Opponents questioned Jesus about divorce to trap him, but he used the issue to teach the higher ways of the Kingdom – Mark 10:1-16.
In Mark and Matthew, Jesus was confronted by religious opponents about the issue of divorce, but this was done to trap him with his own words. They did not intend to solicit an all-encompassing ruling on divorce from him. In Mark, the incident is another in a series of confrontations between Jesus and the religious establishment associated with the Temple.
In the parallel account in Matthew, the question is, can a husband divorce his wife for any reason? – (Matthew 19:1-12).
In the first century, even the most conservative Jewish rabbi considered divorce legal. The issue was what were the acceptable grounds for a legal divorce. And after all, the Mosaic law allowed husbands to divorce their wives.
- (Mark 10:1-12) – “And having approached him, the Pharisees were asking him if it is permitted for a husband to dismiss his wife, putting him to the test. Yet he, having answered, said to them: What did Moses command you? Now, they said: Moses permitted to write a bill of divorce and to dismiss her. But Jesus answered: For the hardness of your heart, he wrote you this commandment. Yet from the beginning of creation, he made them male and female, and because of this a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will be for one flesh; consequently, no longer are they two, but one flesh. What, therefore, God joined together let no man divide. And in the house again the disciples were questioning him concerning this. And he is saying to them: Whoever dismisses his wife and marries another is committing adultery against her. And if she dismisses her husband to marry another, she is committing adultery.”
The Mosaic Law, the later oral traditions, and case law precedents all permitted Jewish men to divorce their wives. More conservative rabbis argued it was only permissible in cases of adultery, while the more “liberal” authorities countered that a husband was permitted to divorce his wife for virtually any cause. As a rule, wives were not permitted to initiate divorce proceedings.
Moreover, the Torah regulations were slanted in favor of the husband, and under the relevant statutes from Deuteronomy, men were permitted to divorce their wives. But legal disputes were inevitable due to an ambiguity in the key verse – “…because he has found some indecency in her.” Exactly what qualified as an “indecency”? – (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
In Christ’s confrontation with the Pharisees, they did not seek a straightforward explanation about this issue. Instead, they intended to lure him into making a statement contrary to the Torah. Any prohibition of divorce by him would be framed as a statement contradicting the Law of Moses.
The intent of the Law was to limit divorce. By requiring a written decree, hopefully, it would provide some level of protection for the wife, for the decree would allow the woman to remarry legally. In that patriarchal society, all too frequently, unmarried women remained poor, and often marriage was their only way to improve their condition.
Twice the Pharisees asked Jesus about the grounds for divorce. Unlike the Mosaic Law, they were searching for a pretext to justify divorce. But according to him, the regulation in the Torah was given as a concession because of the hardness of husbands’ hearts, but it was not a revelation of God’s intent. Christ argued from the original purpose for marriage and did not seek loopholes in the law to get around it.
Jesus did not deny the validity of the Mosaic Law, instead, he appealed to the earlier precedent and higher authority; namely, to the Creation account and the words of Yahweh – (Genesis 1:27, 2:24).
Gender was part of the original creation. From the start, a lifelong marriage commitment was the plan. Implied in the Genesis account is that the loyalty of a husband and wife is first to one another, and not to their respective parents – (“The two will leave their father and mother”). In Jewish society at the time, women remained at home under the rule of their fathers until they were married.
In private, Jesus provided more information to his disciples on divorce, what God required of those who followed him, but his words did not constitute instructions regarding marriage and divorce for society as a whole. His disciple is summoned to do the will of God whatever the cost, but not to use his call or otherwise to seek ways to avoid his obligations to others.
And in this exchange, Jesus was the one who revealed God’s true desire, and he did so on his own authority. And his application of this teaching to both husband and wife would have been surprising to his audience. Typically, wives had no right to divorce and marriage was under the control of the husband. But in his kingdom, men and women are free moral agents, and both have responsibilities before God.
Likewise, Jesus added, “whoever dismisses his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” In that society, a man who committed adultery offended the husband of the woman with whom he engaged in sexual misconduct. The wife was viewed as the property of her husband. Once again, Jesus elevated the status of women by declaring that the husband who divorced and then remarried committed adultery against his previous wife.
In this pronouncement, Jesus made clear that adultery occurs when a divorced person remarries. By itself, the act of divorce, while also forbidden, does not constitute adultery. Remarriage, however, does.
CHILDREN BROUGHT TO JESUS
- (Mark 10:13-16) – “And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples were rebuking them. Now Jesus, having seen, became indignant and said to them: Allow the little children to come to me and do not be forbidding them, for of such is the kingdom of God! Amen, I am saying to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will certainly not enter it. And having embraced them, he was blessing and placing his hands upon them” – (Parallel – Matthew 19:13-15, Luke 18:15-17).
In first-century Jewish society, children had few if any rights and no legal standing. They were the most insignificant members of the family unit. To receive the kingdom like a child meant to receive it as a gift. And the one who does so receive it has no legal standing in the kingdom. A child enters the kingdom as one who is weak, small, and without power or possessions. He or she has nothing on which to base a claim to citizenship in God’s realm.
And here, the present and future aspects of the kingdom as presented by Jesus. One receives it now but enters the kingdom later. It is both a present reality and a future promise. It is received in part by faith in the present, but it will not be consummated until some point in the future.