Mark 10:1–12—On divorce and marriage

1 Then Jesus left Capernaum and went southward to the region of Judea and into the area east of the Jordan River. As always there were the crowds, and as usual he taught them. 2 Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” 3 “What did Moses say about divorce?” Jesus asked them.
4 “Well, he permitted it,” they replied. “He said a man merely has to write his wife an official letter of divorce and send her away.” 5 But Jesus responded, “He wrote those instructions only as a concession to your hard-hearted wickedness. 6 But God’s plan was seen from the beginning of creation, for ‘He made them male and female.’ 7 ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, 8 and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, 9 let no one separate them, for God has joined them together.” 10 Later, when he was alone with his disciples in the house, they brought up the subject again. 11 He told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. 12 And if a woman divorces her husband and remarries, she commits adultery.”

Points of Interest:

  • ‘tried to trap him’—What is the trap the Pharisees have set? The last time we heard about divorce, it was regarding Herod and Herodias’ marriage. John the Baptist was thrown in jail and eventually beheaded for calling their marriage unlawful. Undoubtedly, John criticized Herod’s marriage because it involved an affair with his brother’s wife as well as divorce. Nonetheless, the Pharisees are trying to lure Jesus on to dangerous ground—the last prophet who spoke up about divorce was killed. If Jesus answers as strongly as John, he may put himself in danger also. If he doesn’t, the Pharisees can criticize him for softening his response for political reasons.
  • ‘a man merely has to write his wife an official letter of divorce’—In Jewish culture, only the man had the right to divorce. Moses’ law about an official letter was actually a legal protection for women. Before Moses’ law, husbands would dismiss wives, denying them any support, but the wives were still legally contracted to the husbands and couldn’t marry anyone else. This official letter would allow the woman the chance to start again rather than being a lonely outcast for her whole life.
  • ‘God’s plan was seen from the beginning’—While the Pharisees question focuses on what is allowed, Jesus re-frames the discussion on what is best. He quotes the book of Genesis 1: 27 and 2: 24 which describe the relationships between humans and God and men and women as they are supposed to be: both men and women are created in the image of God; and they are meant to be partners to one another. Divorce is a separation, a sending away. Marriage is supposed to be about joining together. The Pharisees treat divorce almost flippantly: it’s merely a matter of writing a letter. Jesus doesn’t want divorce to be trivialized in this way. He presents it as what many of us have experienced it to be: a marriage gone horribly, painfully wrong.
  • ‘send her away’—Jesus speaks so strongly against divorce because so often it comes from the exact opposite spirit to the one he was recommending in the previous teaching. Jesus tells us to judge ourselves and be at peace with others. Especially in a situation in which only the man had the ability to begin divorce proceedings, divorce lends itself toward being at peace with oneself and judging others. Jesus recommends that we cut off our own hand if it causes us to sin; these divorced men were instead cutting off their wives. Of course, situations like abuse, infidelity, or being rejected by your spouse require more sensitive, complex treatment; and the Bible does indeed discuss some of these more complex divorce situations elsewhere. In this passage, however, Jesus strongly warns us against putting off the blame for a failed marriage on our spouses. So often, in the midst of a fight, it is easy to be at peace with ourselves and judge the other. A situation of divorce can often be an entire relationship—and our most intimate relationship—in which each is judging the other and absolving himself or herself. It’s tempting to think that sending one another away would be the easiest thing. Jesus responds that it will only create a tearing apart and more hardship. It’s far better, early on, to cut off the things that cause you to sin against your spouse.
  • ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery’—this verse is very sobering, and it should give any of us pause before we divorce and re-marry. It may be helpful, though, in understanding what Jesus means to think of the Herod and Herodias situation in the backdrop. Herod and Herodias were both married to other people but conducting a very famous affair. Then, they each dropped their spouses (as a cosmopolitan aristocrat Herodias, though a woman, could get away with it) and married one another. They had treated their previous marriages as temporary and disposable. Jesus is saying here that the legally covering for their actions doesn’t change the reality: they had wronged their previous spouses, and their previous spouses still had a better claim on them. Divorce does not legitimize unfaithfulness.
  • ‘And if a woman divorces her husband and remarries, she commits adultery’—Jesus here equalizes the relationship between women and men. The woman has the same rights, the same choices, and the same responsibility as the man.

Taking it Home:

  • For you: Not many of us in our society have escaped being intimately affected by divorce. Jesus speaks some hard words here about divorce which ought to be taken seriously. At the same time, it is extremely important to know that Jesus’ grace extends over divorce also. Divorce isn’t blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-29, done on March 16th); Jesus has the authority and the willingness to forgive any sins we have done associated with it. If this teaching on divorce has struck you hard, you may want to talk more about your thoughts and feelings with a trusted follower of Jesus. Perhaps you need to ask God’s forgiveness for ways you have blamed your spouse and been at peace with yourself—whether that has led to divorce or not. You may also want to ask Jesus for healing for the way you were ‘sent away,’ either by your former spouse, or by your parents if you are a child of divorced parents.
  • For your 6: For any of your 6 who are affected by divorce, ask for healing and forgiveness for them. Pray against the power of divorce to continue to harm them, and pray against it being a barrier to them seeking Jesus.
  • For our church: Pray that God will bless and protect the marriages in our church. Ask God to give all of us who are married the ability to love our spouses well and the life-giving experience of being two united as one.