A Provocation: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: October 7, 2018: Mark 10:2-16

Mark 10:2-16
10:2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

10:3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”

10:4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

10:5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.

10:6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’

10:7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,

10:8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.

10:9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10:10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.

10:11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;

10:12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

10:13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.

10:14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

10:15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

10:16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do the Pharisees ask this particular question?
  • Are you sure?  Think further.

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene is strange and complicated, not least because it has been the favorite of heartless people who needed to hurt divorced people in the name of God.
A friend asked me to make sure I poked at this scene in an effort to make some sense.

So, here’s a try:

  • The first thing that matters is that marriage now is not the same thing as marriage then.  That is at least mostly a true and significant statement.
  • Second, reading the prohibition of divorce and/or remarriage as SIMPLY a prohibition of divorce and/or remarriage misses the point almost completely.
  • A warning: there will be some crude language in this Provocation.

I think the task, first of all, is always to figure out the aim of such ancient prohibitions.

This is complicated by millennia of reading and interpreting these texts, but that only makes it more important to discern the purpose.
In the deep ancient world, marriage was an alliance between clans.  The woman and the man may not even have met before they were married.  Even when they were well acquainted, still marriage was a clan affair, not an individual love story, or even an individual survival story.  Paying attention to the role of clans answers some questions and creates a whole bunch of others.  Divorce was, from this point of view, a matter for diplomatic negotiation between powers with a stake in the stability of the relationship.  Not necessarily a stake in the health or safety of the relationship, but the stability, since the relationship was itself the result of negotiation.

And sometimes this wasn’t exactly the case.

It’s complicated.  even when clans had negotiated the relationship, still it seems to have been common for men to divorce their wives.  The halakhic standard was: “a wife may be divorced if her husband finds some indecency in her.”  Some schools of thought read this as meaning a woman who was unfaithful could be divorced.  Other schools said that “indecency” meant only that the husband was displeased with the woman.  When those schools went on to specify what counted as grounds for such “displeasure,” they said that, for instance, if a woman burned supper, her husband could divorce her.

Of course, the thing to hear in this is that male privilege is more important even than clan stability.

Clans (governed by men) found ways to reinforce the patriarchy.  The ancient texts chuckle at the whole matter, and thus make it clear that “boys will be boys” is not a modern innovation.
And, behind all of this hangs the fact that in most ancient Mediterranean cultures women could not own property.  Thus a woman who was cut off by her husband was placed in existential peril.  Women in such a position sometimes found themselves needing to marry anyone, on any terms, just to stay alive.  Some women in such a position found themselves forced to accept living with a man who refused to marry them, but was glad to sleep with them and eat the food they had to prepare (think here of the woman at the well, who is not an “adulteress”.  She is a person forced to accept such shelter as she could get on any terms the patriarchy set.).  And other women in such a position could only survive through prostitution (this situation is not unique to the ancient world: read Sula by Toni Morrison).  Patriarchy is pleased with this situation, since men seem always to have worried about those poor, poor men who can’t get laid, and so the system is glad to create social conditions that guarantee that there will be women who must allow them to masturbate in their vaginas (please excuse the crude language, but it seems appropriate: that kind of abuse surely isn’t “making love.”  It isn’t even sexual intercourse, since there is no equitable intercourse, just self-gratification at the expense of the woman).

Against that social background, the prohibition of divorce isn’t a “blue law” at all: it is an attempt to counteract some of the abuses of free-range patriarchy.

In some circumstances, adultery was an allowable grounds for divorce since it was understood as a breaking of faith.  Under such circumstances, it was accepted that women could be exposed to the very real danger of life without a patriarch to protect them.

While I can make some sense of this last practice, it is still nasty, and tilted in the favor of patriarchs.

But none of this deals with women who escape abuse through divorce.  The ancient world does not seem to have imagined that women could do this.  When this matter is considered at all, it comes out the way it does in the Tamar story: her first and second husbands “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and God killed them.”  That recognizes the reality of abuse, and it condemns it.  But women are left waiting for Divine thunderbolts, which are rare in the best of times.

So, some tentative conclusions:

  • I think that this passage in Mark only makes sense as a prohibition of abusive structures that leave women defenseless so as to take advantage of them.
  • And I think that this passage has no idea of what modern marriages are.  It simply doesn’t apply.
  • And I think that the scene ends with little children to make it clear that the real principle that matters is that we ought to care tenderly for each other.  Anything else is dangerous and abusive.
That’s a start, anyhow.

One thought on “A Provocation: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: October 7, 2018: Mark 10:2-16

  1. (the scene ends with little children to make it clear that the real principle that matters is that we ought to care tenderly for each other. Anything else is dangerous and abusive.)
    I agree!
    In Matthew’s telling of this incident; is Matthew up to something when in response to Jesus own disciples; he has Jesus pronounce a blessing on people who for various reasons find themselves not fitting the “norm” of society?


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