Commentary on Mark 10:2-16
Beware this week.
As soon as you read the word “divorce” aloud, a whole sermon will appear in people’s heads. Some will hear early sermons that were launched at them or someone they loved when a divorced occurred. Pain will make it difficult to hear the words you actually speak. Others will conjure up their condemnation of others based on this single word. In both cases those jumping to their own conclusions may miss what it said unless you open up to them clearly the complexities of this exchange.
Still caring for the vulnerable
Our lectionary still has us in the section of Mark where Jesus is leading the disciples toward Jerusalem. He is also trying to help the disciples find their way into what God desires. Interestingly, he is not calling them to acts of spiritual prowess. Rather he is asking them to live well in their common human condition and in such mundane realities as family, wealth, and their gathered community.
Jesus has consistently asked them to use what they have in service of those who are most vulnerable: children, the poor, those denied status. Given the way divorce worked in the ancient world (and often still today), certain people were disproportionately hurt in a divorce, most likely women and the children they cared for. As the Pharisees test Jesus’ ability to respond to their question about divorce, we should remember the women and children who enter at the blessing portion of the text.
While they are named at the end of the assigned Sunday lesson, they must be there all along. In part, at least, Jesus’ commandment against divorce continues the theme of caring for those who are most vulnerable. Many commentators have noticed that within Judaism women did not have the right to initiate divorce, so Jesus’ suggestion that they could suggests that Jesus offers them agency not usually allowed them.
Statute and narrative
The Pharisees cite the rule Moses gave which allows for divorce to occur. But Jesus puts this allowance in tension with the narrative from the books of Moses that argues against it. Jesus recalls that God created humankind in God’s image.
Marriages, as well as relationships between adults and children or the rich and poor, are proposed as spheres where we can live toward the other in the promise of our divine image. Jesus relativizes the law of God in light of the story of God. Jesus argues that God’s creational desire for integrity in our relationships remains. While Moses might have made allowances in some cases, this does not nullify God’s original intent.
Actual divorce in Mark’s gospel
Interestingly, the only other story in this gospel that relates to divorce is that of Philip and Herodias. John the Baptist suffered death because he pointed out that Herodias had been divorced from her husband so that Herod could marry her. John’s prophetic stand led to his beheading. Perhaps the Pharisees’ “test” in this text is similar to their later questions about paying taxes to Caesar. They want a response from Jesus that will anger Rome’s officials. They may wish to see John’s fate repeated for the trouble-maker, Jesus. Or perhaps the narrator wants us to see how the harm done in divorce is an echo of the regular violence of Rome.
The story of a royally messed up family seeking the destruction of God’s prophet stands in contrast with today’s story which ends with the healing practice of Jesus toward those women and children who hovered at the edge of the conversation about divorce.1 Despite the disciples’ rebuke, Jesus lays his hands on the children. Elsewhere in Mark’s gospel the laying on of hands signifies healing. Jesus once again turns the older generation’s attention to the little ones in their midst. Women and children, those often hurt when divorce happens, are blessed by Jesus.
A difference in pronouns
Careful attention to the dialogue with the Pharisees reveals one more interesting detail. The Pharisees phrase their question in a general and abstract way, “if a man”. But Jesus responds with the suspicion that they are the ones wanting permission to divorce. He doesn’t respond, “What did Moses say about him?” but “What did Moses say to you?” Their response again moves to the abstract “allow him” but Jesus refers not to a hypothetical self’s heart, but to “your heart.”
Richard Swanson points out helpfully that often we avoid our own sexual issues by throwing the spot light on another we feel worthy of attack.2 I recall many such conversations when heterosexual, middle-aged men who never addressed their own sexuality publicly attack the sexuality of LGBTQ people. Jesus appears not to allow such attacks on the vulnerable, but finds ways to turn the question around to those seeking to disguise their own fragility. “What about your practice?” Jesus asks.
A final warning
Our relationships that have sexual dimensions inevitably get caught up in the sin within and around us. Sometimes that happens so profoundly that divorce seems the best of the options available to us. In some cases this saves lives of those who are vulnerable. Once the tragedy of divorce enters the life of someone we know, our role is not to refuse them access to Jesus. Instead, we broken people are invited to be healed by the hands of Jesus. Many people will testify that our loving God has healed their broken hearts after the trauma of divorce. So, let our speaking this Sunday not rend asunder the restored heart that God has brought together.
- Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005), 227.
- Swanson, 229.