MARK 10:2-9. IS IT LAWFUL FOR A MAN TO DIVORCE HIS WIFE?
2Pharisees came to him testing (Greek: peirazontes) him, and asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3He answered, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a certificate of divorce to be written, and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart, he wrote you this commandment. 6But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. 7For this cause a man will leave his father and mother, and will join to his wife, 8and the two will become one flesh, so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.9What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
The location is “into the borders of Judea beyond the Jordan” (v. 1)—most likely Perea, the territory of Herod Antipas. Antipas earlier divorced his wife, Aretus, to marry Herodias, who had been the wife of Antipas’ brother. John the Baptist’s criticism of that marriage led to his beheading (6:18-29). The Pharisees’ surely understand that if they can get Jesus to condemn divorce, Antipas and Herodias might well rid them of his troublesome presence. Mark has already told us that Herod is aware of Jesus and believes that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead (6:14-16).
“Pharisees came to him testing (peirazontes) him, and asked him” (v. 2). Mark establishes at the outset that the Pharisees are testing (peirazontes) Jesus. Mark uses this same word, peirazontes, to speak of Satan tempting/testing Jesus in the wilderness (1:12-13). There are frequent mentions in the Bible of God testing people (Exodus 15:25; 16:4; 20:20; Deuteronomy 8:2, 16; 13:3; etc.), but there is a difference between God’s testing and the Pharisees’ testing. The difference is that God tests people hoping that they will pass the test while the Pharisees test Jesus hoping that he will fail the test.
This is just one of a series of incidents in which the Pharisees spark conflict with Jesus. They questioned Jesus’ practices (2:16) and those of his disciples (2:24; 7:5). They conspired with the Herodians to destroy Jesus (3:6). They asked for a sign to test Jesus (8:11). Jesus warned the disciples about the Pharisees and Herod (8:15).
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (v. 2). The Pharisees hope to get Jesus to commit himself to one side of this controversy, thereby alienating the other side. The school of Shammai interprets Deuteronomy 24 to mean that a man may divorce his wife only in the case of adultery. The school of Hillel interprets the same passage to mean that a man may divorce his wife for nearly any fault that he might find in her, and divorce for trivial reasons is common. Note that the man is allowed to divorce his wife but not vice versa. Women are treated as their husbands’ property, and have few legal rights. The consequences of divorce for a wife are often devastating. Women have few options to support themselves. Some divorced wives can attract a suitor, but many cannot.
Jesus answered, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a certificate of divorce to be written, and to divorce her” (vv. 3-4). The Pharisees are referring to Deuteronomy. 24, which says:
“When a man takes a wife, and marries her, then it shall be, if she find no favor in his eyes, because he has found some unseemly thing in her, that he shall write her a bill of divorce, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. When she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. If the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorce, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, who took her to be his wife; her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before Yahweh: and you shall not cause the land to sin, which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
Note that this passage does not grant a man permission to divorce his wife, but simply describes without condemnation a situation where the man has already done so. The emphasis is not on granting the husband permission to divorce but rather on prohibiting him from remarrying an ex-wife who has married another man. The certificate of divorce provides the divorced wife with legal protection and the right to remarry. Note further that this passage shows no condemnation of the divorced wife’s second marriage.
“For your hardness of heart, he wrote you this commandment” (v. 5). The fact that Torah law permits something doesn’t mean that God approves of it. Divorce is simply the lesser of two evils—an escape hatch to reduce the destructive effects of a hard heart. Annulment may differ from divorce in a technical sense, but it too is made necessary by hardness of heart. However, note that Jesus does not declare the Deuteronomy passage invalid.
“But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female” (v. 6). Jesus moves the discussion from Deuteronomy to Genesis—from Moses to God—from divorce to marriage—from that which is permitted to that which is intended. He does not contest that Deuteronomy 24 permits divorce, but says that Moses made the allowance as a concession to our “hardness of heart”—our sinful nature. Jesus does not argue with Moses, but instead moves to an even more foundational authority, citing Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to establish God’s original intent that the man and woman become “one flesh.”
“For this cause a man will leave his father and mother, and will join to his wife, and the two will become one flesh, so that they are no longer two, but one flesh” (vv. 7-8). The term, “one flesh,” suggests sexual union, but Jesus clearly means that such union points to an even deeper and more enduring relationship created by God.
