Mark 10:1-12 (NRSV)
Teaching about Divorce
10 He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.
2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But 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, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
The Great Divorce
Before I start, I want to name how incredibly awkward it is to preach this passage as a person who is divorced and remarried. And it’s probably awkward for you to hear since most churches have a high number of divorced and remarried couples. There are some professions, for example, clergy, that adultery can be cause for termination. Generally, pastors aren’t let go unless they sleep with a parishioner. I had an entire ethics class that could be boiled down to the sentiment, “don’t use your genitals to do ministry”. A sentiment that the women found particularly funny because until Margaret Towner was ordained in 1964, a person had to possess a particular kind of body to be ordained as a presbyterian pastor. So, keep in mind that the following sermon was written by a pastor who would love to keep her current husband and her job.
While today’s text was used to spout advice to keep me in a marriage, I no longer wanted to be part of, I now read it as proof that women were an important part of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus wouldn’t have had to tell his disciples not to get divorced and remarried if they weren’t tempted to do that. I imagine some of the disciple’s families didn’t believe in Jesus. Following Jesus probably led to some strained relationships. And I can imagine, to some it may have seemed easier to divorce the spouse that didn’t believe and pick up one who did. And for that to happen, there had to be women disciples too. But that’s just my own fan theory because I have not found a commentary to back that idea up yet.
I did find a perspective different than what I have heard preached about divorce in the Wisdom Commentary (which features women’s voices from a variety of backgrounds) and Miguel De La Torre’s book, “Reading from the Margins”.
The discussion about divorce is based in a patriarchal structure where women belong to their fathers, then to their husbands, and eventually to their sons or close relative. While this system did make sure that women were cared for, it also held up a male-dominated and male-benefitting society. What is unusual in the question about divorce is that “Jewish and Greco-Roman society did not prohibit men from initiating divorce.” (W p. 207). So, why is anyone asking Jesus about divorce? It may have more to do with catching Jesus in a trap. Will Jesus allow divorce and uphold the male-power in society? Or will Jesus advocate for a new way of life for the coming kin-dom of God?
Jesus tells them that Moses allowed for divorce because of the people’s “hardness of heart”. Hardness of heart is a term that usually refers to people’s resistance to God’s will. Divorce is contrary to God’s will because of the power that men can exert over women when it comes to divorce. Divorce is bad because it is one more example of unequal power that men have in their homes and in society. Marriage is God’s will because of the mutual power of the couple that become one flesh in marriage. Keep in mind that Jesus is speaking about the kin-dom of God and not the reality of the world in which he lived or in which you and I live. After this answer, the Pharisees don’t respond to Jesus.
The scene changes and Jesus and his follower go into a house. It’s here that he doubles down on what he just said outside. The conversation outside was male centered. Inside the house, Jesus makes parallel statements about men and women. Marriage is equal, divorce is forbidden for both men and women, and adultery applied to both sexes. For Jesus, there is no double standard. Jesus visions a world in which men do not have power over women but are equals in marriage. Remember that when Jesus is saying these things, marriage is a microcosm of society, so if he is saying that men and women are equal in marriage, he is also implying a society in which men and women are equal. The coming kin-dom of God will not be male-centered, male-dominated, and male-benefiting. The coming kin-dom is based on equality.
If we can apply anything Jesus said about marriage to the way we see marriage today, it’s about equality and mutual benefit.
Jesus did not mean that I should have stayed in a destructive marriage or that I should not have a second chance at building a healthy and loving relationship. Thankfully, I was able to keep my job, open a new bank account in my own name, and provide for myself a way out of a bad situation. I think it’s important to remember that women have only been able to open their own accounts at banks and with credit cards since the 1970s and only some of us are so lucky. And for those that aren’t so lucky, we have places where women (and men) can flee domestic violence and get help restarting a safe and happy life. Crisis Center North is a place where I have met fellow believers who are helping people escape marriages and domestic partnerships and do not see their work as contrary to Jesus’ teachings. Nor do the many faith organizations that support them, like Third Church. Jesus did not say all marriage is good and all divorce is bad. Jesus expressed an ideal version of marriage based on equality. And more than that, Jesus’ work is about transformation and new life. It would be inconsistent with Jesus’ teachings to lock someone into a painful and deadly situation.
Jesus was not saying that same sex marriage is forbidden either. It wasn’t a possibility in the time and place he lived. If it had been, I imagine that Jesus would have said it is not good that one partner holds power over the other. Two consenting adults should be sharing mutually in marriage marked by love and respect for one another. All good marriages are microcosmos of the kin-dom of God in which all people are loved as Christ loves us. In the kin-dom of God we are called to love our spouses, partners, friends, and neighbors.
I want to share with you a story (in Miguel De La Torre’s book) told by Latina theologian Elizabeth Conde-Frazier about a woman of faith named, Dona Inez.
“One day a woman, who bore the evidence of physical abuse, came to a Bible study in which Dona Inez was participating. Dona Inez caressed the abused woman, attempting to soothe her body and spirit. Finally, in a public whisper, she said, ‘Because the bible says that what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven and what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, in the name of Jesus I loose you from your bonds to this man who has done this to you. You are not guilty of anything he has done. Go now to your cousin’s house and start a new life. Don’t look back or go back like Lot’s wife. In God’s name, we will provide for you all your needs.’ Her words not only set this oppressed woman free but also bound the rest of the faith community to support and provide for her.” (De La Torre p. 51).
As a faith community we are called to interpret these ancient holy texts for our times and live it out. For Dona Inez’s community, they knew that God hated divorce, but that God also hated to see people abused. “Those who know what it means to live within a marginalized space, like Dona Inez, who suffered under both ethnic discrimination and sexism, can be effective guides for others who face oppression. At times, the only way to choose is to pick the action that most closely resembles the purpose of Jesus, who ‘came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’” (De La Torre p. 54).
It is important for churches like ours who generally are part of the privilege race and class in our society to read texts like this one today from the perspective of the marginalized. We need to seek out those perspectives to gain a fuller understanding of what it means to live as Christians and to work towards making our community more like the kin-dom of God. As Dona Inez did, we are to bind ourselves to the marginalized to dismantle structural racism, end systemic poverty, and bring the hope of new life to our community and the world.
The great divorce is to loose what is harmful and bind what is good, so that all of us may have life, and have it abundantly.
In Matthew 16:19 (NRSV) Jesus said to Peter
19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
When you leave here today, loose what is destructive and bind what is good, just like Dona Inez. And do so with the power and the blessing of the holy spirit. Amen.
Carter, W. (2019). Wisdom commentary: Mark. (B. E. Reid & S. J. Tanzer, Eds.) (Vol. 42). Liturgical Press.
De La Torre, M. A. (2002). Reading the Bible from the Margins. Orbis Books.