Sunday October 4, 2015
A Reflection on Mark 10:2-16 N.A.B.
By: Larry T
Jesus’ teachings on marriage and divorce must be understood in the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism where marriage was a legal agreement between the groom and the bride’s father. In the male-controlled culture of Jesus’ day, wives were regarded as the husband's property.
Joseph Martos wrote in Doors to the Sacred:
“Though there were local variations, the usual custom was that on the wedding day the father handed over his daughter to the groom in her own family’s house, after which the bridal party walked in procession to her new husband’s house for concluding ceremonies and a wedding feast. The principal part of the ceremony was the handing over of the bride, during which her right hand was placed in the groom’s, and the draping of a garland of flowers over the couple to symbolize their happy union. There were no official words that had to be spoken, and there was no ecclesiastical blessing that had to be given to make the marriage legal and binding.”
Divorce was uncomplicated. The husband simply presented the wife a certificate of divorce. In it, he would testify that he had divorced her and that she was free to marry someone else; then, he would send her away. Although the Romans had a legal practice where wives could initiate divorce proceedings, Jewish wives were not permitted to divorce their husbands.
Divorce itself was taken for granted and tolerated as an ancient custom. The regulations written by Moses in Deuteronomy demanded sufficient cause, established certain legal formalities, and set rules concerning remarriage. So, it could be correctly stated that Moses permitted divorce. But what was sufficient cause? Great Jewish teachers had debated the exact meaning of sufficient cause for centuries. The school of Shammai gave the only permitted reason for divorce as sexual misconduct on the woman’s part, whereas the school of Hillel said “Even if she spoiled a dish for him”, and Rabbi Aquiba said, “Even if he found another more beautiful than she is.”
Still yet, Moses permitted divorce. It was against this background that the Pharisees accosted Jesus hoping to trap him into contradicting what they regarded as clear teaching of the Torah permitting divorce.
2 The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him.
3 He said to them in reply, “What did Moses command you?”
4 They replied, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.”
5 But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment.
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, no human being must separate.”
10 In the house the disciples again questioned him about this.
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.”
13 And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them.
14 When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
15 Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
16 Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them.
- Mark 10:2-16 N.A.B.
First, Jesus dismissed the permissive text from Deuteronomy as Moses’ concession to human weakness; then he drew on two texts from Genesis to show that God’s original plan for men and women was that they would no longer be two, but one flesh. From this divine ideal Jesus told them (v.10:9) that divorce is contrary to God’s plan: “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
Around 445 B.C., the Old Testament prophet Malachi wrote:
16 For I hate divorce,
says the LORD, the God of Israel,
And covering one’s garment with injustice,
says the LORD of hosts;
You must then safeguard life that is your own,
and not break faith. – Malachi 2:16 N.A.B.
Portrayed against the background of first-century Palestinian Judaism, Jesus’ positive ideal of marriage as becoming “one flesh”; and therefore, that there can be “no divorce” was regarded as extreme since most Jews in Jesus’ time took divorce for granted. In verse 12, Jesus also extended his teaching on marriage and divorce to include those Roman legal procedures whereby a wife could initiate divorce proceedings.
That early Christians, too, had considerable difficulty coming to terms with Jesus’ “no divorce” teaching in the Gospel of Mark (the first written gospel) is evidenced by Paul’s advice to new Christians who found themselves in mixed marriages (1 Corinthians 7:12-16), and by the addition of “unless the marriage is unlawful” in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.
It is hard to know exactly what Jesus intended in his teaching on marriage and divorce, and how we should take it. Is it an ideal to strive for, a challenge to be faced, an extreme example, or divine law? And which part of the New Testament evidence is more important – Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce in the Gospel of Mark or the exceptions introduced by Paul and the Gospel of Matthew?
Within Christian churches of all denominations there is a wide range of approaches to marriage, divorce, and remarriage. For church leaders and believers alike it remains a complex and difficult issue. No matter how Jesus’ teaching on divorce might be interpreted and applied, the devastation of divorce is undeniable – we see the wreckage on a daily basis, especially in the children of divorced parents. Children of failed marriages bear psychological wounds that in one way or another remain with them for the duration of their lives. In the face of this, there is an element in our culture that endorses putting aside family values for the sake of personal motives without regard to the damage done to children or society. Contrary to their claims, the well-being of society has always rested on the family.
In addressing the World Youth Day volunteers Pope Francis said:
“God calls you to make definitive choices, and he has a plan for each of you: to discover that plan and to respond to your vocation is to move forward toward personal fulfillment. God calls each of us to be holy, to live his life, but he has a particular path for each one of us. Some are called to holiness through family life in the sacrament of Marriage. Today, there are those who say that marriage is out of fashion. Is it out of fashion? In a culture of relativism and the ephemeral, many preach the importance of ‘enjoying’ the moment. They say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, ‘forever’, because we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, I ask you to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, which believes you are incapable of true love. I have confidence in you and I pray for you. Have the courage ‘to swim against the tide’. And also have the courage to be happy.”