2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But 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, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
Mark 10:2-12 – NRSV
When I wrote on 19th April about the Kingdom of God belonging to little children, I was asked whether we have to suffer abuse to enter the Kingdom. After I had given what in retrospect was rather a poor reply, I started to reflect on this further and found that the verses just ahead of the passage about little children provided the answer. As so often in Mark’s gospel, issues are set together for a reason.
It is often said that Jesus’s views about divorce are crystal clear, that there is only one interpretation: that those who divorce are adulterers, and should be denounced as such. As someone who has divorced and remarried, it makes for uncomfortable reading. But I want to suggest that the proximity of Jesus’s comments about divorce and his comments about little children are not an accident, but designed to underline his teaching, which may not be as clear as some would like to think. I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to make a case for divorce to be treated less seriously. Anyone who’s experienced it, knows how painful it is, for everyone concerned.
There are several clues that we may have misunderstood this passage. When Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, it’s odd, as under Jewish law at the time, if a man committed adultery, he was not considered to have offended against his own wife, but actually against her father and male relatives. It sounds outrageous to us, and it is, but the truth is that women in first century Palestine had no rights of their own at all. They could not be legally offended; only their male relatives who owned them could be. In suggesting that men divorcing their wives commit adultery against them, Jesus turns all Jewish law completely on its head, by suggesting that the wife had rights of her own. And he goes on to say that if the woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. The problem with this is that she didn’t have any legal right to divorce her husband. Only men could divorce, for almost any reason, even completely trivial ones.
We also need to be aware of how serious divorce was for women at the time. When you read the Old Testament, you become aware that widows are considered to be amongst the most vulnerable people in society. The reason was that women were totally dependent on their menfolk for survival. Without a man to support her, a woman who’d been bereaved, or worse still divorced, was in a very bad place indeed. Divorce brought shame to those involved, as it does to many to this day, but far more importantly, divorce for women in Jesus’ time meant almost certain destitution.
What Christ seems to be doing in wishing to grant women rights that we know that they didn’t have at the time, is to focus on the vulnerability of women in that situation and suggest that they needed protection. The force behind his teaching seems to be that treating women as possessions is actually blasphemous, in view of the fact that, as he puts it, ‘God made them male and female’. Both men and women are created by God and in his image.
So what’s the link between the story about divorce and the one about little children? It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that what Christ sees as similar is that a divorced woman and little children are both powerless, both absolutely vulnerable; both open to exploitation and abuse.
So what Jesus seems to be saying is that to reflect the values of the Kingdom of God, men cannot be preferred to women, adults cannot be preferred over children, the wealthy and the powerful cannot be preferred over the poor and the oppressed. In God’s Kingdom, God’s values of compassion for the powerless, the oppressed and the vulnerable hold sway over the brutal way that the world without God’s values functions – where those without influence go to the wall.
In God’s kingdom, those who are most vulnerable will not be discarded. In God’s kingdom, those without power and influence will not be ignored. In God’s kingdom, no-one will be rejected and abandoned by others. And in God’s kingdom, coming back to the issue of divorce, maybe we should accept that no-one will get locked into a loveless or abusive relationship, without hope and without end. This is not the same as condoning promiscuous relationships.
The message that we need to take about Jesus’s teaching on divorce and on little children is this: that in God’s kingdom, the vulnerable will not suffer.
Gracious Lord, the New Testament so often confirms that we should know naturally; your nature is to love the oppressed, the vulnerable and the rejected. Condition us, Lord, to accept this in our lives and not to distort your teaching in order to condemn others, in a way that you refused to do during your own time on earth. Amen