As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on same-sex marriage, Christians on both sides of the issue continue to invoke Jesus in support of their position. Or, more precisely, they invoke a vision of ethics and morality (i.e., inclusivity vs. traditional moral values) that they associate with Christian teaching. But how would Jesus actually have responded if asked “how should the Supreme Court rule on same-sex marriage?”
That’s anachronistic, of course, but it’s the kind of question that “teachers of the law” routinely flung at Jesus, usually with the intention of entrapping or discrediting him. The legal elite of Jesus’ day peppered him with hot button legal and ethical questions like “should we pay taxes to Caesar” and “to whom do I owe neighborly duties?” Often, these questions involved marriage and sexuality: May a man divorce a woman for any and every reason? How should a woman caught in adultery be punished? If a woman marries seven different husbands in succession and then dies herself, which one is she married to in Heaven? It’s not hard to imagine CNN legal analyst Jeff Toobin cornering Jesus and asking him, “Hey Jesus, how about same-sex marriage?”
It would be presumptuous of me to say how Jesus would answer that question, so I won’t. But I will offer three observations from things Jesus actually said in response to similar questions.
First, Jesus would likely have faulted both sides of the debate for an excessively materialist perspective. On one side, we hear that marriage is about procreation and child rearing. On the other, that it’s about love and companionship. But Jesus did not understand marriage primarily in terms of its temporal or material effects. For Jesus, marriage was a spiritual representation of divine relationships. According to Jesus, God created man and woman—male and female—in the image of God, mirroring the unity and diversity within the Godhead. Jesus and later apostolic writers referred to Jesus as a bridegroom and the Church as his bride. Jesus explained that in Heaven people would not be married to one another, since they would be in perfect union with God. Thus, the ultimate good of marriage was not that it served immediate material needs but that it celebrated the eternal nature of God.
This understanding of marriage has precious little purchase in the contemporary, hyper-materialist world. Even those who recognize marriage’s “spiritual” component usually mean that psychosomatically—marriage feeds long-term emotional and pyschological needs. We’ve lost any sense of human institutions as good because of their correspondence to divinity. Across the ideological spectrum, we’ve given in to Richard Posner’s wish of “unmasking and challenging the Platonic, traditionalist, and theological vestiges in Enlightenment thinking.” It’s safe to say that Jesus would have had a different take.
Second, and in some tension with my first observation, Jesus might have responded to a question about same-sex marriage by distinguishing between the spiritual ideal and pragmatic legal rules. That is what Jesus did on divorce. When asked whether a man should be allowed to divorce a woman for any and every reason, Jesus responded that Mosaic law allowed for divorce because of the hardness of people’s hearts, but that things weren’t that way from the beginning. Jesus was not advocating a change in the law, but a change in people’s hearts.
Christian thinkers have long debated the distinction between legal and spiritual marital norms. When Britain was liberalizing its divorce laws in the 1940s, my two favorite Christian writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, took different views on whether Christians should advocate that secular legal institutions mirror the spiritual ideal. Tolkien opposed the divorce reforms on the grounds that the spiritual should inform the legal. Lewis argued for a pragmatic differentiation between the spiritual and the legal. In my view, Lewis was closer to the position staked by Jesus.
Finally, chances are that Jesus’ answer would go to issues far beyond the narrow question presented. This was almost invariably Jesus’ pattern when confronted with hot-button legal issues. He always found the question itself less important than the darkness it exposed. Thus, he turned the question about paying taxes to Caesar into condemnation of his questioners’ failure to honor God, the adultery penalty question into an indictment of his interlocutors’ self-righteousness, and the divorce question into an exposé of spiritual hardness. I shiver to think of how he might turn the same-sex marriage question back on us. All of us.