Mark 10:2 Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Mark 10:10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Mark 10:13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
This text calls for careful exploration and courageous exposition. There will almost certainly be people “in second relationships” in the Sunday congregation and this should temper any insensitive pronouncements. At the same time, there is no doubt that life-long commitment remains the Christian ideal, going back to Jesus himself.
By the first century AD, women in the Roman empire could initiate divorce. Romans considered mutual consent to be essential to the viability of marriage and the absence of consent was deemed sufficient reason to dissolve a union. No stigma attached to divorce as it was quite common. Jewish custom varied and Jews often followed local custom. However, within Palestinian Judaism, a woman could not, for the most part, initiate divorce proceedings.
Kind of writing
(i) A debate with the Pharisees, which is answered using the book of Genesis.
(ii) A discussion with the disciples—the typical inner circle of Mark’s Gospel.
(iii) An action anecdote (or chreia) regarding access to Jesus as an illustration for access to the Kingdom.
Old Testament background
In the Hebrew Bible, divorce is permitted, but only implicitly, as we read in this example of “case law”:
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 and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession. (Deut 24:1–4) Against that implied permission, you have the prophet Malachi speaking thus: For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless. (Mal 2:16)
New Testament Foreground
As is well-known, at the time of Jesus there were two schools of thought regarding divorce, one strict and the other liberal. The problem lay with the expression “something objectionable” (literally, “nakedness of a thing”). Did it mean specifically unfaithfulness or did it mean anything at all “objectionable.” The followers of Hillel took the latter view, while the followers of Shammai took the former. Jesus sided with Shammai, in terms of strictness. Matthew alone has “except on the grounds of unchastity.”
Matthew “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31–32)
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3–9) Luke “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18)
To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife. (1Corinthians 7:12–16)
Note On historical critical grounds, it is likely that Luke’s version is the earliest and most primitive. He has neither the exception of Matthew nor the updating of Mark to take in women initiating proceedings. Again, on historical critical grounds, it is more or less certain that the historical Jesus spoke against divorce, without qualification (in which case, he is more severe than Shammai). In Qumran, the same ideal was upheld (CD 4:19-5:2). However, another question is raised by scholars. Does the teaching of Jesus represent an ideal or a law? Matthew’s community at least tolerated a level of divorce for the specific reason of unfaithfulness. Paul too adjusted the absolute prohibition in the light of a particular case. So, the New Testament data leave us with a conundrum: the ideal goes back to Jesus and divorce is to be resisted as opposed to the values of the Kingdom; at the same time, the New Testament provides evidence of pastoral accommodation to deal with real situations in people’s lives.
Verse 2 The question seems a little odd. It was already lawful. The rabbis discussed the grounds for divorce. Mark exposes their bad intention with the word “test”, that is, to expose Jesus as somehow unorthodox. Verse 3 A classical reply, containing a trap because Jesus will go behind the teaching of Moses to God. Verse 4 Deut 24:1-4 and some other passages. Verse 5 That is, it was a concession to weakness rather than an eternal rule. Verse 6 In classical rabbinic style, Jesus quotes Genesis: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27) What Moses permitted violated the creator’s original intentions. Verses 7-8 Again, Jesus is citing Genesis: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24) Jesus then draws a conclusion: they are one by God’s joining. Verse 9 This concludes the dispute. Life-long commitment is the ideal since creation. Verse 10 Typical for Mark, the privacy of this conversation is signalled by “in the house.” Verse 11 The missing term is in the previous story: divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond and even the apparent remarriage is actually adultery. Verse 12 Although Jewish women could later initiate divorce proceedings, certainly in Palestinian Judaism this was not yet possible. This is an example of Mark’s aggiornamento or updating of a teaching of Jesus, in a later post-Easter and Roman context. Verse 13 The next section is primarily about the kingdom and not about children. We are not told why the disciples blocked access to Jesus. It might be the old questions of status as in Mk 9:34. More kindly, perhaps one could think of Mark 6:31, 34. Verse 14 Indignation is a good translation here. The story quickly becomes an action chreia or anecdote designed to illustrate entry into the kingdom. Verse 15 Children represent here not innocence but powerlessness, that is, real dependence upon and openness to God. Receiving as a child means without regard either to merit or to one’s status in the kingdom. Verse 16 An appealing, delightful scene often represented in art.
Pointers for prayer
1. Marriages do break down, but in this story Jesus appears as the wise person urging people to seek first the original harmony where possible, rather than seek escape routes when difficulties arise. When have you found that, in marriage or in other relationships, the bonds have been strengthened when you have been prepared to work through difficulties? 2. There are other things that we needlessly and wrongly put in opposition: young and old, male and female, people from different cultures, body and soul. Perhaps at times you have discovered the advantages of exploring the richness in combining such apparently exclusive opposites. 3. The children in the second story can be taken as representing any group of ‘little ones’ whose opinion we may be inclined to dismiss. When have you found that you have been taught an important lesson about life, about love, or about faith by people whose views you had been inclined to dismiss?
Creator God, in Christ you call man and woman to the fulness of glory for which you created them in your image. Heal our hardened hearts, renew our obedience to your will, and conform our lives to your gracious design.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day and prayer
At present, the culture hesitates before the long-term commitments such as life-long marriage. Perhaps wisely! And yet, there is freedom in commitment. It is possible to walk the quay sides looking are various options for the journey. At that time, you have freedom of choice. However, if you want to get any where, one vessel will have to be selected. That is the freedom of choosing, choosing not to remain in the paralysis of choice. Once made, commitment opens up to another level of living and loving and being loved in return. Prayer Creator God, you know our hearts and in your wisdom you have made us for each other, knowing that it is not good to be alone. In our committed relationships, help to find freedom and love, life and joy. Amen.