Mark's original readers probably found Jesus' uncompromising statements about divorce and remarriage as challenging and counter-cultural as we do today.
Divorce in the first century was a generally accepted part of life, both among Jews and perhaps more so within wider Greco-Roman culture. Some writers and public leaders spoke against divorce as bad for society, but for the most part people debated only details of its legal basis. Among Jewish legal experts, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was a key text, one that assumes divorce will occur and proscribes procedures for carrying it out. But other scriptures call the permissibility of divorce into question (see Malachi 2:13-16; Genesis 2:24).
The Pharisees who ask Jesus about divorce do so "to test" him. The scene, through 10:9, therefore proceeds as a confrontation in which Jesus shows the Pharisees to have misunderstood scripture. More precisely, they misunderstand God's design and misuse scripture and interpretive traditions to justify their errors (compare 7:6-13). As for the Pharisees' intentions, they might hope their question will expose Jesus as dangerous to families, in light of his scandalous comments in 3:31-35 (compare 10:29-30; 13:12-13).
Jesus turns the conversation with the Pharisees away from the legal foundation for divorce to God's design for marriage. That is, he dismisses the law (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) as a concession to human weakness and offers a different perspective rooted in creation (quoting Genesis 1:27; 2:24). His brief argument describes marriage as a strong and (literally) unifying bond between two people. It is because he sees marriage in such a way that he speaks against divorce as he does.
Technically speaking, Jesus implies that he disapproves of divorce. More plainly, he says that divorce contravenes God's design as expressed in Genesis 1-2. Later, with his disciples, he reveals more specifics, saying that a person who initiates a divorce to marry another person commits adultery. In all this, Jesus radicalizes the demands of scripture to a point perhaps far beyond where any Pharisee would have taken it. To explore the meaning of this passage, we need to consider how Jesus makes his case and what he aims to accomplish by it.
Jesus does not say what he does because he has a thing against the Mosaic law. Far from it. Details of the text and the cultural context shed light on the purpose and assumptions of his argument.
These details highlight the cultural differences between us and the Gospels, to be sure. Certainly today, at least in industrialized cultures, marriage has changed greatly, being less about economics and more about people seeking mutual fulfillment. And while divorce still often leads people (especially women) into financial hardship, divorced women today do not always find themselves doomed to the same social jeopardy many of their ancient counterparts faced. But these points do not render this passage irrelevant. Rather, the cultural and textual particularities cast light on how Jesus' teaching might protect women of his time from men who use divorce for their own benefit and so imperil women.
This is hardly the only place where Jesus says that God's design means to provide wholeness and protection for those who are vulnerable (see 2:23-3:6). It is no coincidence that Mark next tells a story about Jesus blessing children (10:13-15). Children in the ancient world had few rights and essentially no social status. Therefore the disciples obstruct people who bring children to Jesus. Jesus blesses them, not because they conjure sweet images of cherubic innocence, but because he has concern for the vulnerable and scorned, for those ripe for exploitation.
Jesus describes marriage with utmost seriousness, as something that transcends contractual obligations and economic utility, as something rooted in human identity. This offers a sharp reproof to any who would construe marriage as a contract of convenience, casually formed and casually broken. It impels churches to promote and foster healthy marriages, and in the case of divorce and remarriage to extend compassion and facilitate healing.
Sermons must address Jesus' words about divorce to help people gain a theological perspective on it. This does not mean that the passage launches games of exegetical "gotcha" in which people elevate certain sins over others or try to parse exactly where Jesus assigns blame. Since preaching is a form of pastoral care, and since divorce has touched nearly every family, preachers should think about how a sermon can promote healing while wrestling with the passage's theological rationale concerning marriage and divorce.
While a single sermon should not aim to cover all the issues this passage raises, it might take account of certain points derived from our study of the text:
1Scholars are engaged in lively debates about the extent to which Jewish women in the first century could initiate divorce. Jesus may acknowledge this in 10:12, but ultimately solving the issue is not essential for interpreting this passage.