Family Values - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19B

Mark 10:2-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 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.” 
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.


                There is a lot of talk these days about family values. Pope Francis addressed issues of family when he visited during his recent trip to the United States—the primary reason for his visit was a worldwide Catholic conference on the family. The message that seems to have come out of the conference is that while the church needs to be more gracious in regard to persons who don’t fit the perfect family mold, the church will continue to hold the line on the basic foundations of the family. Even as Pope Francis sought to defend tradition, in places like Europe and North America older definitions of family are being challenged, redefined, and replaced. When the Supreme Court decided to legalize same-sex marriage it simply added another layer to a discussion that has been going on for several decades. Perhaps the result of the “sexual revolution,” sex is no longer equated simply with procreation, and thus marriage is now understood in broader terms. Children may be part of marriage, but they needn’t go together. 

Back in the day couples often stayed together “because of the children.” Today, it may be deemed wiser to separate for the children and for the couple. The legal system has made divorce both easier and more palatable. Couples enter marriage making sure that their economic interests are protected through pre-nuptial agreements. In other words, people are going into the relationship assuming that things could go wrong, and interests need to be protected. Indeed, for many today the idea that marriage is for a lifetime is simply unrealistic. After all, since marriage, if it is entered into, is delayed until the late twenties and even into one’s thirties, young adults will likely have entered into several intimate partnerships prior to marriage. If they have fallen in and out of love several times, why would this end with marriage? It’s not that marriage is entered into for convenience's sake, it’s just that everything has its time and place.

When we approach biblical texts dealing with marriage and family what we find is often rather different from our own cultural expectations and experiences. Then again these stories reflect their own time and place. They are culturally rooted, just as ours are. When we speak of “biblical marriage,” we are often speaking of a rather modern institution that bears little connection to first-century realities. So, how do we bring the two into the conversation?

                One of the assumptions that many begin with when talking about this topic is that marriage has been and always should be between a man and a woman. Yes, there was polygamy in the bible, but still doesn’t Genesis say that God created man and woman and put them together? Others, myself included, are willing to expand the definition and include the union of two women or two men in a monogamous lifetime partnership of equals to fit the overall scheme. Thus, whatever the gender of the partners, what God has put together, let no one put asunder! Covenants made with the blessing of God should not end, at least not in this life.

                Into the conversation comes the question of divorce. Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him to give his take on the question. Is it appropriate to divorce one’s wife? It’s important to note here that the question doesn’t suggest that a woman can seek a divorce, only the man.  The question that gets posed to Jesus needs to be understood within the context of his own day. Divorces were undertaken then as now. It’s nothing new. The question is on what basis a divorce can be instigated. In the first century, at least by the time that Mark is writing the Gospel, there were at least two basic systems of thought on the topic. These were interpretations of the biblical text, which Jesus acknowledges. Yes, Moses did provide for divorce, the reason being the hardness of the heart of the people. Sometimes relationships just don’t work out the way we’d hoped! So, because of their hardness of heart, Moses offers a solution (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t satisfied. Yes, sometimes hardness of heart requires mercy, but we need to attend to the root issues, don’t we? 

So, how should we interpret the provision of a process of divorce, which a man could enter into? It does appear that the Pharisees wanted to know which school of rabbinic thought Jesus followed. In the first century, there were essentially two schools of rabbinic teaching—that of Shammai and that of Hillel. Shammai was more restrictive and Hillel more lenient.  So where did Jesus land? Did he follow Shammai who permitted divorce only in cases of sexual infidelity?  Or did he side with Hillel, who offered a broader range of reasons for divorce? Remember that at the time men could divorce their spouses, women couldn’t respond in kind. Thus, according to Hillel a husband could divorce his wife if she couldn’t bear a child (if carrying on the family lineage is important, then if your wife can’t produce the heir then perhaps another could). Not only that but she could be divorced if she violated religious duties or failed to perform household tasks. Power, it appears, was truly in the hands of the husband. So, which version would you choose? Hillel is lenient, but his rules might not work out well for wives (and perhaps children as well).

At least in Mark 10, Jesus doesn’t choose either of these trajectories. Instead, he goes far beyond what is envisioned by Shammai. Not even infidelity (on the part of the woman) is grounds for divorce.  Although Matthew will provide an exception clause (Matthew 19:1-9), Mark has none. In Mark’s apocalyptic world view, divorce is a mark of the old realm. If you’re a follower of Jesus you should be living in the new realm of God. In that realm divorce is impermissible. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson bring this element of the story to light, which we may miss for ours may not be the same apocalyptic world view. They note that Mark’s Jesus sets aside the allowance for divorce found in Deuteronomy 24: 1-4, and takes us back to the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2. They write:
Mark operates out of the apocalyptic worldview that the end-times (the realm of God) will be like the beginning time (existence as it was at the time of creation, in Eden). In the prefall world, divorce was not necessary because relationships manifested fully the characteristics that God intended.  [Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, p. 156]

 This is surely a difficult word. It honors the covenant, but it places a heavy burden on the couple. What if the relationship is deeply flawed? Is there no way out? At least here in Mark, it appears that even after a divorce the couple remains married – for to remarry is to commit adultery. This leads Allen and Williamson to conclude that Judaism might have been wiser here than Mark’s Jesus. The apocalyptic worldview failed to deliver. Life may require a lot more grace than Mark is able to deliver.

                Williamson and Allen offer a word of wisdom that might help us deal with the sting of this passage (especially for those who have, for whatever reason, experienced divorce).
To be sure, divorce should never be simply a matter of convenience, and the dissolution of a once promising relationship that is beyond repair is cause for regret. Nonetheless, in the present world, people cannot always soften their hearts to learn to live together. Divorce may offer them renewed life. Fortunately, most Christian communities today live in this latter way (Preaching the Gospels, p. 156].
Grace is sufficient, even in matters such as this, and even if Mark’s Jesus isn’t as comforting as we would like!

                As one who embraces the promise of a life-long covenant vision of marriage (should it be entered into), I recognize as well that we don’t yet live completely in the realm of God. We are broken people, living among broken people. Mark’s Jesus might be just a bit too demanding. A bit more mercy would be helpful.

                As the reading closes we return to the little ones—to the children.  They are to be blessed. This is the third time that Jesus makes note of the children/little ones.  We are to welcome them, not cause them to stumble, and we are not to prevent them from coming to be blessed by Jesus. Could it be that Jesus remains concerned about both women and children, those whom in the ancient world stood at the bottom of the social ladder?  To them belongs the realm of God! Could that be real "family values"?


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