One Flesh: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Twentieth Week after Pentecost

 
Lectionary Commentary on Marriage and Divorce

Twentieth Week after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 10:2-16

Big Picture:

1) This is the sixth week of a twelve-week chronological walk through several chapters in the Gospel of Mark.

2) Jesus has been teaching his disciples about being “servants of all,” including children (despite their lack of power or status) and religious outsiders (despite their apparent threat as “competitors”).  In both cases, Jesus turns the conventional notion of “service” on its head: a servant typically works for someone more powerful than she is, and what’s more, her service is typically reserved for those within the fold, not external rivals.  For Jesus, however, being a “servant of all” means caring not only for “insiders,” but also - and especially - for relatively powerless outsiders, the left out and left behind. And in this week’s passage, Jesus continues to develop this theme of serving the vulnerable, this time in the context of marriage and divorce.

3) In first century Palestine, marriage and divorce were patriarchal institutions in which women and children were technically considered the property of men.  In Roman society, both husbands and wives could initiate divorce, and there’s evidence that at least some Jewish wives could, too - but in the main, Jewish law traditionally gave that power to husbands, as Deuteronomy 24:1-4 makes clear.  The proper grounds for divorce, however, were a matter of considerable dispute in Jesus’ day.  Some taught that only adultery could trigger divorce (Jesus himself takes this view in Matthew 19:9); others followed Deuteronomy’s broader standard that anything “objectionable about her” - that is, objectionable to the husband - could suffice (Deut 24:1).  Moreover, women and their children were highly dependent on marriage for their livelihood and wellbeing, and this dependence, combined with their husbands’ ability to initiate divorce, put them in an acutely vulnerable position.  To understand Jesus’ teaching on divorce, we have to consider it within this first-century Near Eastern context.

4) Though Jesus seems to issue a straightforward, blanket prohibition against divorce in this passage, the picture is considerably more complex.  First, as we have seen along the way in Mark, Jesus often speaks in striking, hyperbolic terms in order to provoke his listeners and convey his ideas in vivid, broad brush strokes.  Second, the fact that his teaching on divorce is so embedded in his time and place itself suggests - since our twenty-first-century context today is so different than his - that we’re wise to focus less on statutory details and more on underlying principles. Third, it’s worth noting that many of the earliest Christian communities didn’t take a categorical view of divorce. Matthew (who likely wrote later than Mark) includes an adultery exception (Matthew 19:9); Paul (writing shortly after Jesus’ death) also permits divorce in certain circumstances (1 Cor 7:15).  Fourth, Jesus’ teaching - in this passage and elsewhere - signals that he had a relatively supple, principle-oriented understanding of how the law works in practice.  In this story, for example, he substantively reframes Deuteronomy 24:1-4, thereby casting the law as adaptable; and he explains that Moses permits divorce “because of your hardness of heart,” thereby casting the law as sensitive to human weakness (Mark 10:5).  Indeed, one of Jesus’ signature ideas is that the law should be flexibly interpreted for the sake of human flourishing: the law was made for humanity, not humanity for the law (see, e.g., Mark 2:27).  And fifth, as we’ll see below, a close reading of this passage reveals that Jesus is interested less in categorically prohibiting divorce, and more in positioning it as a last resort.

Scripture:

1) Some Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is lawful, in order “to test him” - but why would this be a test?  Perhaps because the issue was divisive enough that any answer Jesus gives will be unpopular. Or perhaps they have another kind of trap in mind: the only other (implicit) reference to divorce in the Gospel of Mark is the story of Herod and Herodias, in which John the baptizer criticizes their marriage as “not lawful” - no doubt at least partly because Herodias had to divorce Herod’s brother first (Mark 6:18).  In other words, the question may be a “test” because of its potential to lure Jesus into criticizing Herod - and we all know how that turned out for John.

