Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark’s original readers probably found Jesus’ uncompromising statements about divorce and remarriage as challenging and counter-cultural as we do today.

October 4, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 10:2-16

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).

A Test
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.

Looking Deeper
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.

  • In 10:4, the Pharisees paraphrase Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which permits a man to divorce his wife if he “finds something objectionable about her.” First, this reminds us that this portion of the law, like the “official” legal debates among Jesus’ contemporaries (see 10:2), presupposes a man’s point of view. Second, a well-known debate focused on those verses, with the scribal school of Hillel taking them to allow divorce for any reason and the school of Shammai taking them to allow divorce only in the case of adultery. Jesus shows no interest in being drawn into that debate, nor does he proceed by assuming a husband’s prerogatives in the matter.1
  • Marriage in the ancient world, at least among the vast majority of social strata, was primarily a means of ensuring families’ economic stability and social privileges (by creating both offspring and inter-family alliances). A woman’s sexuality was essentially the property of her father, then of her husband.
  • The Pharisees neglect to mention a key piece of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which requires a husband to give the certificate of divorce to his ex-wife. Such a document might provide a divorced woman with a defense against rumor and slander. For a majority of women in that culture, survival depended upon being a member of a household. A woman, perhaps with children, without a husband and without a means of explaining why she was unmarried, could be exposed to great risk. The law’s provision about the certificate seeks to mitigate that risk, but apparently the Pharisees find that detail not worth noting.
  • When Jesus talks with his disciples in 10:10-12, he says nothing about the rejected partner in a divorce and his or her remarriage. He seems to be speaking specifically against those who leave their partners for others. His point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery. That is, his strongest words are against those who initiate divorce as a means to get something else, sacrificing a spouse to satisfy one’s desires or ambitions.
  • In 10:10-12, Jesus gives women a place of greater equality in the marriage relationship, hardly seeing them as passive objects. For one thing, the prohibition of 10:12, concerning women who divorce their husbands, parallels 10:11. (Matthew’s Gospel confirms the scandalous nature of such a suggestion: it omits it! See Matthew 19:9.) Second, by speaking of a man committing adultery against a woman (and not against her father or her past or present husband), Jesus implies that adultery involves more than violating the property rights of another man. It concerns accountability to a partner, just as marriage does.

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:

  • If marriage is what Jesus says it is, then we understand better why failed marriages bring such pain to couples, extended families, and communities. Jesus brings into view the hurt and brokenness that come, even when a divorce appears to be the best among all available options. Jesus’ special concern for children should remind us that they are often victimized when parents divorce.
  • This passage’s assumptions require us to attend to the differences between our cultural context and Jesus’, if we are to understand and respect part of the rationale behind Jesus’ prohibitions. As the church has painfully learned over recent generations, to impose these words uncritically as inviolable commands can result in the church denying protection and grace to those who need it.
  • Yet we dare not view Jesus’ words as quaint and outdated. The passage also urges us to regard marriage in clear contrast to our culture’s tendencies to treat commitment and love as conditional.

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.