Can I divorce? Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – Mk 10:2-16

Can I divorce? Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – Mk 10:2-16

Jesus’ ministry shifts from the north to the area of Jerusalem in the south. This region was known as Perea. This was on the other side of Jordan from where He had been at Peter’s home in Capernaum. Jesus was to minister there until leaving for Jerusalem shortly before Passion. Scripture tells us that as was his custom, HE TAUGHT.

Once again the Pharisees come to trap Jesus with the hope to publicly discredit his ministry. The question and place chosen is so cleverly crafted that to the bystander this would seem like just an innocent query. But it was not, it was loaded and deadly.

The question concerned the “lawfulness for a man to divorce his wife.” There could be nothing more controversial that this question in Perea which was ruled by Herod Antipas. It was he who had imprisoned John the Baptist for his views on divorce and remarriage (6:17-18) for Herod had married Herodias, his brother’s wife. If Jesus spoke against divorce, it would make Him look bad to Herod.

The Pharisees no doubt hoped such a fate would befall Jesus.  But the issue of divorce  was also   a volatile one in first-century Judaism .There were two schools of thought, one allowing divorce for virtually any reason, the other denying divorce except on grounds of adultery (see note on Matt. 19:3). The Pharisees undoubtedly expected Jesus to take one side, in which case He would lose the support of the other faction. They hoped that the resulting loss of popularity would make it easier for them to destroy Him.

Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. What did Moses command? He goes to the law because he was aware of how the Pharisees and Scribes had twisted the law (Mat 15). Jesus set the proper ground rules for the discussion. The issue was not rabbinical interpretations, but the teaching of Scripture. The Pharisees were forced to concede, that the law nowhere commanded divorce. The passage in question, Deut. 24;1-4, recognized the ‘reality of divorce’ and sought to protect the wife’s rights and reputation and also regulated remarriage. It also prohibited the remarriage of a woman AFTER HER SECOND MARRIAGE has ended.

The problem was that the grounds for divorce in Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 were stated vaguely as “some indecency in her”. Many people took advantage of the provision and made for special cases and decide that they could divorce for any reason at all .This vagueness led to many a Rabbinic debate. The Pharisees don’t come to Jesus with the question about the ‘procedure of divorce’ but with its legality. This was designed to trap Him. Either way Jesus would have answered, someone would be unhappy.

In answering Jesus, the Pharisees take refuge behind the “Bill of divorce” permitted by Moses: In this document, the husband was required to state the reason for the divorce, thus protecting the wife’s reputation (if she were, in fact, innocent of wrongdoing). It also served as her formal release from the marriage, and affirmed her right to remarry (assuming she was not guilty of immorality).

The liberal wing of the Pharisees had misconstrued Deut. 24 to be teaching that divorce was “permitted” for any cause whatsoever (citing as legitimate grounds such trivial events as the wife’s ruining dinner or the husband’s simply finding a more desirable woman), providing the proper legal paperwork was done. They thus magnified a detail, mentioned merely in passing, into the main emphasis of the passage.

Jesus is clear, this was not Gods plan and was Moses doing only because of “the hardness of their hearts”. The hardness of the heart refers to the flagrant, unrepentant pursuit of sexual immorality – divorce was to be a last resort in dealing with such hard-heartedness. The Pharisees mistook God’s gracious provision in permitting divorce (under certain circumstances) for His ordaining of it.

For God, divorce formed no part of His original plan for marriage. Jesus took the issue beyond mere rabbinical quibbling over the technicalities of divorce to God’s design for marriage. The passage Christ quotes (Gen. 2:24) presents 3 reasons for the inviolability of marriage:

(1) God created only two humans (see note on verse 6), not a group of males and females who could configure as they please or switch partners as it suited them;

(2) The word translated “become one” literally means “to be joined” or “to glue,” thus reflecting the strength of the marriage bond;

(3) In God’s eyes a married couple is “one flesh,” forming an indivisible union, manifesting that oneness in a child.

To these, Jesus added a fourth reason for the inviolability of marriage: God ordains marriages and thus they are not to be broken by man. Each should seek the happiness of his partner before his own. There is nothing more wonderful than a marriage where two people love each other and love God, but there is nothing worse than a bad marriage. The “man’ in question here, is the husband and not some third party judge. Since according to Deut 24: 1-4 only the husband could initiate and carry out the procedure, there was no need for a third party.

In the house the disciples seek a clarification and Jesus plainly teaches that whoever divorces his wife and marries commits adultery against her. This teaching seems to forbid POLYGAMY rather than marriage after divorce.  But it also shows that wives and husbands have equal rights in divorce. She is the sinner if she puts away her husband, and he is guilty if he puts away his wife.

Fr Warner Dsouza

With plenty of inputs from The Jerome Biblical commentary and Bible Study online.

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