Jesus is not talking about divorce in the way we think

GOSPEL: Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] 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.”

When I was 7 or 8 years old, I remember the first one of my friends telling us that his parents were getting a divorce. It was a strange and complicated situation. Over the following weeks and months, he began living one week with his mom and the next week with his dad. And while there were two birthday parties, two thanksgivings, two Christmases, I could tell that having parents who didn’t live with each other anymore and having to move your whole life back and forth every Saturday was not something I would ever want. 

Fast forward to one day when I was 19 and working as a camp counsellor, we got a panicked call from the camp director during our hour off. We were needed to come and settle a group of unruly campers. The old pastor who was doing bible study with the group of high school aged campers, had gotten into a heated discussion with one teenaged girl over whether or not it was a good thing for her parents to divorce. He was insisting it was a sin. She was insisting that the fighting, and anger and frustration that was tearing apart her family had finally gone away once her parents separated and that this was a good thing. 

Despite being relatively common and something that many couples experience these days, divorce is still a word that carries stigma and shame. The wounds of divorce can be deep and slow to heal. 

So, when we hear Jesus offer some pretty strong words about divorce, it can sound like condemnation. “Because of the hardness of your heart.” he says… and yet ask anyone going through a divorce what their heart feels like and they will probably tell you the story of a heart being ripped to shreds, a wounded and broken heart. Not a hard one. 

So what is the deal? Doesn’t Jesus get how messy and complicated this is? Doesn’t God have compassion and mercy for two flawed people who don’t know how to find their way back to each other? Can’t Jesus see that sometimes a marriage needs to die for the individuals in it to live?

We can’t forget which Gospel we are reading today. This is the Jesus who has just called the Syrophoenician woman a dog, who has called Peter Satan, who has told John that it would be better if he were thrown into the ocean than get in the way of Jesus’ mission. 

Jesus in Mark’s gospel does not suffer fools and he doesn’t have time for people who don’t get it. 

So what are we not getting?

For a long time the church has used this passage to clobber anyone considering divorce. Pastors have told abused women that it would be a sin to leave their husband. We have told incompatible couples that they must continue to suffer together. The church has forbid divorce on any grounds, just like Jesus seems to be doing here. 

So again, what we are not getting that Jesus gets? The clue is in the in the question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Not is it lawful for a couple to get divorced, but for a MAN to do the divorcing. 

The Pharisees and Jesus are not talking about marriage as we know it. This is not about two people who enter into a loving covenant to share a life of love together. 

This is about the contract between a man and a woman’s father. This is about men buying women just like they would buy a cow or a sack of grain or a piece of land. 

In the world of the Pharisees, women were not people. They were property. Property whose function was to serve and provide pleasure for the man, and ultimately provide a male heir. And if these things were not provided whenever the man wanted them, this was grounds for divorce. In fact, pretty much any dissatisfaction was grounds for divorce.

All man had to do was say, “I divorce you.” and his wife was cast out of the marriage and onto the street, where her only two options were prostitution or begging for survival. 

So when Jesus calls the Pharisees hard of heart, he is speaking of a power imbalance in a contractual and economic relationship. Not hardness of heart between a modern husband and wife. 

Jesus is calling out the Pharisees for being selective in their reading of the law of Moses. They say that the legal procedure of divorce is simple. But they know that the law of Moses is full of concern for widows and destitute women. It was the duty of a widower’s brother to marry a widow. It was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. And if re-marrying was not possible for a widow, it was the duty of the community to care for her. The men harvesting fields were to leave a portion of the harvest behind to be gleaned and collected by the widows. It was a law that a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues and temple be given to the widows and poor. 

For a set of laws to be so concerned with the care of husbandless women in a community to make it so easy for a man to divorce his wife doesn’t make any sense… it is a deliberate misreading of the rules. 

And Jesus knows it. The Pharisees know it. The disciples know it. Mark knows it. 

It is why the passage about people bringing children to Jesus is tacked onto this passage about divorce. 

Jesus is calling the people around him to care for the weak and vulnerable among them. He is telling men that it is wrong to dump their wives onto the community to care for. He is telling those in power that they don’t get to abdicate their responsibility to care for the powerless. Jesus is calling out and condemning those who would tell the weak and vulnerable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. He is telling those in authority that their power comes with the obligation to use it for good. 

If Jesus were to have this conversation with us today, it would not be about divorce at all. 

If Jesus were talking about our hardness of heart he would be calling us out for very different reasons. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart it took the discovery of unmarked graves for your nation to wake up to the tragedy that is Indian Residential Schools in Canada. 

Let those are who have been lost and forgotten by too many for too long come to me, because the Kingdom of God belongs to them. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart many are persecuting and causing violence to the healthcare workers, doctors and nurses and other medical staff who are simply caring for those that need it.

Let these tired and exhausted and depleted caregivers come to me, for there is rest and comfort and peace in the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you are afraid of those who are different, those from other countries, who worship and pray differently, whose skin is differently coloured. 

Let those who are marginalized for the way they worship, for the colour of their skin, for the language they speak come to me for the Kingdom of God belongs to them. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you have told married couples on the ropes that their need to divorce is a sin. 

Let those who dying to separate in order to live come to me. 

Yeah… it is hard to hear Jesus challenge the hard places in our hearts. 

Yeah… it has been rough to listen to Jesus call us out week after week. 

Yeah… this might not feel like good news. 

And just when it feels like Jesus has just come to stomp all over us for having hard hearts, Jesus reminds us that we easily forget who we are, and we easily forget what Jesus is doing for us, to us. 

As we gather around the Word, as we remember being washed and joined to the Body of Christ in the waters at the font, and as we are given bread and wine from the table of the Lord… Jesus is blessing us. For ours is the Kingdom. 

Jesus is reimagining our world. Jesus re-humanizing all those are pushed down to the bottom. Those who are marginalized by those in power, those who wind up the victims of hardened hearts. Those whom the disciples would try to send away but Jesus would welcome and bless. 

Jesus is restoring humanity and dignity to all. Lifting up those on the bottom by bringing them back into relationship with their community, but also by bringing down the high and mighty by bringing them back too into relationship with their communities. 

Yes, we have hard hearts. No we have not lived up to the power and responsibility we have been entrusted with. 

Jesus names that and it is hard to hear.

But Jesus also names our humanity and dignity, restoring us to community – wether we are the privileged on top or the marginalized on the bottom. 

Despite our hard hearts. Despite what we have failed to do for the weak and vulnerable, Jesus says, come to me. All of you. Because you too are all the weak and vulnerable in some way. And because I have named you my children, the Kingdom of God belongs to you.


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