Into the Storm of Controversy

This coming Sunday is the 27th in Ordinary Time of Year B. The gospel is taken from Mark 10:2-12 and involves a question about divorce whose real intent is to bring Jesus into conflict with what the Pharisees regard as the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him. He said to them in reply, “What did Moses command you?”  They replied, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.” (Mark 10:2-4)The Question. As noted above, the question is none too genuine. Both Jesus and the Pharisees – and anyone listening in on the dialogue – know that Dt 24:1, part of the Torah (Law), is the basis for the practice of divorce: “When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and therefore he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house.” As ever, the Pharisees’ question has little to do with marriage or divorce, but concerns teaching authority (and their desire to trap Jesus so that they will be able to bring charges against him). We have already seen this pattern in 2:1-3:6 and 7:1-23. Then, Jesus responded with Scripture and challenged traditional understanding of the Pharisees’ teaching. Later we will see a question from the Sadducees about the resurrection (12:23) and the Herodian question about the tribute (12:15); they are also questions designed to make Jesus incriminate himself.

Jesus’ Answer. Now, Jesus does not answer their question, since its answer is clear. Rather, Jesus asks them a question, What did Moses command you?” One question which modern day students of Scripture should ask concerns the nature of his answer. Was Jesus avoiding the question by asking a question? Was he clarifying that this was really a matter of teaching authority? Was it a prelude to the full teaching regarding marriage and divorce? His private teaching to the disciples in vv.11-12 seems pretty clear: “He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” But, consider other NT passages (when considering the question of the fullness of the teaching):

  • In Mark, consistent with the permanence of marriage, in vv.11-12, Jesus says that you can’t separate what has become one (Mk 10:8-9)
  • In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus provides an exception in the case of porneia (a difficult word to clearly understand what it implied in Jesus’ time). But is this similar to the exception provided by Moses?
  • Yet, Paul says that divorce is permitted in some instances when an unbelieving partner requests it (1 Cor 7:15).  Is this an exception? Then again, Paul says that it is the sign of a good spouse not to divorce his or her unbelieving mate (1 Cor 7:12-13).

I point this out to indicate there is a simplicity and yet a complexity about the topic of divorce – even in the text of the New Testament. The Catholic scholar, Raymond Collins’ work, Divorce in the New Testament, points out it is a challenge to scripture scholars to answer the question: what did Jesus teach when Sts. Matthew, Luke and Paul seems to return to limited exception?

We can say what Jesus does not do. Jesus avoids taking a position on the hidden question of Herod Antipas’ marriage to his sister-in-law. He does not comment on the Law by debating the circumstances under which a husband might be permitted to divorce his wife. Jesus does not deny that Moses established a procedure by which a husband might divorce his wife. At the core of it all, Jesus is pointing to the very same section (Dt 24:1) and implying, “This is what Moses gave you. It is a human tradition that arose from compromising God’s intention because of the hard heartedness of humanity (v. 5). In other words, “You ask about what Moses commanded, but it is really about what Moses allowed because of hardened hearts. The fact that it is what “allowed” makes clear that it was not what God intended.” Mark’s readers know that the kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus’ ministry, does not belong to the hard-hearted, faithless generation with which Jesus constantly has to contend (9:19) – but this generation is called to discern the will of God in such matters.

The Pharisee do not seem to question the distinction Jesus makes, indicating that they understood that the real question is whether the hard hearts are able to truly discern God’s will.

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