I don’t know of any preacher who approaches this text with joy.
Where is the good news in such harsh words about marriage and divorce? It might be tempting to give a rousing endorsement of the importance of marriage and a stable family home for children, but that is a superficial reading and I am not content with that. The stakes are high. I know that even before I rise to preach, the words of the Gospel are ringing in people’s ears and many are feeling guilt, sorrow, or desperation.
When I was doing my work in seminary, I also interned in a church in San Francisco. After I had been there for about a year, a friend of mine who sang in the choir spoke to me and told me about her marriage. She had tried for years to make it work, but it was killing her and injuring her children. She was suffering, and heartbroken. She had finally decided that she had no choice but to get a divorce. As she spoke, I had the sense that she was expecting me to criticize her, or argue with her. I asked her why, and she said that she had been in church every Sunday for years and had heard what Jesus said about divorce. She said she felt like she was letting Jesus down.
In this passage of Mark we have one of what are known as the “hard sayings” of Jesus.
By “hard sayings” it means we wish Jesus hadn’t said them. But there are clues that can help us understand this text.
The first clue is in the words: the Pharisees came to TEST Jesus. The Pharisees were trying to discredit Jesus and alienate his followers. They posed unanswerable questions. The question they asked Jesus–whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor–is also in Mark. That question was intended to be a trap–heads you lose, tails you lose. In the question about divorce, they certainly thought that either Jesus would agree with Mosaic law (thus agreeing with the Pharisees); or he would say that either women or men could initiate divorce (thereby agreeing with current Gentile practice in the Roman empire); or say that people should not get divorced–something sure to alienate his hearers.
The second clue is that Jesus taught in parables. He turned questions upside down. Over and over the stories in the Gospels make it clear–the plain meaning of Jesus’ words doesn’t encompass his meaning.
The third clue is that Jesus always reframed the debate. The Pharisees were trying to catch Jesus on the thorns of legalistic argument, and Jesus is continually pointing to the kingdom of God. He says over and over that he didn’t come to judge people.
In posing their question, the Pharisees quoted Deuteronomy–the fifth book in the Torah–the book of the law, the book of the teachings about God. What could be more unassailable than that? How could Jesus maintain his status as a teacher if he opposed the Torah? But Jesus beat them at their own game. He trumped them by quoting from Genesis–the FIRST book of the Torah. He said, “‘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.” One flesh can mean that the married couple become a family. And of course, marriage was arranged between families. More was at stake here than the married couple. We are talking about a very different understanding of marriage here. Our romantic ideal of marriage where two people choose each other and get married is very new. This is marriage in the first century in Israel. And what was the traditional Jewish practice of marriage in that time and place ? There was a marriage contract–the Ketubah–that was between the bride’s father and the groom. A woman was property–valuable property–but property nonetheless. She was not party to the contracting of the marriage, and she could not initiate divorce.
Jesus was preaching the kingdom of God, and in response to the legalism of the Pharisees he pointed to God’s vision of ideal relationship for humanity. This was a debate between theologians–Jesus was not condemning individuals for divorce or adultery. How do we know that? It is in the Gospels:
- When Jesus encountered the woman caught in the very act of adultery, he did not condemn her. He blessed her and sent her on her way.
- When he met the Samaritan woman at the well–the woman who had several husbands, and was with a man who was not her husband, he did not condemn her. He bantered with her about the difference between well water and living water.
- And everywhere we hear that Jesus offered God’s mercy and forgiveness; reached across social barriers to welcome the suffering; and preached against injustice and inequality.
Here, Jesus was calling for faithful relationship instead of the patriarchal structure of marriage. He reframed the debate, turned the question upside down, and described a situation where both a woman and a man could initiate divorce, and the resulting marriages injured the former spouse, whether a man or a woman. This is a vision of radical equality, because in the patriarchal system, a former wife was too unimportant to be considered injured by her husband’s adultery. Jesus called for a world where women were equal to men–where they were not property to be disposed of.
In quoting from Genesis, Jesus pointed to the world at Creation, where everything was good.
But the reality is that marriages aren’t always good. We understand as a community that respect for marriage means that some marriages must end. My friend from the choir knew her marriage needed to end. Jesus always had mercy on the suffering, the vulnerable, and the heart-broken, and my friend from the choir was all of those. I hope it lifted her heart when I told her these words, that I fully believe: the glory of God is the human person fully alive. This message is everywhere in the Gospel. The good news is that we are made for wholeness; we are made for joy. We are made for relationship with the God who loves each and every one of us, and nothing can separate us from God’s love.