Gospel for the Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (7 October 2018)
Gospel Note by Michael Whelan SM
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘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.”
Then in the house, the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them, and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 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. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:2-16 – NRSV)
The text on divorce is developed by Matthew, following Mark – see Matthew 19:1-9.
The text on the little children is developed by both Matthew and Luke, following Mark – see Matthew 19:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17.
“Jesus is now in Judea where he will frequently enter into debate with various Jewish groups (see 11:27–12:44), and the issue of the grounds for divorce was a controversial topic among Pharisaic sages” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 292).
Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?: “The verb apolyein, when used in the context of marriage is generally translated ‘divorce’. However, that rendering may not fully capture what happened to the woman when the husband decided to dismiss or send her away from his household. At least according to their reading of Deut 24:1–4 the Pharisees knew very well that it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. One gets the impression that the opponents knew beforehand that Jesus’ position on this matter was in conflict with common opinion and with Deut 24:1–4, and their question to Jesus was designed to show to the wider public his lack of orthodoxy. In that sense they were ‘testing’ him” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 293).
A close reading of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 will help us to gain some sense of the complexity of this interchange: 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.”
This can hardly be taken as a simple theological claim. There are significant social-cultural factors at play here. Add to that the personal animus against Jesus and you have a most complex text.
What did Moses command you?: The above text from Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is the only passage in the Torah that deals with divorce. However, at the time of Jesus, the possibility of divorce is taken for granted. We see this, for example, in Matthew 1:19, in the case of Mary and Joseph.
The religious authorities are putting a specific case to Jesus: The man divorces his wife and wants to remarry her after she has been married to another man and divorced by him(!). Deuteronomy 24:1-4 forbids the first husband to take her back under such circumstances but obviously an alternative practice had arisen over time.
Jesus’ opinion is that Moses “allowed” – he did not “command” – an exception in such circumstances. He “allowed” it because of their “hard hearts”. Jesus refers to a long and powerful tradition in his use of words here: “(H)ardness of heart is a major biblical theme. Since in biblical anthropology the heart is the source of understanding and judgment as well as the emotions, hardness of heart involves closing off one’s mind and emotions from the truth. In the early chapters of Exodus Pharaoh is portrayed as an example of hardness of heart. In Ps 95:7 the people of Israel are urged not to follow the bad example of their ancestors as they wandered in the wilderness: ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the days of Massah in the desert’. In Mark 3:5 Jesus’ opponents in the synagogue are accused of hardness of heart and in 4:10–12 the general public’s failure to understand the parables is explained in terms of the prophecy about hardness (pōrōsis) of heart in Isaiah 6:9–10. In Mark 6:52 the failure of Jesus’ own disciples to understand him and his deeds are attributed to their ‘hardened’ (pepōrōmenē) heart. In the context of the debate about marriage and divorce in Mark 10:1–12 Jesus interprets Deut 24:1–4 as a temporary concession by God to the spiritual weakness of the people” (J R Donohue and D J Harrington, op cit, 293-294).
from the beginning of creation: Custom and habit can bring on forgetfulness. Jesus reminds the religious authorities of God’s intentions in creation - Genesis 1:27 (and 5:2) and 2:24 are taken as expressing God’s original will for humankind before the ‘fall’ in Genesis 3. God’s will implicit here takes precedence over any “allowances” that might have arisen over time. Furthermore, there is a “new creation” underway here. This “new creation” will honour the original creation before the “fall”: God created humankind as male and female and the two are to become one – equals – in marriage. “In the context of the argument in Mark 10:6–9 marriage between a man and woman represents a kind of reunification” (J R Donohue & D J Harrington, op cit, 294).
One commentator sums up: “Whether or not Jesus allowed for divorce on the basis of adultery is therefore not certain; and even in the case of adultery there is no indication that he demanded divorce, as did the rabbis. If the guilty partner repented and ceased from sin and the other partner forgave him or her, the marriage could be redeemed. The adultery clause, at any rate, is not the key to Mark’s narrative. The essential thrust of 10:1–12 is the inviolability of the marriage bond as intended and instituted by God. Jesus does not conceive of marriage on the grounds of its dissolution but on the grounds of its architectural design and purpose by God. Human failure does not alter that purpose (Rom 3:4). The intent of Jesus’ teaching is not to shackle those who fail in marriage with debilitating guilt. The question is not whether God forgives those who fail in marriage. The answer to that question is assured in 3:28, ‘All the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven’. There is, after all, no instance in Scripture of an individual seeking forgiveness and being denied it by God. The question in our day of impermanent commitments and casual divorce is whether we as Christians will hear the unique call of Christ to discipleship in marriage. In marriage, as in other areas to which the call of Christ applies, will we seek relief in what is permitted, or commit ourselves to what is intended by God and commanded by Christ? Will we fall away in trouble and difficulty (4:17), or follow Jesus in the costly journey of discipleship, even in marriage? Will we sunder the divine union of ‘two become one flesh’, or will we honor and nurture marriage as a gift and creation of God? (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 305).
Today’s Gospel – Mark 10:2-16 – is very complex. The religious authorities are trying to force Jesus into a corner where they can accuse him of being at odds with the teachings of Moses. This strategy is repeated again and again in all four Gospels. In fact, Moses gave no “command” about divorce. Jesus is easily able to switch the focus without quibbling over this detail however. He forces the religious authorities to change their language from “command” to “allow”. The only passage in the Torah that deals with divorce is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and it is a very specific case. Jesus’ focus is God’s will: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’. ‘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.” The intention of God is that husband and wife will become a communion of being. As husband and wife, they symbolize the unity that God intends for all creation. That is an extraordinarily beautiful and challenging ideal. The Church has always – and will always – uphold that ideal.
There are two other major interdependent issues at play here. One is the socio-cultural fact that the wife is regarded as the possession of the husband. He has the right to dismiss her if he so chooses. The second issue at play is that this misrepresentation of what God intended came into being because of their “hardness of heart”. The Greek word used here hardly needs to be translated – sklērokardia.
The religious authorities are trapped by their own strategy. The heart is the source of understanding, judgment and feelings. In other words, the heart is the symbol of all that it means to be human. Sklērocardia is a fatal disease! It closes one off from what matters in life. In particular, it renders one unable to be actively part of the Covenant, in which God speaks constantly to the heart. “Harden not your hearts as at Meribah as in the days of Massah in the desert” (Psalm 95:7). Recall the incident of the man with a withered hand who approached Jesus on the Sabbath. The religious authorities watched to see if Jesus would heal the man and thus “break” the Sabbath: “(Jesus) looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). Jesus tells the disciples that “they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened” (Mark 6:52).
Interestingly enough, Jesus says that the misrepresentation of God’s intentions regarding husband and wife has been allowed because of their hardness of heart. We are reminded of the story of the two on the road to Emmaus – see Luke 24:13-35 – where Jesus walks with them even though they are going the wrong way. His love is everlasting!