2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied.
4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’[a] 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,[b] 8 and the two will become one flesh.’[c] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
Have you heard the story of the man who goes to see his doctor, concerned about his wife? He says that he feels she may be going deaf, she no longer answers him when he calls to her. So the doctor suggested that he finds out just how deaf she is be calling to her then taking a step forwards and calling again, and repeating this until she can hear.
When the man returned home, his wife was in the kitchen with her back to him, preparing lunch. So he stood by the kitchen door and called “Darling, what’s for lunch?”… no response. Then he stepped forward and said “Darling, what’s for lunch?”… again no response. So he stepped forwards and was almost on top of her and said “Darling, what’s for lunch?”… She turned round and said to him:
…”for the third time”….
I’ve told that joke because I think this text is different than it seems, we bring our preconceptions to it. Indeed the whole section of Mark that we have been going through is perhaps a little offbeat. A bit weird, Jesus is challenging preconceptions and he seems to be talking complete nonsense. If you can bear with me a moment, I’ll try to explain why.
In the society where Jesus lived men could divorce women, but women could not divorce men. Why? Well because women were possessions. Marriage was a very different thing then than it is now. Men effectively owned their daughters, but they were a drain on resources as they were not permitted to work. Hence they paid another man in the form of a dowry to take them. The women were entirely dependent upon these men to survive, and if the women were divorced then they would become instantly destitute.
Now Moses permitted men to divorce for something called “porneia” which some rabbis said it meant that if the women were unfaithful, but other rabbis said that “porneia” could include burning the dinner or not being pretty enough. The society was deeply abusive to women
So anyway, that is a bit of background – and it becomes pretty clear to me why Jesus describes these men divorcing women in the same breath as hardness of hardness of heart – what were the women to do? Beg? Or become prostitutes?
So anyway, if I get onto the nonsense that Jesus is talking – you’ll need to stay with me here:
Women had no rights in marriage. And so when Jesus explains his stance on divorce to his disciples he comes up with two nonsensical statements, the first is:
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.
The adultery laws didn’t allow for women to have adultery committed against them. So a woman could commit adultery against her husband by sleeping with another man. And a man could commit adultery against a man by sleeping with his wife. But if a man had sex with a prostitute he was not committing adultery against his wife. Why? Because women very few rights. So Jesus seems to be talking nonsense – the law does not allow equality for women.
Jesus then goes on to say:
12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
This was madness to – a woman could never divorce her husband. Why? Because women had very few rights. Again Jesus seems to be talking nonsense – the law did not allow equality for women.
I find it incredible that 2000 years ago, in a patriarchal society, a man stood up and imagined a completely different reality, a reality of complete equality between men and women in marriage.
This follows on from the passage last week where Jesus recommended getting into the Kingdom of Heaven by chopping off ones leg if it causes you to sin, or plucking out one’s eye. More nonsense –as the Bishop pointed out – if you pull out one eye you still have another to sin with, but also, the Pharisees believed you couldn’t get to heaven if you were lame or blind. More than that they wouldn’t let the disabled into the Temple. Jesus was pointing out that the Pharisees felt they could get to heaven with a bad heart, a sinful heart, but not with a bad body.
Perhaps this text could be seen as a commentary on the Levitical code – perhaps not a very favourable commentary as it feels like legalism that puts down the weak. One of the theologians that I like called Richard Rohr speaks of there being two traditions within the Old Testament – the Prophetic tradition calling us back to the heart, to sorting out justice and basing our lives on love – and the Levitical tradition which is about obeying laws upon laws to ensure that we don’t upset God. One might say that it is the difference between basing our Ethics on rules or upon values. Richard Rohr says that Jesus stands in the tradition of the prophets.
So, having raised the status of the disabled and the status of women Jesus then completes the hat-trick and raises the status of children:
Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.
I guess this might mean many things – children are a symbol of humility and vulnerability, they tend to live life more in the moment than adults, they are powerless and have little control over their lives.
So what does all this mean for us today?
I don’t believe that the corollary is that people should remain in abusive marriages. Frankly, I don’t believe that God has joined together an abuser and his victim – I can’t worship that sort of God.
I do believe that we should value everyone equally, rich and poor, male and female, young and old.
I do believe we need humility in or spiritual lives, we need to embrace our smallness, like that child, and then we have no need to lie, even to ourselves about our frailties. More than that, it liberates us to respect, revere and deal gently with others who have been unfortunate enough to have their own smallnesses come obscenely to light.
Aware of our own meager virtues, conscious of our own massive failures despite all our great efforts, all our fine desires, we have in this degree of humility, this acceptance of ourselves, the chance to understand the failures of others. We have here the opportunity to become kind.