“What therefore God has joined together, (synezeuxen) let no man separate” (v. 9). The word synezeuxen means joined together or yoked together, and brings to mind a pair of oxen who are joined together with a wooden yoke. Yoked oxen can accomplish tasks that would be too much for a single animal, but they must work in harmony. If one were to carry a grudge, not only would their work performance suffer, but both oxen would suffer as well.
Jesus uses the image of a yoke as a metaphor for marriage. He says that marriage reflects God’s creativity. In a Godly marriage, God brings the man and woman together, joining them—yoking them so that their lives might bless each other and their community. No one is authorized to disrupt that Godly union.
However, not all marriages are made in heaven. As I was working on this commentary, I happened across a story of a jail break by two murderers. One was good looking and charming, so that he had no trouble wooing and winning a wife. However, during their marriage he committed a whole host of crimes, including multiple murders, and ended up with a life-sentence in prison. That is an extreme example, but there are many lesser examples of marriages not made in heaven. Has God joined together such people? If not, what would be the ramifications for divorce?
MARK 10:10-12. WHOEVER DIVORCES HIS WIFE
10In the house, his disciples asked him again about the same matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife, and marries another, commits adultery against her. 12If a woman herself divorces her husband, and marries another, she commits adultery.”
“In the house, his disciples asked him again about the same matter” (v. 10). The venue changes to a house where Jesus’ disciples can talk with him privately. We should not consider it remarkable that they would ask again about this matter, because Jesus’ teaching in verses 5-9 constitutes a significant change in the easy divorce policy that prevails in that culture. This asking again by the disciples suggests that Jesus’ departure from the norm has such significant implications that the disciples want to be sure that they heard him correctly.
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (v. 11). This is a dramatic statement in a patriarchal culture that does not acknowledge adultery as an offense against women. To the extent that a man’s adultery is considered an offense, it is against the wife’s father, with whom the groom originally contracted the marriage, rather than against the wife.
“If a woman herself divorces her husband, and marries another, she commits adultery” (v. 12). Most scholars say that Jewish women were not free to divorce their husbands, so that verse 12 must reflect practices within Roman culture at the time that this Gospel was written. However, Herodias divorced her husband to marry Herod Antipas, and the Mishnah grants women the right to divorce their husbands under certain exceptional circumstances, such as impotence (Edwards, 304).
In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, Jesus makes an exception for the person who divorces an unchaste spouse. It may be that Matthew, written years after Mark’s Gospel, adds the unchastity exception because of the struggles of the early church with this issue.
Also instructive is Paul’s advice to believers married to unbelievers. The believer should continue in the marriage if the unbelieving partner is willing. “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you” (1 Corinthians 7:15). If there is any question about the meaning of the word, “bound,” Paul clarifies it later in the chapter. “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39).
Is Jesus condemning all who divorce and remarry? Verses 11-12 certainly give that impression. However, it is interesting to compare these verses with the “You have heard that it was said…. But I tell you…” passages in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ words there are equally strict with regard to anger (Matthew 5:21-26), adultery (Matthew 5:27-30), divorce (Matthew 5:31-32), oaths (Matthew 5:33-37) retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42), and enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).
Taking just the first of these as an example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not murder;’ and ‘Whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment.’ But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna” (Matthew 5:21-22)—and then Jesus tells us to seek reconciliation.
However, many of us have a Christian brother or sister to whom we are not reconciled. Does that mean that we are utterly condemned? And what about the equally high standards with regard to adultery (lust = adultery), divorce, oaths, retaliation, and enemies? Is Jesus establishing a new and even more impossible law to replace the already impossible Mosaic law?
Rather than establishing hopelessly high standards, Jesus is calling us to a purposely high vision. He wants us to conduct ourselves in keeping with God’s will so that we might be a blessing to our families, our neighbors, and ourselves. However, when we fail to keep his perfect standards perfectly, our failures remind us that our only hope is and always was Jesus—the cross and open tomb—forgiveness. If this is true for anger, adultery, oaths, retaliation, and enemies, it must also be true for divorce. As Jesus says later in this chapter in response to the disciples’ question, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus says “With men it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God” (10:27).
We are always tempted to view Jesus’ words about divorce through a legalistic lens, as if Jesus has divided the world into three camps: (1) those whose original marriages are intact, and who are thus free from sin. (2) those who are divorced, and who have thus failed to meet God’s expectations. (3) those who are divorced and remarried, and who are thus living in a state of perpetual adultery. However:
• An intact marriage proves neither that the marriage partners are sinless nor that they are less sinful than a couple that has divorced. Is an intact but abusive marriage any less sinful than a broken marriage? “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Our only hope, single, married or divorced, is the grace of God.
