Jesus comes across as a hardliner against divorce the first time one reads Mark 10:2-16. While the breakup of marriages is a painful reality for people both inside and outside the Christian community – it is worth a closer look to see what Jesus is up to in this conversation with the Pharisees. There is more going on underneath the surface than just divorce.
The conversation is about humanity’s “hardness of heart.”
The Pharisees come to Jesus with the question of divorce; not to get an answer – but to test him. Their hardness of heart will never accept who he is or what he has to offer, since they saw themselves as the authorities of both law and tradition. They reveal their hardness of heart by the callousness of their question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2). Women had very few (if any) rights in that culture, and if divorced, would be shamed, rejected with little to no prospects of survival. Divorce for a first century woman in Judea was a death sentence. The Pharisees were asking, “It is OK to just throw these worthless women away because it is legal, right?” Jesus exposes their hardness of heart in their question, not only in his response, but by the virtue that there are no women present or given voice in this encounter at all and Jesus advocates on their behalf.
The disciples also reveal their hardness of heart by shooing away the children when they approach Jesus. Even more vulnerable than women in that culture were children who were completely dependent on adults for survival. Infant and child mortality rates were high. Children were deemed worthless until they came of age and began contributing to the family. Children of divorced mothers were often rejected alongside the women, making them even more expendable.
So what does Jesus teach here?
Jesus acknowledges that divorce is a real part of the human experience, but we are not to be flippant or dismissive about it. We are to take our relationships – especially our families – very seriously. When families are broken-up (because of our hardness of hearts) creation itself mourns.
Jesus highlights partnership and equality by quoting Genesis 2:24. As we come to greater understandings of human sexuality and gender identity in both the life of the church and our wider society, Jesus’ exposes our hardness of heart by advocating the goodness of creation and worth of each person; especially those we so often overlook.
Jesus addressing the hardness of heart that leads to adultery. Unlike his contemporaries that only blamed women for adultery, Jesus extends the equality of our sinfulness to everyone. With that equality comes both the shared responsibility of our treasured relationships; the possibility for reconciliation; and the need for community when what was once “one flesh” is put asunder.
Jesus cares for the powerless by inviting the children to come to him. Just as women in the first century were extremely vulnerable (few if any rights, little opportunity); children were completely dependent. Jesus is highlighting his care and blessing for the least of these and inviting us to relate to people out of compassion, mercy, inclusion and love – not judgment, exclusion, shame and dismissal.
The way of Jesus is to go looking for the vulnerable and suffering; then value, embrace and bless them as Jesus does.
The church has a lousy track record when it comes to caring for people in the midst of family trauma, separations, break-ups and divorce. Too often the message has been judgment, shame and blame; not compassion, mercy, love and an embrace of blessing when we need it most.
We can do better.
An ongoing practice of faith is to repent of our own hardness of heart; trust in God’s forgiveness, and seek to see others as Jesus sees them.
Questions to keep wrestling with:
-How do we care for, support and include those who are preparing to enter into marriage?
-How do we care for, support and include those who celebrate their marriage?
-How do we care for, support and include those who struggle within their marriage?
-How do care for, support and include those who are in the process of separation or who have gone through divorce?
-How do we care for, support and include those who are, and will remain single?
-How do we care for, support and include people who are non-binary, LGBTQ+, and/or are still discovering who they are?
-How do we care for and support children who live in a variety of family arrangements – so that they can know the welcome and love of Jesus who blesses them, and a community that cherishes them?
(Thanks to my colleagues: Pastors Sarah Barnes, Dick Burgess, Daphne Burt, Scott Harris, Brett Hertzog-Betkoski and Mary Robinson for their insights prior to the composition of this post.)