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A Sermon from Sherborne
“Who can find a good wife?” Proverbs 31.10
A sermon preached at Castleton Church on Sunday 23 September 2018 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson
A church notice, not I hasten to add in this church, ran as follows: “Mothers’ Union sale of unwanted items. Please bring your husbands.” Or how about: Eve was so jealous of Adam that when he came home each night she used to count his ribs! Jokes about marriage are endless and I have been inspired to give you a couple by our first reading today from Proverbs about the perfect wife. That perfection, necessarily, is defined within the conventions and expectations of the time. We might come up with a different list, though woe betide the husband who shared such expectations with his new bride!
Jesus had some challenging things to say about marriage and you will hear some of these in the reading from St. Mark at the beginning of October. We know something of marriage amongst the Romans and such practices were common throughout the Roman world and would have been similar amongst the Jewish communities. In Roman society girls were advised to marry after they reached the age of 15 and were likely to have known little of their future husbands – less even than the slaves in attendance, for it was the senior woman of the family who had weighed up the candidates and decided on a suitable match. Love rarely had a place in the negotiations. Our very word “matrimony” is derived from the Latin and its close link with the word for mother shows us that the Romans regarded child bearing as the main duty of wives. Husbands were required to swear on oath that conception was their earnest intention. The Roman way of doing things was fairly common throughout the Roman Empire but we do have some glimpses into the Jewish attitude from the OT and especially the books of Law in the Torah. Early Hebrew law was founded on marriage by purchase so that the woman became the property of her husband and so had a low status. She could neither own nor inherit property and had no rights of divorce – that lay with the husband.
Attitudes did change a bit over time but basically these were the ideas about marriage which would have been current at the time of Jesus. He, however, was concerned to restore it to its original place in God’s plan and, as so often, expresses himself in uncompromising terms. As Christianity spread, so there emerged a different take on marriage by the church and by the state. The state was interested in the stability of society while the church additionally looked to the words of Jesus to support a view of the lifelong commitment that marriage encouraged which it often, though not always, achieved. It was not until the 11th century that the church had complete jurisdiction over matrimonial cases.
In due course the state took back control and legislation affected marriage in a variety of ways. In Victorian times you could only get married between 8am and 12 noon to prevent clandestine ceremonies. Then in 1886 the noon time was changed to 3 pm and only in 1934 was this extended to 6 pm. Other changes introduced a greater flexibility as divorce became easier and civil marriage became possible.
In our own time our contemporary culture is even more permissive and there is a new ingredient in the mix and that is individualism which we can see expressed in our society in all sorts of ways. People feel that they have rights and search for the fulfilment of their own wishes and desires. They are drawn to relationships which may be temporary as people seek the happiness which so often seems to elude them.
The state has rather colluded with this state of affairs as it has seemed to downgrade marriage by making it, from a taxation point of view, no more desirable than any other less formal agreement. It does seem that it is the financial implications which have become important. So it was that a few weeks ago headlines were highlighting the Widowed parents allowance with it being questioned whether this should be restricted to those who had been legally married or whether cohabiting couples might make a claim. Our learned judges concluded that the human rights legislation trumped marriage as it had given legal legitimacy, in some circumstances, to the claims people made.
The Church meanwhile has sought to hold on to the ideal while looking also at the pastoral care of those in a marriage which has failed.
Greek and Roman civilisations endured periods of decadence when morality became lax and people were only out for their own satisfaction. Sometimes that charge is also laid at our contemporary culture and that is understandable because, despite the good and selfless actions of many, others in our society exhibit a grasping selfishness. So the State, the Church and the individual – they each have different agendas.
Jesus was ready to proclaim forgiveness but he also gave strong teaching not only in respect of marriage but in all aspects of morality. He gave us, not an easy route, but the difficult one of high ideals. No doubt we shall risk failure in one area or another and no doubt we shall need the forgiveness of God and of other people. But the Church should follow the way of Christ and continue to proclaim the ideal and draw people to the very best of which they are capable.
We are fortunate in that the gospels give us some of the teaching which Jesus used with his disciples. He’s not talking about marriage in today’s passage but he is talking about how we should behave more generally. The rather sparse words in St Mark are amplified in St Matthew. He says “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” This stands on its head the ways of the political or corporate world but where human love is involved it resonates much more closely. People who are in love want to do things for each other – to give each other the best, even to sacrifice their wishes for the other.
So it is that the human institution of marriage is used as a symbol of Christ’s love for the Church and signifies that special unity. The Book of Common Prayer in the Solemnization of Matrimony has a prayer which reflects this, a prayer which goes back to the first English Prayer Book compiled by Thomas Cranmer and published in 1549. The middle section goes: “O God, which hast consecrated the state of matrimony to such an excellent mystery, that in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his church: look mercifully upon these thy servants, that both this man may love his wife, according to thy word, as Christ did love his spouse the church, who gave himself for it, loving and cherishing is even as his own flesh; and also that this woman may be loving and amiable to her husband as Rachel, wise as Rebecca, faithful and obedient as Sarah and in all quietness, sobriety and peace be a follower of holy and godly matrons.” Well, that last section recalling the virtues of O.T wives got shortened a bit but otherwise you might recognise most of it from the BCP marriage service.
Marriage, at its best, is full of self-giving. We can see that pattern and apply it to our relationship with God. We need to give ourselves to him, to offer what is best to him and even be ready to sacrifice what we hold dear to him. For he sent Jesus to us “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”.