In 2013 Mark Howlett and Rab Lee completed the longest three-legged race in history. At the Glenmore 24 Hour Trail Race in Scotland, they covered 109.8 kilometers. That’s 68.23 miles.
Let me be clear. This was a three-legged race.
These guys ran—and maybe staggered and wobbled—for nearly 70 miles. They bound themselves to each other at the ankle, the left leg of one to the right leg of the other, and raced along for twenty-four hours.
Many of us remember three-legged races from family picnics and grade school field days. Like any race, three-legged competitions involve crossing a finish line. But the emphasis in the contests I remember from childhood shifted from winning to cooperating. The results were often comical. And the fun of stumbling along together was largely the point.
Each of us has a habitual gait. Some of us amble in long strides. Others shuffle in quick, short steps. The pace that one person finds brisk may seem tediously slow to another. And most of us insist on setting our own direction.
In a three-legged race, we have to find a way to move as one. We become, at least superficially and temporarily, one body instead of two. Becoming one body turns out to be an awkward joy and a fumbling give and take. Moving as one is neither automatic nor instantaneous. Cooperative movement takes intentional coordination and a shared sense of rhythm.
Even when we seem to get the hang of it we have to watch each other’s step. It’s always possible to get tangled up in each other’s feet or just to get out of synch.
Jesus teaches us that marriage is a spiritual three-legged race of sorts. Two become one flesh. Over time, God’s grace knits two people together. Those two people cooperate with God’s grace for a lifetime one day at a time.
It’s important to know that Jesus did not plan to bring up the subject of marriage. Marriage wasn’t on a list of topics to be covered in the discipleship class on this specific day. A group of Pharisees raised the question of divorce as a way of tripping Jesus up.
They said, “So, Jesus, can a man divorce his wife?”
Any intro Yeshiva student knew what Scripture said about this. And these were Pharisees, the holy writ version of full professors. They were not asking an honest question. They were laying a trap.
The Essenes—a strict Jewish sect with which some scholars associate Jesus—taught that kings could not divorce their wives in order to marry another woman. In point of historical fact, Roman rulers and members of the Jewish ruling family, the Herodians, divorced and remarried for political purposes.
The Pharisees were trying to catch Jesus between a rock and hard place. He could either toe the orthodox theological line and run afoul of the power structure, or he could save his political neck by making unorthodox claims more pleasing to the ruling class.
Jesus immediately saw through their scheme. But he also recognized a teachable moment. And Jesus is not the sort to let a teachable moment go by.
So, Jesus asks them to tell him what Moses has to say about divorce. Of course, they answered right away. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4 we read that a man may divorce his wife by simply writing a certificate. The only grounds he needs are that he finds something objectionable about her.
The rabbis had asked what “objectionable” means. In the Mishnah, the school of Shammai limited “objectionable” to a woman’s sexual misconduct. The school of Hillel, by contrast, says that a woman is objectionable if she spoils a dish for her husband. Rabbi Aqiba allowed for divorce if the man found a more beautiful woman.
As you can see, this line of questioning goes nowhere good. (It also has draws on destructive, offensive assumptions about the role of women, but we will take this important matter up at another time.)
Jesus reframes the question.
The Pharisees, and later the disciples themselves, were asking, “When is it okay to get out of a marriage?”
Jesus wants them to recognize that we human beings have a vocation to holiness, to a God-saturated life. Married life is one way in which we can live out our vocation.
The more fruitful question to ask is this one: What does a holy marriage look like?
The answer is this: Two become one flesh. It’s a three-legged race.
A holy marriage embodies fidelity and monogamy. We give and take one another reciprocally, exclusively, unreservedly, wholly, and unconditionally (to use words from our own General Convention).
We inhabit the holy in marriage through mutual affection and respect, through careful and honest communication, by seeking, finding, and nurturing the image of God in each other.
Marriage vows don’t make all of this happen instantaneously. We work daily to find a common rhythm and a pace that we can both sustain.
Sometimes we’ll get out of step because we’re distracted or weary. When paths diverge, we may disagree about what direction to take. Impatience, hurt, fear, or shame may tangle our feet and send us crashing to the ground.
There will be plenty of ordinary days when we don’t recognize the miracle that two different people in a universe cracked down its very center by self-absorption and self-preservation are moving as one. When we least expect it our awkward, jerky movements will make us laugh until we cry. Cry with joy and gratitude and the sheer sweetness of a shared life.
The holiness of marriage is like that, you know. At least on this planet, marriage is a three-legged race.
Some marriages will end in divorce. They certainly did in Jesus’s day.
Abuse or infidelity have torn the fabric of some marriages. Addiction, ambition, and self-absorption have also unraveled marital bonds. Tragedy, unforgiveness, and financial pressures can tear apart marital seams.
We all fall on our face. Some of us fall harder than others. Some fall so hard that there is no getting up together again. But that does not mean that we can never hope for a new start with a new running mate.
When Jesus says that remarriage after divorce amounts to adultery, I do not believe that he has these sorts of very human stumbles and heartbreaks in mind.
He is thinking instead of the ruling elite of his day. Their marital practice was to swap one self-serving political and economic arrangement for a better one. In today’s terms, he might hold those in the celebrity class accountable who trade an aging, less glamorous mate for the hot new star or the powerful new producer.
Becoming one flesh is at once God’s gift to us and our achievement together. We glide and stumble and run and wobble our way forward, keeping our feet only by grace.
When we fall—and we all fall from time to time—it is the same grace that picks us up, brushes off the dust, and nudges us back onto the path. Together.
Marriage, being one flesh, is a three-legged race.
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at St. Michael and All Angels in Lake Charles, Louisiana.