When we look at marriage from a government perspective, it is essentially a binding contract entered into by two consenting parties. This contract brings with it certain obligations and privileges – including significant tax benefits. The state provides these incentives, because it has been believed that stable families – with legally binding agreements – provide for a stronger community and nation. This contract continues indefinitely, unless the parties choose to end it through divorce proceedings. These contracts can, and often are, celebrated with religious ceremonies. The ceremonies, however, are optional. The most important requirement is that the couple signs the document, has it witnessed by their representatives and another duly authorized person, often clergy, but not necessarily clergy. That kind of definition of marriage might seem rather dry and mechanical, but essentially – from a governmental perspective that’s what marriage is.
If we look at marriage from a religious/spiritual perspective, we might want to use covenant language rather than contract language. Instead of the state being the third party in the relationship, God is the third party. The saying from Ecclesiastes concerning a three-fold cord fits nicely here:
11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. [Ecclesiastes 4:11-12]
If we understand to be a covenant relationship, then God is that third thread or fold that creates a strong bond between the two partners as they take their journey together.
When we think of the way covenants are described in Scripture, we usually look to the covenants God makes with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. In each case God makes promises and lists certain expectations. I each case God is the initiator of the covenant. There is another covenant story, one that is very human in origin and nature, which might serve us well as we consider what it means for two people to join in a covenant relationship through marriage.
This story is found in the Book of Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite woman who had married an Israelite, the son of Naomi. After Ruth’s husband died, along with another son of Naomi who had married a Moabite woman, Naomi decides to head back home. She tries to convince her two daughters-in-law to return home to their own families. Naomi has nothing to offer these two younger women. She is a widow without support – as are these two women. Orpah, tearfully agrees to Naomi’s demand, but Ruth refuses. Instead, she pledges to stay with Naomi.
While Ruth’s covenant language is spoken by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law, they speak to what it means to live in any covenant relationship. This includes marriage.
Ruth says to Naomi -- “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge.” As a couple enters this covenant relationship they pledge to each other that they will go on the journey of life together. Wherever they go, they will lodge together – that is, they will make a home together. Because we live in an increasingly mobile society, modern couples may have much in common with Abraham and Sarah, Zipporah and Moses. It is quite likely that couples will not end up where they start their lives. My advice to couples is to be ready to go – together – wherever the Spirit of God leads. This is true, even if it means leaving behind mother and father. Indeed, it means “cutting the cord” with parents and tying the knot with each other. And when one enters the covenant of marriage, the two agree that wherever they go, there they will build a home together.
Ruth says to Naomi -- “Your people shall be my people.” In Ruth’s case, she was leaving her own Moabite people and joining herself with Naomi’s people, the nation of Israel. This involved a major break in loyalties. When two people are married, they usually aren’t making as large a break from their family of origins as Ruth was, although that is occasionally true. This can be especially true, when a marriage bridges ethnic or religious boundaries. It can also occur in same-gender marriages, if one or both families reject a couple’s marriage. In the best of circumstances, however, marriage brings together two families. It is, at its best, a merger of families. This is another sense in what it means for the two to become one flesh. This commitment also signals the importance of community. As William Stacy Johnson puts it: “The institution of marriage serves a community-building function. It connects the new family formed by the mutual love of two people to a wider family, a community of the faithful to which the couple contributes and from which it draws strength” [Johnson, A Time to Embrace: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics, 2nd edition, p. 142].
Ruth says to Naomi -- “Your God, [is] my God.” When Ruth left behind her people and joined herself to Naomi’s people, she left behind the gods of her people and embraced the God of Israel. Again the contemporary situation relating to marriage may differ from Ruth’s experience. And yet, maybe not. We are witnessing an increasing number of cross-faith marriages. In this case, Ruth adopted the religion of her mother-in-law. She traded her gods for Naomi’s God. If God is part of the marriage relationship, and I believe that God can be, then a couple will need to have a conversation about the role of religion in their marriage and their family. If they come from different faith traditions, they will need to decide whether they will celebrate both traditions or just one of them. Of course, some couples decide to find a new faith community that seems to blend the two together in a way that is comfortable to both. There is a reason, of course, why cultures have frowned on inter-religious marriages. They can destabilize the family and therefore the community at large. Paul councils couples that if their spouse is an unbeliever, they should not divorce them, “for the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.” But, if the unbelieving partner wishes to leave, then Paul says – let it be so (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). Interestingly, Paul makes these suggestions not on prior divine guidance, but his own sense of what is appropriate. If God is the sacred center of the covenant relationship, then they are saying to God, that God is the third cord that binds the two together. For as Ecclesiastes puts it: “a three-fold cord in not quickly broken” (Eccles. 4:12). This third fold is the presence of the Holy Spirit who is ever with the couple, binding them together in love, healing wounds, and empowering your life together.
“Where you die, I will die – there I will be buried.” Ruth tells Naomi – I’m with you till the end. Where you are buried – that’s where I will be buried. One of the traditional vows couples make to each other is that they commit themselves to each other until death separates them. As we will see in another session, not every marriage will make it to the end. This is a reality of human life, but the commitment that one makes in marriage is to remain together until death takes one or the other of the partners. The good news, the news that sustains even when covenants break, is that nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of God who sustains us on the journey.
Note: This is the beginning stages of another chapter in my marriage study guide.