A tortuous theme in tomorrow’s Lectionary Gospel reading. I hope I’ve done it justice and remembered hurting people at the same time. See what you think.
I am a guilty party in an adulterous relationship.
At least I am, according to many Christians. Many Christians
take the teaching of Jesus in Mark 10 at face value and speak of marriage as
being ‘indissoluble’. Even divorce does not end the marriage in the sight of
God. And in case you didn’t know, my wife Debbie is previously divorced, and
her first husband is still alive.
So today in taking the Lectionary Gospel reading I have to
confront a Bible passage that could even challenge the validity of my own
And this subject probably affects us all. We may have gone
through a divorce. We may have remarried, or we may be considering it. If we
haven’t, then given the high number of divorces in our society, it has almost
certainly touched us in some other way. A family member or a friend will have
been through the pain of a broken marriage.
How can Christians respond? We can go to one of two equally
unhelpful extremes, if we are not careful. At the one extreme we so uphold the
sanctity of marriage that we say hurtful things to those who have split up from
their spouses. I once met a couple before their wedding, where the bride was
previously divorced. Another church had refused to conduct her second marriage,
but rather than the vicar say, “I’m sorry, but out of conscience I can’t take
your wedding,” he told her, “You are damaged goods.”
At the other extreme we can be so enamoured of God’s
unconditional forgiving love in Christ that we fail to address brokenness and make
him sound like a God who doesn’t care about sin.
Somewhere, there has to be a different approach. And
contrary to the claims of some, I think we find it in this passage, and
especially when we combine it with Matthew’s account of this same incident.
But we can’t answer the question about divorce immediately.
First of all we have some context to set, because these words didn’t just drop
down from heaven to earth and appear ‘out of thin air’. There is some important
background. Secondly we’ll see that Jesus goes back to fundamental principles
about marriage. Then finally we’ll try to see where we might end up in terms of
a compassionate and principled Christian understanding of marriage and divorce.
The Lectionary starts at verse 2 of Mark 10. I began at
He left that place and went to the
region of Judea and beyond the Jordan.
He leaves Capernaum, goes
across the mountains of Samaria to Judea, on a
normal pilgrim’s route to Jerusalem, and ends up
beyond the Jordan
in Perea [William Lane, The Gospel Of Mark, p 353]. What’s significant about that?
It puts him in the territory
of Herod the tetrarch,
where John the Baptist conducted most of his ministry and condemned Herod and
Herodias for entering into an adulterous marriage. And you’ll recall John lost
his head for his troubles.
So now when the Pharisees come to test Jesus (verse 2) this
isn’t an idle academic debate: they are trying to trap him. If Jesus supports
his cousin John’s teaching then maybe Herod and Herodias will have him
executed, too. That would be neat: Jesus is disposed of politically, without
any need for religious hands to become ritually unclean. On the other hand, if
Jesus doesn’t agree with John then that undermines one or both of them. Either
Jesus is the moral compromiser, in which case why continue to listen to him, or
John was just over the top and his ministry should now be discredited. It’s
nasty and clever, isn’t it?
As a little secondary sideshow, the question of what was
allowable in terms of divorce was a debate between two different camps of
rabbis. Deuteronomy 24:1 allowed a man to divorce a woman if he found something
‘objectionable’ (or ‘shameful’ in other translations) about her. But what
constituted ‘objectionable’? To one school, the followers of Shammai, it had to
be something morally objectionable. But the followers of Hillel said it could
be anything that annoyed or embarrassed the husband [ibid.].
So these things are rarely a matter of theoretical ivory
tower debate. And they aren’t for us, either. Whenever we debate a sensitive
ethical or moral issue, one of the first things we need to remember is that
real people are involved. Real people with painful experiences. And real people
with deep convictions. That’s obvious with a matter like divorce, but it’s also
true of other issues. Childlessness in marriage; abortion; bioethics; medical
advances; euthanasia; we need to grapple with all of these in the Church, but
never forgetting that somewhere quietly and perhaps secretly the issue we are
talking about is being confronted by someone in our midst.
There’s an old saying about interpreting Bible verses: ‘a
text without a context is a pretext’. It’s something Christians are frequently
guilty of, including when dealing with this passage – they think it has
appeared out of thin air without the context we have just spoken about. It
makes for some disastrous Christianity at times.
And that is exactly what Jesus accuses the Pharisees of
doing here. You ask about divorce, he says? Well let’s go back to the
Scriptures: what about Moses (verse 3)? But they just give Jesus a wooden quote
(verse 4). You haven’t even got to the intention behind the text, said Jesus:
that wasn’t a command about divorce;
it was a permission, because human
sin causes so much pain in the world (verse 5).
So, says Jesus, you’ve really got to get down to first
principles. And that means going back to God’s original design for marriage in
Genesis. He quotes a little bit from Genesis 1 and a further text from Genesis
2 that becomes the key text for a Christian understanding of marriage. Jesus
says you’ve got to get back to these first principles before you can even begin
to consider the question of divorce. So what are Jesus’ first principles about
He begins by quoting Genesis 1:27:
God made them male and female.
Now without just lifting this to use as a battering-ram in
our contemporary arguments about homosexuality and civil partnerships –
although it clearly has something to say about that and Jesus does not envisage
marriage being anything other than between a man and a woman – the context here
is marriage and divorce. But Jesus wants to say something basic here: marriage
is about bringing the two different but complementary and equal sexes together,
each bringing a gift to the other and each receiving from the other. Marriage
is a mutual giving and receiving.
