Comments, Questions and Observations
Even with the inclusion of verses 13-16 in this week’s selection, there’s no getting around the topic of divorce that dominates verses 2-12. No matter whether or not divorce is considered a “state of sin” in your church, there will be people listening who have been impacted by divorce—their own, or that of someone they love—making it even more important to be as clear and careful as possible in what we communicate. Though it seems to be easier than ever to get divorced, for many, it is not a decision made lightly or flippantly.
In the Word Biblical Commentary’s volume on this passage, Craig Evans argues that it is possible that the Pharisees were intentionally baiting Jesus with this question, hoping that Jesus would say something that would get him in enough hot water to make the government take action. What would the government care about Jesus’ opinions about divorce? Well, remember what eventually led to John the Baptist’s beheading? It had a lot to do with the way he spoke against Herodias and Herod Antipas’ relationship (Herodias and Antipas divorced their spouses so that they could marry each another). Now consider verses 11 and 12, where Jesus says that if a man divorces a woman so he can marry another, he is committing adultery; he then adds that if a woman does likewise, she too is committing adultery. Adding the comment about a woman also being guilty could be Jesus alluding to Herodias and Antipas’ situation, a real life and well-known situation at that time. If this was playing out on twitter today, Jesus would be subtweeting: talking about a lesson we can all learn from a specific situation without actually identifying the people originally involved.
But even if Jesus is using a real situation, his meaning still applies more broadly to everyone, since the sin at the heart of Herodias and Herod Antipas’ affair is a well-worn path for lots of married men and women. At its essence, adultery is actively seeking something you want to have or feel, with a person that you are not meant to have or feel that connection with; in other words, adultery is a form of lust.
Back to what’s happening between the Pharisees and Jesus. Even if this is a trap, it is also a test: the Pharisees hold a position on what is right and wrong when it comes to divorce, and they are testing Jesus and his adherence to Moses’ instructions in Deuteronomy 24.1-4. Does Jesus allow what Moses allows? Moses was the highest authority for the Pharisees, the buck stopped there.
Underlying their question about divorce are a lot of assumptions. Foremostly, the Pharisees seemed to have come to assume that if Moses allowed it, it must be in accordance with God’s will. But, as Craig Evans describes it, Jesus gives them a hermeneutics lesson: just because an accommodation is made and something is permitted, that does not make that thing part of God’s will. In the case of divorce, God may have had Moses make it possible for his community, when necessary, to divorce, but that doesn’t mean that God designed divorce to be the way it should be. Unity is the way God means it to be.
Looking for the loopholes for when it’s okay to forsake one’s spouse, the Pharisees have lost for the forest for the trees. Very similar to the way Reformed theologians talked about one use of the law being a protectant and preserver of human life and dignity (telling us what we should not do to each other), Jesus explains that divorce has been allowed by God because of our sinfulness (i.e., hardness of heart) and possibly even as a protectant and preserver of life.
This is a fundamental shift in viewpoint. Instead of talking about divorce, Jesus is ultimately saying, we should be talking about marriage… Let’s do something before there’s a problem.
Sometimes, interpreters believe that this passage is teaching that divorce is a “perpetual state of sin” (a form of adultery). Maybe; honestly, I’m not so sure. But I do think, however, that implied in Jesus’ words is a reminder that marriages themselves can be in “perpetual states of sin” and harm, one partner against another or both against each other. Hardened hearts are obstinate and sinful, and that’s the state of, in part, each and every one of our hearts and what we bring to our relationships. Remember, Jesus told the crowds that purity started within their hearts. The second use of the law is to restrain evil, and sometimes that means divorce is necessary. That’s what God made possible through the “loophole” established by Moses, but that isn’t what God had in mind as the way to flourishing; sometimes, it’s a necessary act of protection.
What Jesus is arguing here is that the practice of focusing on what’s okay or not okay, what fits the letter of the law or acceptably fits through the loophole, has lost sight of the larger picture. If we’re asking and talking about separating, it’s already too late. Instead of sitting around and thinking about hypothetical scenarios for divorce, Jesus urges us, focus on the constructive aim of God’s design for marriage: unity, two becoming one, being committed to one another in mutual Christlike love and service.
We’ve got a long way to go to regain this sort of flourishing focus. Often, we’re still looking for a set of rules—a clear line to be on the correct side of when the “marking” takes place. A colleague of mine once remarked that the question they get asked all the time from congregants concerned what sexual acts were okay for them to do as married couples… Yes or no; okay or not okay; loopholes. But it’s broader too. Conversations about gender roles and expectations can easily become the source of a set of rules and a mold we force ourselves and each other to fill.
Forcing the fit, by the way, is NOT the way God pursues shalom. God’s flourishing only comes when we live within the freedom from and to sin that Jesus provides; this is true for ourselves as well as others, and this is true for our marriages as much as it is true for any other facet of our lives. Jesus’ commentary and explanation for the disciples shows that divorce is what happens when people are enslaved to sin. In this case it’s adultery, but it could just as easily be anger, gluttony, apathy, pride, low self-esteem, any of the vices, really. Perpetual states of sin…But the thing about the good news of Jesus Christ is that we are not enslaved forever. There is freedom from our sins and habits of sin. We are sinners, but we are forgiven by the work of Christ and given the Holy Spirit to guide us in putting on Christlikeness. We can confess our sins and repent by living more in alignment with God’s will, which includes seeking the flourishing of the union bond of our marriages, whether it’s the first time, or any of the times thereafter. Though it isn’t a guarantee that things will be “rainbows and butterflies,” by keeping the aim on union and on coming together as God created us to do, we won’t be controlled by our impulses towards harm and sin, but might experience the very hand of God joining us to another human being for love, and belonging in marriage.
In verse 13, the disciples “spoke sternly” or “rebuked” the people who brought children to encounter Jesus. That Greek word communicates disapproval and a desire to prevent an action; there is no sense of whether their motives are right or wrong. However, in verse 14, Jesus goes a step further than rebuking, he is “indignant.” Indignant carries the connotation that what Jesus is angry about is very wrong, and the disciples are wrong for doing it. Of course, we don’t really need the definitions of the Greek words to know the difference between their angers and what each was trying to protect.
However, Jesus’ indignancy takes on some more heft when we remember that we were here before with the disciples. A couple of weeks ago, in Mark 9.30-37, Jesus told them where children (and people like children—without status or rights or power) belong: anywhere he is. In fact, they were part of last week’s teaching too, when they were told to not put any blocks between a child and Jesus and yet, here they are, literally being the stumbling block! So yes, Jesus is indignant because the disciples ought to know by now that what they are doing is wrong.
If you’re going to focus on this section, I’d suggest reading the two commentaries linked above for the main points about what it means to be like a child. I also suggest adding these three verses to next week’s sermon, since the Kingdom of God is a key theme in the pericope about the rich man.
Do you remember this meme from a number of years ago? It’s from a short film by Jason Headley. A couple are sitting on the couch and he wants to solve the problem right in front of them… She exasperatingly says, “It’s not about the nail! I just need you to listen!”
Jesus is saying, “It’s not about the nail!” to the Pharisees and anyone else who will listen. It’s not about divorce! I need you to understand that this is about marriage.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 3, 2021
Mark 10:2-16 Commentary