Mark 10: 1 – 12 Divorce
Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’
‘What did Moses command you?’ he replied.
They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.’
‘It was because your hearts are hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied. ‘But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female”. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.’
* * *
“Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ ”
I wonder if this was a controversial topic at the time. John the Baptist had been imprisoned and killed for his stand against the sexual immorality of Herod (see Mark 6: 14 – 29). Perhaps the Pharisees were hoping to lure Jesus into a similar position?
Jesus, however, sees an opportunity for teaching the crowds about the difference between God’s way and man’s way:
“ ‘What did Moses command you?’ he replied.”
He requires them to state their understanding of divorce before he will answer their question.
“They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.’ ”
There was nothing politically contentious about this answer. They would have felt on safe ground if they were trying to trap Jesus.
Jesus, though, has exposed their hypocrisy.
“ ‘It was because your hearts are hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ ” he said.
Jesus then contrasts the tradition of the Pharisees with God’s intention for marriage. “ ‘But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female”. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ ”
Jesus is very firm on this. Furthermore, when the disciples ask him again in private, he repeats the teaching even more firmly. He leaves no doubt that it’s black and white. If you divorce and remarry you are committing adultery.
My personal experience
I have been married for forty-six years. It is a glad and joyful marriage, and we love each other dearly. We have had difficulties, of course, but we have worked through them together.
My difficulties with this teaching
The teaching assumes that gender is strictly binary. However, in practice this doesn’t seem to be the case.
The teaching assumes that sexual attraction is always between a man and a woman. However, in practice this doesn’t seem to be the case.
What is the truth of this teaching?
- Perhaps most likely is that I am completely wrong, and that sufficient faith in God’s grace through Jesus is enough to resolve the difficulty (please, if you’re non-binary or gay, bear with me and keep reading. I’m aware of the incredible difficulty of doing what I’m saying.)
- We’ll rule out the possibility that Jesus gave wrong teaching.
- Jesus’ teaching has been misunderstood/misrepresented by the writers of the gospels or the early church fathers.
I feel very arrogant when I include point 3, that the teaching has been misunderstood. Many Christians, including scholars, professional theologians and deeply devout ordinary people believe in the inerrant truth of the bible. However, in questioning this I am in the company of many others.
There are few records in the gospels of Jesus condemning sinners. There are many records of Jesus making people whole.
Furthermore, St John records that Jesus said, “I am come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
And St Matthew tells us that Jesus said that the most important commandments are, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Matthew 22: 37 – 39)
Although Jesus demands the whole of a person’s loyalty and commitment, there are plenty of biblical examples where he recognises and accepts normal day to day life. Examples are the much-married Samaritan woman; Martha and Mary’s household; the wedding at Cana in Galilee; dining with tax collectors and sinners. Not merely does he accept it, he gives the impression of rejoicing in it.
Yes, he has disciples who give up everything to follow him; yes, he tells us that we must be prepared to give up everything worldly – including life – if he calls on us to do so. But to leave daily life behind is a minority calling, not the norm.
How does this apply to gay marriage and non-binary people?
In marriage, two people commit to love each other and to be faithful to each other. They can raise children together. They occupy a definite social role that builds the strength of a community. This model is good for the community and good for the couple.
The model can work for gay people just as it does for straight people. I know several couples who are faithfully living out gay marriages.
The model can work for transgender people too. A transman or transwoman can be the faithful, loving spouse of either a man or woman, depending on their sexuality. The key is honesty, respect, love and commitment between the partners; in other words, the serious intention to live as a married couple.
Why does this matter?
It matters because being gay is not a choice; being trans is not a choice. People are born this way. To be deprived of living in the most meaningful relationship open to human beings is a great cruelty. To be deprived of living authentically as the person you truly are is a great cruelty. I don’t believe it’s what God wants.
And listen to what it says in Genesis:
“But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.” (Genesis 2: 20 – 21)
The reason God created woman was that she should be a “helper” for the man; it was not primarily for reproduction.
Back to the teaching of Jesus
Today’s passage arose from a question posed by the Pharisees. Jesus exposed their hardness of heart and their hypocrisy. Jesus’ teaching on marriage was intended to show that we must all take it very seriously. If you marry, you should be planning for a lifelong partnership.
Thank you for the love my wife and I have shared for nearly fifty years. Please let that love be fruitful in helping to realise your plan.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.