Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A test case for our ability to read Scripture otherwise

Two boys grasping each other and smiling
Photo by Aman Shrivastava on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 3, 2021

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Commentary on Mark 10:2-16

Some texts in the Bible, both in the Hebrew and New Testament canons, have been called “texts of terror.” Usually, these are texts that scholars consider to be hurtful to contemporary sensibilities. There is no shortage of narratives in the Bible that condone enslavement, rape, warfare, genocide and trickery, to name just a few. Since biblical texts’ influence reaches way beyond their original contexts, their moral world sits at odds with contemporary sensibilities or ethical principles.

Differently put, Scriptureunderstood as the biblical canon that communities of interpretation have historically deemed authoritativewhispers in our ears, and on occasion, we hear disturbing words. The task for the interpreters situated on the other side of history consists of hearing those whispers and making sense of them in both faithful and ethically sound ways. Consider, for instance, those New Testament texts that condone enslavement: no amount of biblical exegesis will erase the historical pain that they have caused, leaving the contemporary interpreter with the task of figuring out their religious message and their relevance. The same goes for the embedded misogyny, ableism, racism, queerphobia, or classism that we experience in these ancient texts as we try, and sometimes struggle, to make them our own. 

Although every text has the potential to become a “text of terror,” Mark 10:2-16 has not traditionally been considered within this category. Asked by the Pharisees whether it is legitimate for a man to dismiss his wife, Jesus advocates for a theology that reinforces the durability of the marital bond. Mark 10:9 has often been interpreted as the indissolubility of marriage in a way that has led different theological traditions to ban the possibility of divorce. And yet, it is undeniable that many believers feel at odds, hurt, targeted, even traumatized by how preaching tackles this text. For many Christians, particularly women, the way this text has informed their respective theological traditions has meant that they have felt forced to stay in abusive relationships or kept in a marital contract that eventually becomes the major obstacle to their personal fulfillment, a deterrent to embodying a more comprehensive Christian belonging.  

Some interpreters are likely to argue that traumatic experiences should not inform the way we apply gospel ethics. On the other hand, I suggest, carefully listening and incorporating the “pain of others” into hermeneutical principles is the way to go, especially for contemporary modes of interpretation that wish to honor the contextuality, the incarnational dimension of the human experience. This consideration does not offer a definitive interpretative outcome as it relates to the text in question, it simply suggests that we should steer clear of creating direct parallels between ancient and contemporary ethical systems and, perhaps more importantly, that texts that advance a specific moral code call for interpretative strategies more attentive to broader ethical principles. 

Nothing in the text compels contemporary interpreters to see Jesus’ teaching as an eternal moral code with universal applicability. Instead, our imaginative crisis in approaching these texts does a disservice to the rich textures of Scripture itself. The Gospel itself offers no shortage of techniques, narratives, arguments, theological positions, and inspirations to move us beyond a Christian rhetoric captive in the jails of moralistic views. 

Think, for instance, how the different gospels approach the same topic. It is true that Mark represents the strictest moral standards. Matthew adds the “porneia” exception, traditionally linked to all kinds of ways as “sexual immorality.” Luke never prohibits divorce per se, but only the combination of separation and remarriage (16: 18). Paul and Revelation seem to harbor anti-sexual drives: for Paul, although more lenient in the ethics of marriage and divorce (for instance, if the non-believer desires to divorce and remarry to skip a burning flesh), marriage continues to be a second-rate plan, at least considering the ideal ascetic standard of celibacy. To induce a monolithic moral code from the text not only speaks against the pain of others but it also further betrays the plurality of views within the canon. 

It is interesting to notice that although passages like this have become the poster child of current conservative ideologies around the family, one does not have to go far to realize that such interpretations have misplaced the gospel ethics. Mark 10:28 has the disciples acknowledging that they have left everything behind, and Jesus responding (10:29) that those who have left their household behind will receive eternal life. This observation does not imply that “marriage” should not be upheld as one vital path to living out the specificities of the Christian identity. Still, it suggests certain irony in proposing the marital bond as one of the unbreakable tenets of the Christian faith, particularly when there are strong tendencies among the early followers that point towards celibacy, asceticism, and other ways of radical discipleship. 

Instead of reading passages like this as a “rule book,” as a set of injunctions and prohibitions on how to experience and codify marriage, this pericope is a test case for our ability to read Scripture otherwise. Some options include interpreting Jesus’ teachings as depicted in Mark alongside the experience of contemporary victims, reading Mark in contrast with the other Synoptics and with Paul’s rather tepid position on marriage. Also, we could frame Jesus’ sayings within Jesus’ practice around marriage and his demands on his closest disciples or appreciate the creative ways in which first-century communities conceptualized the institution. Even, as a final suggestion, we could take inspiration from the fact that Jesus’ strengthening of the Mosaic Law could have resulted in protecting women who could have been dismissed by their husbands, particularly when those women had few options available. 

Stained-glass depiction of Jesus with children

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