That number is the grand total of years of marriage accumulated by the 829 couples who recently registered for a special worship service at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. These husbands and wives had all been married at least 25 years, and some had been together for more than 70. For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. Until parted by death.
If you walk into any congregation in the United States, you will see couples with an impressive marital track record. These unions are rarely without stress and strain, and many have overcome obstacles of illness, loss, and unfaithfulness. But if you were to add up the total years of marriage at most churches, you would be amazed. And inspired.
One couple, Victor and Marguerite Dawson, met at a homecoming dance in 1944, when he was 17 and she was 14. Victor went home that night and told his mother, "I met the woman I'm going to marry." His mom's response? "Go to bed."
He did, but he ended up marrying Marguerite after a four-year courtship that survived time in the military and studies at MIT. They now have five daughters, 19 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. Their marriage is going strong after 63 years. "He's been a good, faithful husband," says Marguerite. "That means a lot."
So what is the key to staying married through days of anger, months of separation, and years of disappointment, illness, and loss? Jesus boils it down to six words: "the two shall become one flesh" (Mark 10:8).
Two people, one flesh. When the two become one, a 70-year marriage becomes possible.
Not that Jesus is showing complete originality here. In Genesis 2, God creates the first human beings and says, "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). Jesus speaks of this tradition when he says, "But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.'" (Mark 10:6).
So why is it important for two people to marry and become "one flesh?" Quite simply, for the children.
Two-parent households have considerable advantages in sharing the emotional load (and joy, of course) of raising children. But as I reported in USA Today (Oct. 30, 2011), there is also a clear matter of economics, which is a serious consideration in creating a healthy family. According to a recent Census report, nearly 40 percent of single-parent households were under the poverty line in 2010, compared with just 10 percent of married family households.
I believe that the importance of marriage to children -- in terms of emotional and economic security -- is something that can be affirmed by conservatives and liberals alike. With no disrespect to the 43 percent of Americans who are single (a percentage reflected in Fairfax Presbyterian Church, which I serve as pastor), I am convinced that marriage is good for both adults and children.
Perhaps the Gospel-writer Mark is trying to make a similar point by connecting Jesus' teaching about divorce to his blessing of the little children (Matthew inserts material about eunuchs between the two, and Luke omits the teaching on divorce). In the first century, the poor were often orphans and women without husbands, so Jesus' prohibition against divorce could be seen as a strong stand for economic justice. Although the Pharisees accepted that a man could write a certificate of dismissal and divorce his wife, making her vulnerable to a life of poverty, Jesus said no, "what God has joined together, let no one separate" (Mark 10:2-9).
With similar compassion, Jesus rebukes the disciples who try to block the little children who are being brought by their parents for a blessing. "Let the little children come to me," says Jesus; "do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs" (Mark 10:13-14). While the disciples see the little children as expendables, with little economic or social power, Jesus considers them to be supremely precious and worthy of his blessing. To emphasize their value, he makes the claim, "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15).
Jesus is taking a stand for wives and children, and is trying to protect them with a strong prohibition against divorce. Perhaps this sheds new light on the recent discovery of a fourth-century fragment of papyrus which contains the line, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" Whether married or not, Jesus was understood to be pro-marriage by the writers of the so-called Gospel of Jesus' Wife.
Other early Christian leaders saw value in marriage, especially in its balance and mutuality. In a line that sounds more like a legal contract than a verse of Scripture, the apostle Paul says, "the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (1 Corinthians 7:4). What's important here is the sense of balance that is created in a marriage; the focus is on a mutuality of authority that exists when two people become one flesh.
The problem we face today is that marriage is on a sharp decline in the United States. Fifty years ago, about three-quarters of American adults 18 and older were married, while today only 52 percent are. Christians should be concerned about this, but not because of some romantic notion about the institution of marriage. Instead, we need to join Jesus in his concern for children, knowing that a drop in marriage ultimately harms kids, making them much more likely to live in poverty.
Fortunately, two-thirds of Americans are upbeat about the future of marriage and family, according to the Pew Research Center, and 46 percent of unmarried Americans say they want to get married. Even gays and lesbians want to enter this deeply conservative tradition, as the marriage equality movement advances across the country.
Mark reveals that Jesus had deep concern for the welfare of wives and children, supporting the institution of marriage for the sake of their emotional and economic security. That's a stand worth taking, whether we are married or single, as we start the next 36,722 years.
For Further Reading:
- Laris, Michael, "How do I love thee? Let me count the decades..." Washington Post, June 6, 2011
- Brinton, Henry. "Wedding days are losing their way," USA Today, Oct. 30, 2011
- Burke, Daniel and David Gibson. "Five big questions about the Jesus' wife discovery," Washington Post, Sept. 19, 2012
- Currie, Chuck. "Will you marry me? The Bible and marriage equality," The Huffington Post, August 24, 2012
- "The Decline of Marriage And Rise of New Families," Pew Research Center, Nov. 18, 2010
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.