2) Turning the tables, Jesus has his questioners answer their own question - and they reply, Yes, divorce is lawful, citing Deuteronomy 24:1-4.  The central point of that ancient text is to prohibit people from remarrying each other for a second time, after the wife’s been married to someone else in the interim.  But along the way, the passage conjures up a world of common and capricious divorce, with men simply deciding that “she does not please him,” or finding “something objectionable about her,” and then ending the marriage (Deut 24:1).  To this patriarchal ethos of divorce on-(male)-demand, Jesus objects.  He reframes Deuteronomy’s permission as an accommodation to human “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5).  God’s original vision for marriage, Jesus insists, is that two people are inseparably joined and become “one flesh” (Mark 10:8; Gen 2:24).  Likewise, privately with his disciples, Jesus equates remarriage with adultery - strikingly phrasing his teaching in egalitarian terms, as though both men and women have equal agency: “...divorces his wife...divorces her husband…” (Mark 10:11-12).

3) Is this a categorical prohibition of divorce?  On one level, Jesus is clearly critical of divorce in this passage, contrasting it with the divine ideal of becoming “one flesh.”  But on the other hand, he draws this contrast without declaring Deuteronomy’s permission null and void. He doesn’t say, Moses was mistaken.  Nor does he say, The divorce described in Deuteronomy is no longer valid.  Rather, he says, What Moses says about divorce is well and good, but don’t forget: it’s an accommodation to human weakness, not an expression of the divine ideal.  On the contrary, God’s ideal vision for marriage is that it entails becoming “one flesh,” two people who care for each other to such an intimate, life-giving degree that they become one, and they cannot be torn asunder.  Don’t take that vision lightly. Strive toward it as best you can, and reserve divorce as a last resort. And to men, in particular, who might be tempted to take advantage of Moses’ words, “she does not please him” or “something objectionable about her” - think again!  God calls you not to be selfish, entitled, and cavalier, but rather to be humble, to serve your spouse, and to serve your children.

4) As it turns out, then, Jesus’ view isn’t a categorical prohibition of divorce, but rather of cavalier, contemptuous forms of divorce and tearing asunder.  Moses’ permission still stands - though it’s properly understood, Jesus contends, in light of the divine ideal outlined “from the beginning of creation” (Mark 10:6).  That ideal is this: two married people becoming “bone of each other’s bone, and flesh of each other’s flesh,” caring for each other as though they are caring for themselves.  It’s how many people picture an ideal partnership - and it’s what many couples aspire to even when it doesn’t come to pass.  What’s more, lifting up this ideal is perfectly consistent with the notion that a marriage sadly falling far short of it, a marriage that creates more harm than good, is indeed rightly ended.  But Jesus wants to ensure that our default position is to strive for the “one flesh” ideal - with divorce reserved as a last resort, to be used not when, say, “she does not please him,” but rather when the partnership becomes injurious to one or both partners.

5) Why does Jesus insist upon striving for the “bone of my bone,” “one flesh” ideal?  Marriage isn’t for everyone, but for many people, a lifelong intimate partnership can be a key source of growth and happiness.  And just as important, in the ancient world marriages could create sanctuaries of livelihood and wellbeing for women and children - and conversely, divorces could put women and children out into harm’s way.  Here lies the deep kinship between Jesus’ teaching on divorce and his practice of welcoming children: Jesus is always specially concerned with protecting and advocating for the vulnerable. And not only because they are exposed to harm!  Children, he says, can be open-minded, open-hearted, and therefore receptive to God’s blessings in exemplary ways. The rest of us should follow their lead. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).

Takeaways:

1) For many, the good news of the Gospel in this passage is that Jesus does not condemn divorce categorically, but rather positions it as a last resort.

2) At the same time, the challenge of the Gospel in this passage is that God’s vision for marriage - and by extension, any lifelong partnership - is of an intimate, inseparable bond, a union in which two people become “one flesh,” caring for each other as if caring for themselves, and thereby a sacramental training ground for caring for the wider world.  This vision can be an inspiring, daunting challenge. What does it look and feel like to be “one flesh”? What practical wisdom, what best practices might help along the way? Imagine hearing testimony and advice from people in longstanding partnerships, from various generations, about this important subject...

3) And finally, for married and unmarried people alike, the good news of the Gospel in this passage is that God cares especially for the vulnerable, and calls us to do the same.  Jesus evaluates social institutions (like marriage and divorce) through this lens, and he sees social groups (like children or outsiders) through it, too. Such groups deserve respect and protection, of course, but it’s also true that their wisdom and perspective deserve attention - not least because of what they can teach the wider community about faith, love, and “receiving the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:15).