10 November 2019

When marriages and
relationships fail to
reflect the love of God

‘Now there were seven brothers’ (Luke 20: 29) … the Seven Brothers Tavern at the Harbour in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 10 November 2019

The Third Sunday before Advent

9:30 am:
The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Castletown Church, Co Limerick.

The readings: Haggai 1: 15b to 2: 9; Psalm 145: 1-5, 18-22; II Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17; Luke 20: 27-38. There is a link to the readings HERE.

‘God chose you as the first fruits for salvation’ (II Thessalonians 2: 13) … fruit on a market stall in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen:

When I was younger, much younger, I remember leafing through the pages of the Book of Common Prayer during what I must have (regrettably) thought were boring sermons.

Did you ever do that?

What did you come across?

Some things were undoubtedly more boring than any sermon, such as the list of sermons in the ‘Second Book of Homilies,’ listed in Article 35 of the 39 Articles.

But perhaps the most unusual thing I remember finding in the ‘old’ Book of Common Prayer was the ‘Table of Kindred and Affinity.’

It seeks to list ‘whosoever are related are forbidden by the Church … to marry together.’

Don’t look for it now – it’s not there any more.

The table ruled, for example, that a man may not marry his mother, his sister, his daughter, or numerous other relatives, and neither may a woman marry her uncle, nephew, grandparent or grandchild. That all makes common sense.

But it goes into obsessive detail with some surprising prohibitions. For example, a man may not marry his wife’s father’s mother or his daughter’s son’s wife.

I can still recall how my mind boggled at the thought of the need for such rules. What was life like back in the 16th century if the church felt it necessary to specify such prohibitions? And how many women had the opportunity even to contemplate marrying their deceased granddaughter’s husband?

At least six of the 25 relationships that are expressly prohibited from developing into marriage involve no genetic link at all. Yet the list did not prohibit marriages between first cousins. So some of the inconsistencies are striking, to say the least.

Some of the rules make sense: when extended families were the norm, and often lived under the same roof, these rules warned against exploitative relationships within family circles. They helped to prevent secret affairs that might have continued in the hope of their eventual ratification with marriage. And they clearly delineated family structures in ways that were important when it came to inheriting land and property and keeping them within the family.

But it could all have been, and was, dealt with anyway, through legislation and law.

What was something like that doing in a prayer book, in the Book of Common Prayer, in the first place?

I think it had less to do with morality and more to do with the Church needing to bolster long-held prejudices by cloaking them in statements that were good in part but in sum amounted to bad law and bad theology.

When the men who drew up this table in the Church, and the men who handed it down to Anglicans unquestioned for centuries, were getting their minds around some very peculiar relationships, did any one of them ever think about asking a woman, ‘What do you think about these obscure and arcane rules and regulations?’

Is the Church not doing the very same today, with the way it tries to rule about who can and who cannot get married in church today?

As the Church distances itself from marriages that are actually allowed in law today, who among the members of General Synod actually takes the time to ask the women and men who are refused Church marriages, ‘Would you like to be married in Church?’

For example, when Lyra McKee was murdered in Derry earlier this year [18 April 2019], Church leaders were right to rush to condemn her brutal murder. It was so fitting that she received a dignified funeral in a Church of Ireland cathedral, Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast [24 April 2019].

But had the bishops and priests who condemned her murder and were supportive of her funeral instead offered her the marriage she had looked forward to, they would have been severely disciplined by Church authorities.

And as they were disciplined, I imagine, no-one would have asked Lyra McKee what she wanted, what she needed, hoped for.

I think her plight would have been similar to the plight of the woman who is at the centre of the debate in this morning’s Gospel reading.

Her plight was probably not plucked from thin air, not concocted in the narrow imaginations of the Sadducees, the prominent group of ruling priests in the Temple, who use her dilemma to try to paint Jesus into a corner.

They are not interested in her plight.

They are not interested in her dilemma.

They are not interested in the fact that a widow in that society who fails to remarry is left without financial means of support, is left in poverty, may even be forced into prostitution.

Who ever asked this woman what she would like?

Who ever asked her how she would like to end up in this life … never mind in the next life?

The Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife anyway, so any answer Jesus gives is going to be ridiculed.

This woman, unnamed, is made an object by the people who come to Jesus with their silly questions. But none among them is truly concerned about her plight.

Her only role is to meet the obscure obligations set out in the arcane interpretations of the marriage code that make her an object. She has no name, no home; her only function is to serve the needs of men, to continue the family name and line, so that the family lands and wealth are not estranged.

But instead of dealing with trifling arguments that do not matter, Jesus avoids the debate and tells us three very straight truths:

● God is alive and loving.

● We are God’s children.

● Love is at the heart of true relationships.

Of course, we do not yet live in the fullness of God’s kingdom. People still marry, people still vote and run in elections, people still invest and spend money. When we do those things, they have most value when they reflect the values of God’s kingdom.

When they do not reflect kingdom values, they become debased and lose value, significance and meaning. It is easy to understand that in this country, in terms of the political and economic crises we face. It is more difficult to say that in terms of relationships and marriages.

How we inhabit the political and economic structures of this age can become a sign of our dwelling in God’s kingdom … if we live with those structures so that we give priority, not to our own self-interest and gain, but to the concerns and needs of the poor, the outcast and the marginalised.

If we live our committed relationships in this life with integrity and honesty and self-sacrifice, they can become signs of how we live our risen lives in the age to come.

And in the great working out of God’s great eternal plans, these are the three eternal truths that matter most:

● God is alive and loving.

● We are God’s children.

● Love is at the heart of meaningful relationships, with God and with others.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Now there were seven brothers’ (Luke 20: 29) … the Seven Brothers Tavern at the Harbour in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 20: 27-38 (NRSVA):

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

‘Now there were seven brothers’ (Luke 20: 29) … the Seven Brothers Tavern at the Harbour in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Time)

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the king of all:
Govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom
and restored the broken to wholeness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world,
and by your healing power
make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

‘Now there were seven brothers’ (Luke 20: 29) … the Seven Brothers Tavern at the Harbour in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


226, It is a thing most wonderful (CD 14)
358, King of glory, King of peace (CD 21)
494, Beauty for brokenness (CD 29)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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