Gospel for the Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (3 October 2021)
Gospel Notes 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.
Accounts of the blessing of the little children are also found in 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.”
In the time of Jesus, the issue was not whether a man was permitted to divorce his wife but for what reasons he may lawfully do so: “The only question concerned the grounds of divorce, as recorded in the parallel in Matt 19:3, ‘“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason.”’ This final phrase was the crux of the controversy over divorce in Jesus’ day, as is reflected in a celebrated passage in the Mishnah:
The School of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, ‘Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.’ And the School of Hillel say: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, ‘Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.’ R. Akiba says: Even if he found another fairer than she, for it is written, ‘And it shall be if she find no favour in his eyes.’ (m. Git. 9:10)
“As this passage indicates, Jews and Jewish law were agreed that divorce was permissible. The more conservative school of Shammai argued that the sole ground was ‘indecency’, that is, adultery, whereas the liberal school of Hillel argued that divorce could be granted ‘for any matter’ (NIV, ‘for any and every reason’; Matt 19:3), that is, for many causes beyond adultery. Not even among the Essenes at Qumran, the most conservative faction of Judaism in Jesus’ day, was divorce expressly forbidden. The two texts that deal with marriage at Qumran (CD 4:20–5:6; 11QT 17:15–19) are primarily concerned with forbidding polygamy, but the failure of either passage to forbid divorce and remarriage suggests that the latter were at least allowed. Given the universal acceptance of divorce among first-century Jews, it seems reasonable to conclude that ‘for any matter’ is implied in the question of the Pharisees to Jesus in v. 2. That is, first-century Jews would supply the phrase ‘for any matter’ into the question, which had been omitted for convenience, but apart from which the question made no sense. The question to Jesus thus looks like an abbreviated question whose full connotation exceeded its wording in the ears of its hearers, as today, for example, we speak of ‘the Second Coming of Jesus’, or ‘civil rights of minorities’, or ‘equal rights of women’. The sense of the question asked of Jesus seems to have been, ‘“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any grounds other than adultery?”’
“Mark informs us that the motive of the question of the Pharisees was not simple inquiry; it was rather a ‘test’, indeed, an attempt to trap Jesus (8:11; 10:2; 12:15). If Jesus is in Perea, which was under Antipas’s jurisdiction, the question may have been put to trap him on the issue of Antipas’s marriage to Herodias, over which the Baptist had lost his head (6:18). If that is the context of the question, then Jesus is being asked whether Antipas was justified or not in divorcing the daughter of King Aretas to marry Herodias. But even if the question is not politically motivated, the Pharisees surely suspect Jesus of holding views on the subject of marriage that differ from theirs. They intend to demolish his position by causing him to compromise the authority of the Torah. Their objective is to maintain a permissive divorce policy—and the more permissive the better. Schürer summarizes the Jewish position on divorce thus: ‘divorce was relatively easy in those days and the Pharisees and rabbis intended to keep it so’.
“The Pharisees reflect the view that marriage is a disposable contractual arrangement. Twice they inquire about possible grounds of its dissolution (10:2, 4). Their attitude reminds us of a person who has just been granted a bank loan and then asks under what conditions he might be absolved from repaying it. The starting point in Jewish discussions of divorce was Deut 24:1–4, the passage on which m. Git. 9:10 (cited above) was based, as well as the question of v. 4. The intent of Deut 24:1–4 was manifold. Most obviously, it discouraged hasty divorces by requiring a man to stipulate a reason for divorce in writing, and also by prohibiting him from remarrying his divorced wife. The certificate of divorce guaranteed the divorcée at least a modicum of dignity and the right to remarry another man if she chose. It thus safeguarded the rights of the woman as much as possible in a patriarchal culture, although divorce did entail a stigma since a priest was forbidden from marrying a divorcée (Lev 21:7), and a second marriage ‘defiled’ (Deut 24:4) a man’s first wife, thus making it impossible for him to remarry her. Thus, as originally intended Deut 24:1–4 did not encourage divorce but rather attempted to preserve an equable ruling in the unfortunate event of divorce. In the question of the Pharisees in v. 4, however, the reference to Deut 24:1–4 no longer serves to limit the ill-effects of divorce but rather as a pretext for divorce, ‘if a man finds anything indecent in [his wife]’. As we have seen, the pretexts ranged from adultery alone to the most feeble of excuses, including a wife’s failure in simple household duties or failure to please her husband as did another woman” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002,299-301).
What did Moses command you?: This is a reference to the above text from Deuteronomy 24:1-4. It is the only passage in the Torah that deals with divorce. Strictly spealing, Moses did not “command” this. Jesus’ opinion is that Moses “allowed” 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 is 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 order – “the kingdom of God” – being brought into effect here. This new order 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, op cit, 305).
Reflection – “In the beginning”
Today’s Gospel – Mark 10:2-16 – reports yet another argument between Jesus and the Pharisees: “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 permitted the husband to divorce his wife. Unlike Roman law, however, a wife was not permitted to divorce her husband. This arrangement in Jewish society was taken for granted in Jesus’ day.
The real issue here though is not divorce. The Pharisee’s question is a ruse. And Jesus deals with it as such. He responds by doing something he has done at least twice before. He challenges the Pharisees in their use of the Law to hide from God’s intentions – see picking corn on the Sabbath (2:25-28) and the issue of clean and unclean (7:1-23). Jesus uses their own question to expose their hypocrisy: “Because of your hardness of heart (Moses) wrote this commandment for you”. The accusation of “hardness of heart” would hit home. The Pharisees would, for example, be very familiar with the Psalm: “O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work” (Psalm 95:8-11).
Jesus thus shifts the focus from divorce to marriage – marriage as it was intended by God from the beginning: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken. …. Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:23-25).
Jesus puts the focus on God’s loving intentions for man and woman in the marriage relationship. The subject is not the law of divorce – a heartless law, in fact, emerging out of “hardness of heart”. A law that also held great potential to oppress women. The real subject is the beauty, the wonder and the life-giving possibilities of a man and a woman brought together in the love of God, expressing God’s love in their union, being co-creators with the Creator.
The phrase, “they become one flesh”, is particularly rich with possibilities. It is reasonable to interpret that phrase as implying a coming-to-be – an ongoing journey in love! In this view, marriage is not an event but a process, a never-ending participation in the infinite, creative and creating love of God.
Even as we meditate on the vision Jesus gives us, we cannot forget that this journey of marriage is a vulnerable reality. It should not be interfered with therefore. It should be given every possibility to thrive. Thus, Jesus’ words to the disciples later: “‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’”. The rights and responsibilities of women are to be honoured in supporting in every way possible the fragile journey that has begun.
Pope Francis no doubt has this in mind when he cites the Synod on the Family (2015). He speaks of “the frailty” that will mean “the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital” – see Amoris Laetitia, #291. All “need pastoral care that is merciful and helpful” – see Amoris Laetitia, #293.