I was once called at 4 a.m. to care for a family I did not know. They were at the hospital, where their 90-year-old loved one had just died, and they hoped a pastor might come pray with them. I groggily made my way to the hospital room and found a couple in their 60’s sitting at the deceased woman’s bedside. The wife was quiet, but the husband wept openly and his deep grief led me to assume that the deceased woman was his mother. Yet as I spoke with the couple, I discovered it was actually the woman’s mother who had died and the man was crying for his mother-in-law. In the 40-or-so years he had been married to her daughter, he grew to love this mother as if she was his own. His wife’s people had become his people. His wife’s loss was his loss. And as I watched them reminisce and smile and grieve, I was amazed by the ways in which we humans create relationships.
This memory reminds me of a favorite Bible story—one that I love as a wedding scripture:
Naomi said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’ (Ruth 1:15-17, NRSV)
These are, to me, among the most beautiful words in scripture; they are a declaration of love and familial commitment between two women who were united by a marriage between Naomi’s son and Ruth. And even after Ruth’s husband dies, she still declares herself part of Naomi’s family: “your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
This story boldly states what I saw in the hospital that night: that marriages create spiritual and emotional bonds–not just between two people–but among a whole host of people.
So when we ask, “Why should the church care about marriage?” I don’t think the answer is only that we should care about the legal benefits married people enjoy. Ultimately, law is the business of government. (I would argue, however, that the justice issues that arise when these benefits are extended to some and not to others should be of concern to the church.)
I also don’t think the answer is because we should care about flowers, sand/water/flame ceremonies, or which music and what hem length is appropriate for a wedding; that’s the business of the (running-rampant) wedding industry.
Rather, I think the answer is found in these webs of loving, affirming, challenging, and messy relationships that form when a marriage forms, because the business of the church is to foster, nurture, and sustain these kinds of relationships. We should realize that marriage is not the only way we engage in our work of relationship building, but it is one significant way we do so.
And so we should care about marriage because we care about Ruth and Naomi, the couple who sat in the hospital at the bedside of their loved one, and all of the other people who are impacted when two people join their lives together. We should care about marriage because we want spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents, pastors, parishioners, and friends who will say to one another: “Because of this marriage, your people are my people; your God, my God; you belong among us and we belong among you.” We should care about marriage because when we do, marriage—and the wide community it forms—starts to look a whole lot like church.
Why do YOU think the church should care about marriage?