First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 19

William Loader

Pentecost 19: 4 October Mark 10:2-16

Mark 9:33 mentions Jesus' arrival in Capernaum on the great journey from Caesarea Philippi (8:27) to Jerusalem. Mark 10:1 envisages a trip which entailed travelling down the eastern side of the Jordan and then crossing near Jericho. Mark keeps reminding us of the journey. The journey is an appropriate setting for instructing disciples (and all who are to join the Christian journey) about matters pertaining to community life. 9:33-50 has already done this in relation to leadership and responsibility. In 10:2-12 and 13-16 Mark places two anecdotes relating to family life.

The anecdote on divorce may well derive from an historical encounter between Jesus and Pharisees busied with the issue of divorce, wanting his view. If this was anything like the earlier forms which most of Mark’s anecdotes took, it probably had as its punch line a typical two-liner quip on the part of Jesus: ‘What God has yoked let no human being separate.’ We have already found such quips in 2:9; 2:17; 2:27; 3:4; and 7:15. It is clever: of course it is outrageous for human beings to undo what God has done up, to un-join what God has joined. The effect was to shift the focus from what might justify divorce to the more fundamental issue: breaking apart what God has joined must be seen as departure from God’s intention. More on this in a moment.

At some stage before Mark scriptural validation has been added, as, I think, has happened in other anecdotes (eg. 2:23-28; 7:1-23; 12:18-27). Perhaps it was always there. The effect of hearing Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 is to make the quip of Jesus more directive in character, like a statement of law. It is, in any case, highly probable that the Genesis texts lay behind Jesus’ response. We find Genesis 2:24 also used by the writers of the so called Damascus Document when attacking (probably Pharisaic) attitudes to marriage. Divorce is forbidden, because it undoes what God has "done up".

The frequent allusion to Jesus’ quip in wedding services misleads people into thinking that Jesus means that God does the joining through the person officiating at the wedding. This is almost certainly not the case. Rather the background is Genesis 2:24 and what is seen as divine order. The coming together is the joining. It means sexual union of the man and the woman in a very inclusive sense. Sexual union creates union. Paul uses Genesis 2:24 in 1 Cor 6:16 to persuade the Corinthians that they should not have sexual union with prostitutes, become one flesh with them (1 Cor 6:12-20). The assumption there and in our passage is that sexual union is part of a total union - and, it should be noted - is divinely affirmed.

This positive affirmation of human sexuality and sexual intercourse - something which needs to be aired in the church from time to time to counter contrary views - carries with it an implication. Sexual union (as part of total union) is so highly valued that we should not let anything undo the union it produces and celebrates. That is worlds away from the Pharisees’ concern about defining grounds for divorce.

The ‘in-house’ conversations in Mark, such as we find here in 10:10-12 (see others in 4:10-12; 7:17-23), refine the teaching for the community. Probably Mark draws on another tradition about Jesus on the same theme: a saying of Jesus. It addresses both divorce and remarriage and has a parallel in Q (probably in the form of Matt 5:31 without the exception; but see also Luke 16:18). Not only is divorce out; so is remarriage by either of the original partners. Only Mark includes the possibility of women also divorcing, normal in non Jewish contexts. In Judaism it was usually a male prerogative, although cases of Jewish women initiating divorce are known.

It is common to soften the blow which these texts have in modern times by painting Jesus as concerned here with the abuse of women and the plight into which they would be forced by divorce. This may be so, but it may also be reading in something which is not the primary concern. In our passage women’s plight is not given as the rationale, but rather a belief about sexual union. If women’s plight were really the focus then it is hard to understand why remarriage of (at least ‘non guilty’) divorced women (or men) is forbidden. The most we can say is that Jesus’ positive regard for all people, especially the oppressed, could easily have led him to attack cheap divorce, but this is not the focus of what we have.

There is always a problem when people take Jesus’ sayings as legal pronouncements. Perhaps Matthew is already heading in that direction, when he added the exception clause (5:31; 19:5) reflecting the common law, that a partner who committed adultery must be divorced. No forgiveness is possible. Joseph, for example, had no choice in that regard. Much of Jesus’ energy in controversy with his fellow Jews was spent trying to show that we must interpret scripture in a way which sees its priority as concern for human well being: the sabbath was made for people not people for the sabbath. We are in the territory of appealing to creation and divine order also in the anecdote about marriage and divorce. One could reformulate: the order of marriage was made for people, not people for the order of marriage.

Paul had no difficulty contemplating that there could be circumstances where divorce might be appropriate almost in the same breath as citing Jesus’ prohibition (1 Cor 7:10-16). The way Jesus interpreted scriptural law (which he upheld) ought to be a clue for us in how we interpret his. Would the primary concern we find in Jesus with human well being result sometimes in a decision which would override what he might have said about aspect of life at one time? Paul would certainly answer: yes. Paul was not trying to get around strict laws, but being realistic and caring.

Sexual union takes on enormous significance in our passage. We need to hear its ringing commendation. We may also want to think further about whether sexual intercourse is always that and need always be that. Elsewhere Jesus pushes us away from thinking just of sexual intercourse as adultery (5:28) to thoughts and attitudes. We are in an age of rethinking sexuality and sexual responses and sorting out what is overplayed and what, underplayed. Jesus’ and Paul’s view needs to be part of the exploration of human sexual fulfilment and responsibility. Jesus’ teaching which puts human well being at the heart of divine law needs to anchor the discussion.

The brief story about Jesus and the children recalls 9:36-37. Perhaps they once belonged together. The story is easily trivialised. It is not just about being childlike. It is about the dignity and worth of children. What is being said and done here takes on the contours of reality when we begin to recognise the alternatives - in our own day. Exclusion, demeaning behaviour, abuse, violation, enslavement, killing - listen to the cries: in the slums, in the sweat shops, in the brothels, and behind the bedroom door of respectability. This is about more than being nice to kids.

Epistle: Pentecost 19: 4 October Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12