Then he cites Genesis 2:24:
For this reason a man shall leave his
father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one
This emphasises the maturity, commitment, unity and
faithfulness at the heart of godly marriage. Put all these things together and
you can see why marriage is more than a legal contract. It is a covenant. There
is a mutual commitment with blessings that follow as a result. There is
self-giving love, just like there is at the heart of God. There is unity – ‘one
flesh’ is not only a poetic description of the sexual aspect of marriage, it
signifies the heart of the relationship, that two become one. Richard Foster,
the great American writer on spirituality, says that love-making is ‘a
life-uniting act with life-uniting intent’. The Methodist Church
understands marriage as being between one man and one woman, with fidelity
within marriage and chastity outside.
And so Jesus says, in a statement that many have taken to
prove that in God’s eyes marriage cannot be dissolved (except by death),
Therefore what God has joined together,
let no one separate.
You’ve taken this step of marriage, says Jesus. God intended
it for life. It isn’t about whether or not marriage ‘works’ as many people are
wont to say. It isn’t that ‘we just drifted apart’. It isn’t that ‘things were
fine when we were living together, but the moment we got married everything
went wrong’. All these are false understandings of marriage. The Methodist
marriage service does not – contrary to popular myth – ask the bride and groom
to say ‘I do’. It asks them to say ‘I will’ – which is both a promise and an
act of will. The love at the heart of marriage will not always be something
spouses feel like giving. But it has been promised in a solemn oath and that
may mean love at times is an act of will, love through gritted teeth. There is
a saying that I find helpful: ‘It is not love that will keep your marriage
alive, it is marriage that will keep your love alive.’
What have we seen so far? Firstly, in terms of context we
must never discuss issues such as marriage and divorce in some detached way.
People with deep convictions and painful experiences are involved. Secondly, we
have seen that Jesus elevates marriage to an extremely high level: it is a
covenant commitment of unity and faithfulness. We are being taught to be both
compassionate and principled.
What, then, of Jesus’ very strong statements against
divorce? And how does that affect people like me, who are married to someone
who is previously divorced? How does it affect others of us who have faced
divorce and may have remarried? Are we condemned?
Note first of all that Jesus is addressing a culture where
only men could institute divorce. For him to say, ‘Therefore what God has
joined together, let no one separate’ is a warning against men who want to divorce easily – either for trivial reasons or
because they want to bail out like cowards. Although this statement sounds
harsh you could conceive this as a support for women in marriage.
And likewise when he says,
‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries
another commits adultery against her.’
Why? Because in Jewish Law an unfaithful husband wasn’t seen
as committing adultery against his own wife, only against the husband of the
woman with whom he slept. So Jesus here is striking a blow for the dignity and
equality of women in marriage. You are not the property of your husband, you
are an equal partner, is the implication of such teaching.
But then what about verse 12?
‘And if she divorces her husband and
marries another, she commits adultery.’
Doesn’t that mean that when Debbie married me she became an
adulteress, even though her first husband had broken his marriage vows?
This verse is not what it seems at first. For one thing,
remember what I said a minute ago that in the culture of Jesus’ place and time only
men could institute divorce. How then can Jesus speak of a woman divorcing her
husband? There are two possibilities, each one based on different manuscripts
we have of Mark’s Gospel.
The first is the text that says exactly this. The assumption
becomes that Mark or a later scribe adds these words for the Roman audience he
is writing to, thus making his own expansion of Jesus’ teaching to fit the
circumstances of Roman law, where a woman could bring divorce proceedings. However
that assumes that Jesus only wants to advocate marriage as an indissoluble
relationship, and I think I’ve indicated already that there is more here to
Jesus’ teaching than that.
The second possibility is based on an alternative manuscript
of Mark. It does not speak of a woman divorcing her husband but deserting him
for another man. This is exactly what Herodias had done in order to marry
Herod, and which John the Baptist had condemned. The fact that Herodias had
sent her first husband a letter of separation meant nothing. She had broken the
sacred bond of marriage.
Overall, then, Jesus’ teaching against divorce is there to
reinforce fidelity and to give dignity to those who are wronged. It is not in
the spirit of his teaching to condemn those who are the victims of
unfaithfulness. These are warnings for those tempted to err, not condemnations
for those living with vow-breakers.
And we can see this if we compare the fuller version of
Jesus’ teaching on this subject recorded in Matthew 19. There he allows a
specific exception for divorce, and that is what most English translations
render as ‘adultery’, but is a Greek word porneia
that means any kind of sexual immorality (Matthew 19:9). That which
fundamentally breaks the marriage covenant of unity and faithfulness is a
permissible ground for divorce, says Jesus. And in that sense I personally
would see such issues as violence in the same category.
Jesus teaches a high view of marriage. It is an exclusive
covenant between one man and one woman, calling for faithfulness within the
relationship and chastity outside it. This is God’s design from the beginning,
he says. His censures against divorce are intended to protect the weaker party
(women, in his culture) and those who would suffer as a result of one partner
breaking the marriage bond. The sinned-against are not condemned here, as we
In the Gospel there is healing for the wounded and
broken-hearted. There is a God who, in Jesus Christ, shows us that, however
other human beings may have betrayed us, he is constantly faithful. In him we
find hope, and he calls his people to model that faithful love, not only in
family life but also as we love the wounded.
What, then, of those who have caused the damage to spouses
and families? What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ say to them? There is a
clear call to repentance. And that means not only being sorry, but being sorry
enough to change. The form that repentance might take will vary according to
the current circumstances of both the unfaithful party and the one who has been
wronged, but at very least would probably include the Old Testament concept of
restitution. And so, to take just one example, there should certainly be no
argument about paying a fair maintenance sum.
But above all, let us pray for and give practical support to
those in our midst who are married; to those who suffer the ongoing pain of
divorce; to those who have lived through faithful marriages but now miss their
spouses; to those who are not married – some happy with that situation, others
not so; some who may yet marry and others who never will. For the love of God
in Christ makes each one dearly valued and esteemed by him.