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. Jesus has answered the real question that the Pharisee had asked: not one about divorce, but one about authority. The disciples apparently did not pick up on the nuanced answer, and so “In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. 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.” (Mark 10:9-11)
In the privacy of a house, the disciples question Jesus about “this” – presumably, “what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Jesus has taken the question back to the divine intent. One way to understand the unstated question is that the disciples are not asking about divorce per se, but the broader question of all the things that cause the separation of what God has joined. Jesus declared without qualification that a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. The use of the word “adultery” directs the disciples back to the absolute command of God (Ex. 20:14) and clarifies the seriousness of the issue. But to be clear, Jesus is not saying that divorce and remarriage is the only circumstance that lead to adultery, but it is of the same gravitas.
One must not miss the new element in this teaching, which was totally unrecognized in the rabbinic courts. It was not conceived that a husband could commit adultery against his former wife. According to rabbinic law a man could commit adultery against another married man by seducing his wife (Deut. 22:13–29) and a wife could commit adultery against her husband by infidelity, but a husband could not be said to commit adultery against his wife. The unconditional form of Jesus’ statement served to reinforce the abrogation of the Mosaic permission in Deut. 24:1. This sharp intensifying of the concept of adultery had the effect of elevating the status of the wife to the same dignity as her husband and placed the husband under an obligation of fidelity. Adultery is a sin against God’s creative love that joins two to become one.
“By treating marriage as grounded in God’s creative love, Jesus removes it from the realm of law. The first-century audience was familiar with marriage as a contract. As with any contract, it could be nullified. Indeed, marriage contracts often anticipate that happening. Sometimes people enter into marriage assuming that it will not last. Jesus was not the only one to challenge the casual attitude of his day, but, unlike the Essenes, he did not think new laws would create the spirit in which disciples would live out his teaching. Sometimes people think that Jesus is merely the product of a stricter society. In fact, the legal protections around marriage were much more individual in his day than in ours. The questions he poses about a hard-hearted or utilitarian view of marriage are still crucial for our reflection, not because we want tough laws against divorce, but because we seek to make Christian families what God intended them to be.” (Perkins, 646)