He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.
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."
The question of the Pharisees, the means by which they will “test” Jesus is important. Not because they should already know the answer, as students of the law, but because of the issue they choose to engage - divorce. Underneath this issue is the conversation about what constitutes adultery, a topic that has already had dire consequences for John the Baptizer.
We have encountered the topic of adultery has only made one appearance in the Gospel so far, 6:17-19 - “For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not…”
John’s critique of Herod’s actions land him in prison and lead to his death. This story is in the background of Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees here in chapter 10. It adds to the tension and to the political overtones of the teaching.
The Issue of Divorce (10:1-9)
The question leveled by the Pharisees leads to conversation about what constitutes divorce. For modern interpretations of this teaching, the cultural context of the time of Jesus and Mark must be addresses. The context cannot be separated from the topic.
The text that Jesus cites is Deuteronomy 24:1-4:
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 2 and goes off to become another man’s wife. 3 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); 4 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.
I turn here to other who have labored to bridge the gap between time and cultures in order to deepen our engagement with this story. I own a great deal to Brian Stoffregen who collects and shares much that enriches our ability to engage this text.
It is clear that it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. However, the law as written did raise an important question: "What constitutes 'something objectionable'?" There were different answers to that question. R.T. France (The Gospel of Mark) has a paragraph full of quotes about the marriage:
"While the permitted grounds of divorce were debated in the rabbinic world, the admissibility of divorce (of a wife by her husband, not vice versa: Josephus, Ant. 15.259) as such was not questioned: Dt. 24:1-4 (the only legislation relating specifically to divorce in the torah) was understood to have settled the issue. The more restrictive interpretation of the school of Shammai (only on the basis of 'unchastity', m. Git. 9.10) was almost certainly a minority view. More typical, probably, is Ben Sira 25:26: 'If she does not accept your control, divorce her and send her away', or Josephus's laconic comment (Life 426): 'At this time I divorce my wife, not liking her behavior.' Josephus paraphrases Dt. 24:1, 'He who wants to be divorced from the wife who shares his home for whatever cause -- and among people many such may arise -- ...' (Ant. 4.253), and the school of Hillel allowed this to cover a spoiled meal, or even, so R. Akiba, 'if he found another fairer than she' (m. Git. 9:10) - (pp. 387-8)."
Stoffregen cites: "Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) point out that the first century understanding of marriage is quite different than ours today."
For an understanding of divorce one must understand what marriage meant in a specific culture. Under normal circumstances in the world of Jesus, individuals really did not get married. Families did. One family offered a male, the other a female. Their wedding stood for the wedding of the larger extended families and symbolized the fusion of the honor of both families involved. It would be undertaken with a view to political and/or economic concerns -- even when it might be confined to fellow ethnics, as it was in first-century Israel. Divorce, then, would entail the dissolution of these extended family ties. It represented a challenge to the family of the former wife and would likely result in family feuding.
Jesus looks upon the married couple as "no longer two, but one flesh." This indicates that marriage is a "blood" relationship rather than a legal one. And because it is a blood relationship, like the relationship to mother and father (in v. 7) or to one's siblings, marriage cannot be legally dissolved. Moreover, just as it is God alone who determines who one's parents are, so too, it is God who "joins together" in marriage. This is not difficult to imagine in a world of arranged marriages, where choice of marriage partner is heavily rooted in obedience to parents and the needs of the family. Parental and family choices are readily seen as determined by God [p. 240].
Again, context matters in our conversations about the teachings of Jesus. We cannot take 2,000 year old sayings and apply them to our own time and place in a healthy way without acknowledging context.
The Issue of Adultery (10:10-12)
When the conversation moves indoors and into the privacy of Jesus and his disciples, the conversation shifts to adultery. The context of their time and place should once again be engaged.
We sometimes have a very narrow understanding of adultery. But for Jesus and Mark, the definition is very grey and wide open.
Brian Stoffregen - “What is "committing adultery"? The ancient concept of "adultery" was "taking another man's property." One could not "commit adultery" with an unmarried or unengaged woman. It might be sexual immorality (porneuo), but not adultery (moicheuo, or moichaomai).”
