationships fail in both small and large ways to live into the fullness of God’s image. That some succeed is a gift, but all too often marriage can mirror love’s opposite—resentment, selfishness, even violence. If we are to speak of marriage we must acknowledge the damage done to marriage in our society and the damage a deformed marriage can do. It was such a manipulation of marriage away from its ends as an image bearing expression of God’s love that is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching that we find in our Gospel reading this Sunday.
Jesus is asked by the Pharisees about his thoughts on divorce. Ostensibly, these practitioners of the Torah, were concerned with restoring Israel to holiness. But in some schools, such as Hillel, the Pharisees had worked out a way to live into the Law without embracing the wholeness and health to which holiness is aimed. Through various extra biblical teachings and interpretations, the Pharisees had determined a variety of ways that a husband could divorce his wife, including even cases where he didn’t like her cooking. Though Jesus extends the problem to women as well as men, for the Pharisees it was a fairly one sided reality.
When asked what’s permissible on this point, Jesus returns the focus to where it belongs—not on the particulars of the marriage itself but to what the marriage manifests, namely, a faithful wholeness. Such faithful wholeness is at the root of healthy human community and there can be no divorce that does not damage that community. Jesus acknowledges that sometimes divorce is permitted, but only as a mercy against the damage wrought by hardness of heart. As Dallas Willard puts it, “the ultimate grounds for divorce is human meanness.” This is quite different from the consumerist approach in which a member of a couple finds themselves “just not in love anymore.” What Jesus is saying in response to the debates among the Pharisees is that divorce is not a means to follow ones whims, but is a grave and damaging reality that should be permitted only as a mercy against human meanness.
It is clear that divorce is a tragic and all too present reality in our world (one I know from my own experience). But we must also recognize that divorce in itself is not the problem. The issue is the ways in which human community are torn apart from the faithful memberships in which we find our wholeness. As Berry has sharply pointed out, “Marriage…has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” Through our failures, our ignorance, our misdirected lives—divorces will happen, and with them the couple and the community will experience not freedom, but damage. And yet sometimes, for healing to begin, damage is where we must start.
Tilling the soil does tremendous damage to the community of life within it. There is now a whole movement of regenerative “no-till” farming. And yet, once one begins to read and listen to these “no-till” practitioners, you realize there are times when a place has become so degraded and compacted that breaking up the dirt with a plough is a necessary step before the process of healing can begin. Like a bone that has been fused abnormally needs to be broken, so there are times when a marriage must be broken before wholeness can return and healing can happen through the wider community of care. But it is key here that wholeness is the goal; a wholeness that extends to a wider life of community rather than the dark gravity of individual wants. With that wholeness as our goal it is the time for healing to begin, though there will be scars.
“The grace that is the health of creatures can only be held in common,” writes Berry. “In healing the scattered members come together. In health the flesh is graced, the holy enters the world.” This grace arrives when we have recognized the loneliness of our desires and given them up, making room in our open hands for gifts of God’s faithful love for us. It is in the circle of that love that that we can find wholeness and make the space for welcoming all those others wounded by the world. Though there is damage and divorce; there will ultimately be wholeness and healing. That is the Gospel.