October 3, 2021
Sunday between October 2 and October 8 inclusive
Proper 22, Ordinary Time 27
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Mark 10:2-16, The Message or Mark 10:2-16, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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In the interests of full-disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, I will say right at the start that I am divorced and re-married. So I am not a disinterested discerner of this text.
Back in Chapter 8, Jesus began to lead his disciples south; away from their rural, country-bumpkin origins to the big leagues of the capital city Jerusalem. Today's text is the first of several challenges to Jesus by the elites from the city, in this case the Pharisees.
The public fame and honour that Jesus has been gaining is a major threat to the status quo. And the first line of defense against someone who was getting out of place was to put them back in place by successfully shaming them in public. And the preferred way to honourably shame someone was through trick questions. Catching an opponent out this way proved one's superior cleverness and deflated the upstart's standing in the eyes and ears of the watching crowd.
The question to Jesus, "Is it legal ..." signals that Jesus is being asked to interpret the meaning of the Torah - the first five books of the First Testament - the teachings received from Moses, and the foundation of Jewish law, custom and identity. In other words, Jesus is being tested for his detailed knowledge of the Torah and his ability to demonstrate wisdom in his application of it to real life issues. The surrounding crowd would be all ears.
Notice here a pattern. Jesus responds to hostile questions with hostile questions - "What did Moses command YOU?" Jesus does not ask, "What did Moses command US?" This is not because Jesus is not Jewish. The point of separation that Jesus is making is between elites and non-elites.
Surprisingly, the Torah says very little about marriage and divorce. The answer by the Pharisees in Verse 4 reflects Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But the teaching there is not directly about divorce, it is about re-marrying a previously divorced wife. It takes divorce for granted and simply describes how this was done by the man giving his wife a certificate of divorce because "she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her."
In response to this, Jesus refers to another part of the Torah, Genesis 1:26, and equates the marriage relationship to blood relationships (e.g., parent-child) that are given by God.
As usual, the disciples do not understand what Jesus has just said, and must be given additional explanations in private.
But the explanation in Verses 11-12 somewhat muddies the matter since the response, "Whoever divorces ..." seems to presume the possibility of divorce. The verses do not prohibit divorce; they prohibit re-marrying. Or to be more precise, they teach that whoever divorces and re-marries commits adultery.
Because Jesus' answer referred to women and men in equal ways, he protected women from the practice of being divorced simply at the whim of the man by the issuing of a divorce certificate. Tragically, it has also had the effect for 2,000 years of locking women into relationships even when they were abusive.
OK. So as someone who has divorced and re-married here's the case I'm going to plead at the Pearly Gates.
First, let's observe the difference between a wedding and a marriage.
(And let's acknowledge that this distinction is a distinctly modern one. It is only in recent times that relationships are understood to be dynamic; that people do not grow like plants - simply getting bigger. Experience can and does result in changes to our soul - for good or ill - that can and do change our relationships over time.)
A wedding is an event that happens once, at a particular time, in a particular place.
A marriage is a relationship; it is an on-going process.
"Are you wedded," is a question that can be answered by referring easily to a past event that is over and completed. "Are you married" - if we take it to mean, "What is the nature of your relationship," - might evoke a more prolonged and nuanced answer.
So my quibble with Jesus is over his use of the past perfect verb tense:
What God HAS JOINED together, let no one separate.
"Has joined" makes sense when referring to an event like a wedding. Or, as was the case in Jesus' day, it makes sense if what is being joined is understood to be static and unchanging. But it makes no sense when thinking of an on-going, dynamic, process such as the relationship of marriage.
But if we change the verb tense:
What God IS JOINING together, let no one separate.
then I completely agree. We should always be giving our whole selves to work that God is doing.
However, whatever the verb tense, this teaching of Jesus also has an unstated second possibility:
What God HAS NOT JOINED, let no one hold together.
What God IS NOT JOINING, let no one hold together.
Now God knows that I am quite capable of self-serving self-justification, but my testimony of my first marriage is that my wife and I over-estimated the quality of our relationship. Our relationship wasn't capable of the intimacy of marriage; and we finally had to face that and not hold together what God was not joining.
Now I know that divorce happens for reasons that are a lot more complicated and messy than mine. But I think the calling remains the same: To discern the work that God is doing in our lives, and to let nothing separate us from that. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking with it.
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 188-189; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See below.
Mark 10:2-16 (NRSV)
2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him 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."
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."
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.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Mark 10:2-16 (The Message)
2 Pharisees came up, intending to give him a hard time. They asked, "Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife?"
3 Jesus said, "What did Moses command?"
4 They answered, "Moses gave permission to fill out a certificate of dismissal and divorce her."
5 Jesus said, "Moses wrote this command only as a concession to your hardhearted ways. 6 In the original creation, God made male and female to be together. 7 Because of this, a man leaves father and mother, and in marriage 8 he becomes one flesh with a woman—no longer two individuals, but forming a new unity. 9 Because God created this organic union of the two sexes, no one should desecrate his art by cutting them apart."
10 When they were back home, the disciples brought it up again. 11 Jesus gave it to them straight: "A man who divorces his wife so he can marry someone else commits adultery against her. 12 And a woman who divorces her husband so she can marry someone else commits adultery."
13 The people brought children to Jesus, hoping he might touch them. 14 The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus was irate and let them know it: "Don't push these children away. Don't ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. 15 Mark this: Unless you accept God's kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you'll never get in." 16 Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands of blessing on them.
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.