I (Stogffregen) quote again from Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) because they help us understanding the culture and common thinking that was present when Jesus spoke these words:
It is important to read this text carefully. In Mark's community, what is prohibited is not divorce, but divorce and remarriage, or divorce in order to marry again. The community also knows of women (or a woman's family) who can initiate divorce. It would be such divorce that inevitably would lead to family feuding, a true negative challenge to the honor of the other family. However, for Mark's community, nothing is said about cases of divorce not with a view to marrying some other person.
For a married woman to have sexual relations with someone other than her husband is adultery, clearly the implication in v. 12. Given first-century understandings of adultery that makes sense. She dishonors her husband. But given those same first-century understandings, for a male to marry another after divorce (v. 11) simply cannot be adultery. Adultery against whom?
Adultery means to dishonor a male by having sexual relations with his wife. Take this definition quite literally. Since it is males who embody gender honor, and since only male equals can challenge for honor, a female cannot and does not dishonor a wife by having sexual relations with the wife's husband. Nor can a married man dishonor his wife by having sexual relations with some other female. A husband's relations with a prostitute do not dishonor the honorable wife.
If a husband divorced his wife in order to remarry, which male would be dishonored? On any obvious reading, it would have to be the father (or other males) of the family of the divorced wife. In other words, it is the family of the divorced woman who is dishonored by her husband's divorcing and marrying another, precisely what led to family feuding. That is what is prohibited here [p. 241].
Contrary to what Malina and Rohrbaugh state: Mark has the little phrase "against her," in v. 11. He presents adultery as a sin against her, rather than her father or other males. However, it isn't clear whether the sin is committed against the new wife or against the old wife. Mark is also not clear whether or not the new spouses had previously been married (compare Mt 5:32). It is clear that with the remarriage, faithfulness towards the first spouse has ended. "Adultery" is often used to mean "unfaithful," e.g., being unfaithful to the one God by worshiping idols." Brian Stoffregen
Matthew Skinner offers some important insights:
When Jesus talks with his disciples in 10:10-12, he says nothing about the rejected partner in a divorce and his or her remarriage. He seems to be speaking specifically against those who leave their partners for others. His point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery. That is, his strongest words are against those who initiate divorce as a means to get something else, sacrificing a spouse to satisfy one's desires or ambitions.
In 10:10-12, Jesus gives women a place of greater equality in the marriage relationship, hardly seeing them as passive objects. For one thing, the prohibition of 10:12, concerning women who divorce their husbands, parallels 10:11. (Matthew's Gospel confirms the scandalous nature of such a suggestion: it omits it! See Matthew 19:9.) Second, by speaking of a man committing adultery against a woman (and not against her father or her past or present husband), Jesus implies that adultery involves more than violating the property rights of another man. It concerns accountability to a partner, just as marriage does.
Jesus is building a new social reality called the kingdom of God. It is a present reality in our world. We know from history that it suffers resistance from the powers of the world who fear its radical equality and resource sharing. Jesus knows that the new social reality called the kingdom of God must address internal issues, grounded in relationships, in order to weather the storms of the world. The conversation on divorce and adultery addresses some of these internal relationships.
What is not addressed in this conversation is any eternal implication of divorce or adultery. Issues of eternal salvation are not on play. What concerns Jesus are the real time, real life consequences of broken relationships due to selfish behavior.
The community of faith and modern-day disciples of Jesus must struggle with how we seek to maintain and build relationships. Our participation in the new social reality called the kingdom of God leads us into a way of responding to our brothers and sisters that is counter-cultural to the ways of the world.
When it comes to moments of divorce and adultery, we must enter into the conversation seeking the healing and wholeness of those affected. Leveling judgement has already left a cost to great to comprehend. The power of Jesus, re-framing and strengthening our relationships with God and each other, empowers us to enter into potentially tension and difficult days and conversations with the promise that we are not alone in moments that strive for healing.
While this is far from perfect, it is an attempt at realizing the radical community that Jesus was building, is building, and has promised for us who follow.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- How do we address context and culture in our understanding and engagement of Scripture?
- How do we enter into risky conversations about divorce and adultery that seek healing and wholeness?
- How can we challenge cultural assumptions about what Jesus has to say about divorce and adultery that lead to broken relationships?