Mark 10:2-16 (NRSV)
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.”
Jesus Blesses Little Children
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 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. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Jesus makes his way to Judea. Pharisees question him regarding the legality of a man divorcing his wife. Jesus responds as he often would by asking them what Moses, the original lawgiver, says on the matter. The Pharisees quickly remind Jesus about the Mosaic certificate of divorce (cf. Dt. 24:1–4). But then Jesus notes it was because of humanity’s hardness of heart that God accommodated divorce. He proceeds to read the divorce commandment against Genesis’s creation accounts, drawing his interpretation to Israel’s and humanity’s origin. Jesus then motions to the children, demanding his disciples not hinder them for the sake of entering his Kingdom.
What on earth is going on in this passage?
Readers can’t escape the fact that this text is about divorce. We can try as much as we want to abstract a generalized principle from the text about the nature of relationships. If we’re going to be faithful to the text, we must, in a sense, take what Jesus says seriously. This text is hard for us to hearbecause unlike in other Gospel accounts, Jesus essentially prohibits divorce and remarriage here.Mark is more than likely commenting on the debate raging at the time within Rabbinic Judaism between Hillel and Shammai.Jesus’s response places him firmly erring towards Shammai’s interpretation; divorce is meantfor the most serious of transgressions. But his answer reveals something else.
The teaching Jesus has laid out from Mk. 9:35, from servanthood to peaceableness all find an avenue of expression here. Jesus, answering the Pharisee’s question, speaks against the proclivity to violence. This isn’t a generalised abstraction. Jesus’s expansive equality in vv. 11–12 at least hints at his intention: whereas the Pharisees present a legalistic case, Jesus means to address real people. And divorce is a painful reality and example of interpersonal violence. As Richard Hays helpfully points out, modern English translations miss out on the force of the Greek Mark employs: what theos has joined, let not anthropos, separate.
Ched Myers argues in his commentary “Binding the Strong Man,” for reading Mark as a political text.If this is true, then Jesus is speaking to the political reality required by his new community and Kingdom. It is in these words we find the emerging social order of Jesus’s kingdom. Whereas it is because of the male hardheart that God accommodatedivorce, Jesus opens the cause of divorce to both genders. Claims against violence now lie open to all in God’s kingdom. And God’s kingdom is one where the violence of divorce epitomizes the countervailing message of expansion and peace.
If one considers divorce a violent act, then it makes total sense to include children. After all, out of all the affected parties, who are those most affected? Children. The violence of divorce not only affects those parties privy to the act. It resonates out to withthe community of the faithful. Divorce can’t be considered a private affair. Jesus and the people of his time see no distinction between public and private. Jesus sees the children, not just as mere members of the political reality of the Kingdom, but as its greatest representation. Jesus is constituting a new social order. It is nothing short of the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God has no place for the kind of violence instituted by divorce.
We are dependent like children to receive the Kingdom. We cannot either obstruct those who would best demonstrate this dependency, nor secure the Kingdom by violence. We must hear Jesus, in all his seriousness, and in all his joy for welcoming the least who demonstrate the humble trust to receive the Kingdom.
Jesus calls his followers to a life of discipleship. This discipleship becomes enacted in concrete lives and concrete times, not in abstract quandaries. Perhaps the question this text should raise is whether we greet Jesus, God’s Kingdom incarnate, with violence, or with humble dependence? Which narrative, the narrative of violence, or the narrative of peaceful dependence, constitutes the shape of your life?
As with any text, there’s much than can be said in a single post. I won’t touch much on it, but I would encourage readers to seek out resources regarding accommodation as a means of relating God’s commandments to human interaction.
My response is less to demonstrate a prescription for how all Christians always are to understand divorce; rather it is to demonstrate how the kind of violence divorce entails operates separate from Jesus’s proclamation. We must be a people who seriously deal with these texts. But I can’t stress this enough – we must always apply pastoral sensitivity front and center.
For a summary account of the divorce debate which this passage focuses on, see Instone-Brewer’s interpretation, including other helpful resources at https://www.divorce-remarriage.com/
See Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 73–92, 347–378.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.
Phil resides in sunny Southern California, having moved from Dublin to pursue a Masters of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. Phil is passionate about the local church, and wants to encourage and develop deep, theological foundations for the conversations and life in the church. When not writing another paper for class, he can be found expanding his whiskey and coffee palette, composing prayer poems, travelling around a small percentage of the U.S., or engaging in another deep life conversation over a pint or two.