• We need to guard against adopting the same legalistic framework as the Pharisees, a framework that Jesus repeatedly refused to accept. In verses 6-9, Jesus moves the discussion away from legal considerations and toward a vision of God’s intention. Verses 11-12 appear legalistic, but Jesus neither issues edicts against divorce nor pronounces woes on those who divorce and remarry.
• Many divorced people had little or no choice in their divorce—the notion that there is no innocent party in a divorce is highly questionable. Some people marry the wrong person (philanderer, abuser, addict, etc.), and it is all downhill from there. We must be careful not to treat the consequences of their initial poor choice as the unforgivable sin.
• The hardness of heart that caused Moses not to close the door absolutely on divorce (Deuteronomy 24 simply curbs some of the worst abuses)—was still a fact of life in Jesus’ day and is a fact of life yet today.
As divorce has swept scythe-like through our world, the church has been guilty of three errors.
• One has been to adopt a legalistic stance that offers no grace to a divorced person.
• The second has been to buy in too easily to the popular culture —to fail to call people to faithfulness to God’s intent, which is marriage to one spouse “until death do us part.”
• The third is to fail to emphasize to young people that it is important for Christians to marry Christians. That idea fails the test of Politically Correctness but has solid Old Testament roots (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4; 1 Chronicles 23:22; Ezra 9:1-2; Ezra 9:12; Nehemiah 10:3; 13:26-27; Malachi 2:11). The New Testament teaches it explicitly (1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14). Marriage between Christians will not guarantee a good marriage, but it will give the couple a common faith, a common vision and a common Lord. As someone has said, “The family that prays together stays together.” While not true in every case, couples who worship together are more likely to stay together than those who don’t.
MARK 10:13-16. PEOPLE WERE BRINGING TO HIM LITTLE CHILDREN
13They were bringing to him little children, that he should touch them, but the disciples rebuked those who were bringing them. 14But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation, and said to them, “Allow the little children to come to me! Don’t forbid them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15Most certainly I tell you, whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, he will in no way enter into it.” 16He took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
“They were bringing to him little children, that he should touch them” (v. 13a). In that time and place, children had very little status. In that sense, they were like many of the other people or marginal status (lepers, women, tax collectors) whom Jesus favored.
People had brought sick people so that Jesus might touch and heal them (3:10; 8:22). They had sought to touch even his clothing that they might be healed (5:28; 6:56). Now they bring children, not for healing, but for blessing. Who can guess what wonderful thing might happen to a child at the touch of a great man.
“but the disciples rebuked those who were bringing them” (v. 13b). Having no status or power, children can contribute nothing to Jesus’ movement. They are neither worthy opponents nor worthy disciples. Their playfulness can quickly turn disruptive. Who can tell when a child might cry or fight the parent’s restraining grip? Better that children be kept in the background where they belong! The disciples speak sternly—Don’t disturb the teacher! Shh! The only surprise is that we have so recently seen Jesus take a little child in his arms, saying, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but him who sent me” (9:37). Didn’t the disciples have ears to hear? Eyes to see?
“But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation” (v. 14a). No wonder! Jesus healed a leper, a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, a demoniac, a little girl and a woman, a Gentile woman’s daughter, a deaf man, a blind man, and a little boy. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, and took a child in his arms. He said, “If any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all” (9:35). Everything in his ministry has pointed to his devotion to the powerless and vulnerable, but the disciples have missed the point.
“Allow the little children to come to me! Don’t forbid them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Most certainly I tell you, whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, he will in no way enter into it” (vv. 14-15). What is there about a child that fits him or her for the kingdom of God? The answer is to be found in the way that children receive the kingdom—as a gift. They are dependent on the Father. They come with empty hands and trusting hearts. They are totally dependent on God’s grace, and that is the only way to receive God’s kingdom.
“He took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands on them” (v. 16). Only Mark includes this lovely grace note (see Matthew 18:1-5; Luke 9:46-48). The parents brought the children to Jesus for a blessing, and he blessed them. Jesus taught those who needed teaching, fed those who needed feeding, and healed those who needed healing. Now he blesses those who need blessing.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan