“Marriage verses Divorce, or More?”

Posted: September 27, 2021 in Uncategorized

“Marriage verses Divorce, or More?”

Mark 10: 2-16

I want to start this exploration of the text from Mark with a translation that I think is helpful for us to put aside some of our assumptions about is and revisit its word to us today. Remember it is a translation but also see it as an attempt to probe beneath the text to seek the context it seeks to convey, the context of the writer and the intent of the writer of which we know very little and make huge assumptions. This does not mean of course that we can’t use the text in this way because our intent is with humility, seeking integrity and an authentic rendition of the story.

We enter the scene: And the pharisees came (and) were asking him if it is permissible (for) a man to release a woman, putting him to the test.  But he answered (and) said to them, “What did Moses command you?”  But they said, “Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release.”  But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment, but from the beginning of creation, he made them male and female.  Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate.”

We note here that there is or are unspoken questions raising the discussion matter. Was there some debate about the authenticity of what Jesus had been saying about marriage or divorce? It they were trying to test Jesus and catch him out why?

And in the house, the disciples again were asking him about this, and he said to them, “Whoever might release his woman and might marry another commits adultery upon her.  And if she, releasing her man, might marry another, she commits adultery.” And we note that Jesus answers as a follower of Judaism and as a Jew and he answers with reference to Moses the one who brought his people out of exile. A very core belief for his questioners.

We continue the translation: And they were bringing children to him so that he might touch them, but the disciples were rebuking the ones bringing.  But seeing, Jesus was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God.  Truly I say to you, whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.”  And he took them into his arms, was blessing them, laying hands upon them.

Here we note perhaps the reason for the Rabbi’s testing of Jesus? Was he being successful in sharing his ideas of this new way of being he was preaching about? Did the Rabbi’s sense that he was on to something that they had missed? What would it do to their standing? Was there something about this that rung true but would change their world? This realm or kingdom sounds like one that is too accommodating of anything goes, to radically liberalised, and if his success catches on what will happen to tradition, and all the truths that we have put safeguards around. What do we do with all the creeds and doctrines we have agreed to? Maybe this is why they felt the need to test Jesus and maybe the topic of marriage and divorce are just symbols of a bigger threat, that of the very fabric of their social assumptions, What happens to the standing of the patriarchal society? What happens to the peace and harmony our patriarchal society is based upon? What happens to our understanding of community?

Returning to our text we see that it begins at verse 2 of chapter 10.  In verse 1, we had just been told that Jesus has entered into Perea which is on the other side of the Jordan River from Judea.  He is still in the domain ruled by Herod Antipas, but is moving south toward Jerusalem.  We continue:

“The crowds again gathered around him” We note here that this is the only use of the plural “crowds” in Mark’s gospel.  Further, to establish the link with previous teaching, Mark says “as was his custom, he again taught them.”  The mention of crowds also means that there will be a large audience for the rabbinical debate which is about to ensue. This conversation we are about to witness is a biggie and there is a lot of interest in it. Again the reason for the Rabbi’s testing Jesus is heightened.

Looking at the question the writer is addressing, another level of this conversation. We find that Mark has spoken of several controversies involving the pharisees earlier in the scriptures (2:15-17, 2:23-3:6, 7:1-15, 8:11-12) so the mention of pharisees in this context invites interest and suspicion.  These pharisees come to “test” Jesus, as they had also done also in 8:11.  What was the test?  They ask if it was “permissible” for a man to divorce–“release”–his wife. And the test was to place Jesus squarely in the same position that had resulted in John the Baptist being killed.  John had questioned Herod Antipas’ divorce and subsequent remarriage to Herodias (6:17ff).  “It is not lawful (exestin),” John had said. The Pharisee’s were testing his following of Judaism, not unlike todays progressives face from fundamentalists. The same question John faced is now before Jesus–“is it lawful?” (exestin)–has now been placed before Jesus.  If Jesus agrees with John, that could be interpreted as treason against Herod Antipas.  (Jesus is in Perea, keep in mind, on Antipas’ turf.)

Another significant matter is that Mark has already told us that the pharisees were conspiring with the “Herodians” (3:6).  If Jesus criticizes Herod Antipas’ divorce, some of those “Herodians” would no doubt argue that he should deserve the same punishment as that dished out to John. So here we have Mark writing about the relationship between organised state religion and free thinking challenging cultural, social and economic assumptions. There could be an alternative way of being of God’s Kingdom and it might be unsettling to those with power influence and a social standing in a belief system based on control and obedience and a false collectiveness as opposed to true healthy vibrant community based on Love and acceptance and goodness and mercy.

The topic of marriage and divorce is problematical for us in that we come to it with a conditioned social cultural and traditional mindset and its possible we miss the core meaning or purpose of the text. We need to remember that Rabbinical argument, according to Deuteronomy 24, divorce clearly was “permissible”—or “lawful.”  (Deuteronomy 24:1:  “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.  She then leaves his house.”) Maybe the issue of at the heart of the test was not about marriage and divorce but about the very success of the Jesus Way that we frightening the Rabbi’s?

The certificate of divorce in their tradition was called a “get.”  This terminated the marriage and made it possible for the woman to re-marry.  The certificate read:  “You are free to marry any man.”  (France, p. 393) So, Remarriage was not an issue for men because they could marry more than one woman. Again this raises the question of marriage and divorce being more than the initiating topic.

We might also throw into the mix the question of what defined “something objectionable”?  This question was being hotly debated between the two main theological schools of Judaism in that period, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel.  The more conservative school of Shammai argued that only adultery was an acceptable reason for divorce.  The school of Hillel argued that almost anything could be considered “objectionable,” such as burning the pot roast, for example.

Jesus responds to the question with a question, which is significant for us in that it is not common practice today but it was a typical rabbinical practice then.  “What did Moses command you?” he asks.  The question is subtle.  Moses had no “command” on this issue.  The provision for divorce in Deuteronomy was, essentially, a concession to the reality of divorce and an attempt to provide structure and guidelines in its wake.   

The pharisees respond that “Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release.”  With the understanding that a “permission” is not the same as a “command”, this was true.  Moses had permitted divorce.  The pharisees present an acceptable legal argument based on the book of Deuteronomy. 

Jesus dismisses this permission with a sharp rejoinder.  “For your hardness of heart” Moses allowed divorce, he says.  This accusation of “hardness of heart”–sklerokardia–is a very serious one.  “Hardness of heart” is associated with resistance to the ways of God (Jer 4:4, Ez 3:7). Almost a rejection of God, a fundamental challenge. Moreover, Pharoah, their ancient enemy, had also had “hardness of heart.”  No Jew would want to be lumped in with Pharoah.  Secondly, Pharoah is a representative figure for patriarchy.  Nobody is higher up the social ladder than Pharoah. 

Having hit the Pharisees as hard as he could theologically by associating divorce with Pharoah and patriarchy, Jesus then switches from the subject of divorce to marriage in general.  In effect, he will base his argument on a broader understanding of Moses–not specific commands or permissions, but a general attitude toward life and relationships based on God’s design of creation. He broadens the discussion to place it firmly in the bigger picture or what the realm of God might be and be seen to be.

Jesus says, “from the beginning of creation, he (God) made them male and female.”  The reference is to Genesis 1:27:  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  We not the most significant thing here for us as westernized individualistic focused persons. The “image of God” her for both Jesus and Mark is that it is a corporate–“them”–and includes both male and female. Difference in sex is not part of the discussion. Here we have the strongest challenge for our interpretation of the text. We are asked to put aside our generational, evolved individualism and see the world alternatively. That of the collective, communal, and that in common.

We might note here also that the Essenes used the same text to prohibit divorce.  Contrary to the common assumption, Jesus does not actually “prohibit” divorce in this reading.  What he does do is remove it from being something of a technical issue, and places it in the much broader context of God’s desire for human life.

Jesus continues:  “Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.”  Here, the reference is to Genesis 2:24:  “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  Note that the man is to leave his family–that is, he is to leave his own patriarchal tradition, his acceptable cultural understanding, his very assumed way of orienting himself with in society. 

Jesus adds, “What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate.”  Jesus avoids the technical term for divorce (apoluse) and switches instead to “separate” (chorizo).  He does not directly challenge the Mosaic law which allows for divorce, but instead bases his argument on God’s intention in creation which is the unity of marital relationships and the essential equality of male and female. Again it is what male and female, what marriage and divorce are all about. It is the collective, communal the in common.

Jesus goes on to explain adultery and marital relations and in the context of contradicting Jewish law by stating that a woman might divorce her husband.  This was acceptable in Greco-Roman law, but not Jewish law.

Here again we have the concern for the collective bigger picture of this realised alternative kingdom of realm of God. Jesus invokes God’s intention in creation which is that relationships be equal and unbroken.  He subverts the dominant patriarchal worldview that only men could get divorces, and only women could commit adultery against her spouse.  His teaching recognizes the profoundly wrenching experience of divorce, as anyone who has been through it can attest, and also recognizes the reality of divorce and the importance of maintaining justice in its application.  

And now to summarize we come to the text that includes the children. This is about receiving the powerless:  Immediately after the teachings on the collective, people were bringing children to Jesus “so that he might touch them.”  The disciples “rebuked” those who were bringing the children, apparently forgetting that Jesus had recently said that whoever welcomed a child also welcomed him, which was the same thing as welcoming God (9:36-37).  The disciples get it wrong again.  

“Rebuked” (epitimao) is a strong word, one often used against demons and demonic powers in Mark.  Seeing the disciples turn the children away, Jesus was “indignant” (aganakteo).  Indignant was also a strong word.  It meant displeasure, annoyance, strong irritation, and is used only here in Mark’s gospel.

Jesus then says, “Do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”  Children represent all the “little ones” cared for by God.  Of these “little ones,” the kingdom of God is constituted. Again the concern is for the realm of God. In Mark’s gospel, the phrase “truly I say to you” occurs 14 times.  It indicates a special pronouncement, and means the listener should underline what follows.  Then Jesus says, “Whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.” The saying is not about the “simple faith” of innocent children and how we all should emulate their unquestioning trust.  It is, rather, about the precarious state of children, their vulnerability, their lack of status. We note that 60% of first century middle-eastern children died before their 16th birthday.  Indeed, already in Mark, the synagogue leader’s daughter had died of illness (5:21ff.), the syrophoenician woman’s daughter was ill (7:24ff.), and a man’s son was demon-possessed (9:14ff.). Nobody is more powerless than a child, then or now, and every child knows it.  Hierarchical systems, of whatever kind, oppress those on the bottom.  Pharoah oppressed his slaves.  From the point of view of the child, families oppress children. The message here is about the nature of the realm of God which is significantly different from the status quo. It is a radical alternative.

The episode closes with Jesus taking children into his arms, “blessing them”. Again, a strong word used only here in the four gospels. Also; the use of “laying hands on them” is a repetition of the three verbs; taking, blessing, laying hands and it adds force.  Jesus is overtly placing the powerless in the center of the community’s life, at the centre of the realm of God, at the centre of the collective new life. Exactly this collective, way of being where the individual is seen as imperative to community says Mark, is the kingdom of God.  Amen.

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