Jesus and Divorce

Jesus and Divorce

Glynn Cardy

Sun 12 Feb

The readings this morning, both on the subject of Jesus and divorce, are some of the most difficult and most debated, with far-reaching implications, throughout Christian history.  What is hard to see on a first reading is that in a culture and time that knew almost unlimited male power and generally assumed the inferiority of women, the readings’ restriction of male power points to much more mutuality in male-female relationships – as the becoming ‘one’ reference alludes to.

Note too that people in the first century were already fighting about the meaning of the Bible.  Debates over the Bible are not new.  On the matter of divorce, the Torah actually had very little to say.  It only mentions it once in passing, while dealing with a related issue.[i]  And we know from other sources that first-century Jewish experts disagreed about the grounds of divorce.  Could a husband divorce his wife just because he felt like it, or only if she had committed some serious fault? [ii]  Jesus was being asked to take sides in that argument.

But instead of just wading into the argument in the way they expected Jesus does something shocking.  He said, “Moses only allowed divorce in the first place because of your hardness of heart.”  

What is he saying here?  He’s saying that you can’t assume that just because it’s in Scripture it’s the will of God.  Some Bible verses express nothing more than the stupidity, the bigotry, the hardness of heart of the people who received them in the first place — and, who knows maybe of the people who read them now?  After all, Jesus talks to them about “your hardness of heart.”

Jesus is not talking here to bad people, to ‘sinners’.  He’s talking here to the particularly good people.  Those who pay close attention to religion, those who fulfil its demands, those who are the respectable pillars of their communities, and those who are all male.  In that world, males were the public persons; women were private persons who were supposed to keep out of the public eye.  The Torah is addressed to males.

And it was males who made the decisions about marriage.  Marriage wasn’t the sort of thing we tend to assume today — like people falling in love and deciding to create a new family together.  Rather marriage was a contract between the parents’ families: the woman’s family gave her away to bear a new generation of children for the husband’s family.  She never even became a member of her husband’s family.  If she bore a male heir and if she and the boy both lived long enough, she would finally have a secure place in it when it became her son’s family.  But if she was divorced and sent away, the son remained with his father and she just had to hope that her birth family could and would take her back.

This is hard for us to imagine.  But it was the norm of the time.  Marriage was something men did to women; and so was divorce.  And divorce was usually a disaster for the woman.[iii]  There was no welfare state to support her.  Divorce was the door to destitution.  And it was this discrimination, and the destitution that followed, that Jesus railed against.

So, in verse 5 of Mark’s text, Jesus takes this accepted cultural practice and the Scripture that was seen as backing it up, and he says:  ‘That’s not what God meant at all. That just reflects the mean-spiritedness, the hardness of heart, that’s treated as normal in our society.’  And he puts those questioning him right on the spot with it: ‘Moses said this because of your hardness of heart.’

But you notice that Jesus isn’t in fact discarding the Scriptures, even though he is in Mark 10:4 rejecting one particular text.  Yes, he’s throwing one text out.  But he’s also calling another one in and making quite a big deal of it, and interpreting it in a way that nobody had understood it before.

The text he introduces is: ‘A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ [Mark 10:7,8].

Then he adds his own commentary: “Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.”  ‘God,’ he says, ‘has created something good here; you men can’t just use it for your own convenience and then discard it when a better match, a better family alliance comes along.’[iv]

A literal reading of the Torah preserved the power that men had in a patriarchal society to abuse women.   Jesus sought to abolish divorce in order to protect women.[v]  Incidentally, Jesus wasn’t the first person to notice that divorce was a bad thing for women.  Some centuries before, the prophet Malachi[vi] had already claimed that God hates divorce.  And Jesus grounds his changing of Scripture in Scripture itself: ‘God didn’t intend to authorize hardness of heart; God intended to teach us how to love one another and do one another good.’

Of course some time later Christians turned Jesus’ own statement into yet another license for hardness of heart.  In Eastern Christianity it was held that Jesus was establishing an ideal of lifelong marriage, a goal.  But Western Christianity long held that Jesus was establishing a rigid new law: ‘no one can be divorced; if they are, they cannot remarry’.  Doesn’t that condemn a woman to spending the remaining decades of her life with, for example, an abusive spouse?  ‘Well, we’re terribly sorry,’ said the powerful church authorities, ‘but that’s the rule.’  Hardness of heart sneaks in the back door again.

For what Jesus is really doing in this story is turning the whole use of Scripture on its head.  ‘The Scriptures,’ he says in effect, ‘are not a book of statute law to protect the powerful.  They are a book of astonishing insights into God’s extraordinary generosity.’  The purpose of God all through Scripture is the well-being of humanity.  If you find things in the Scriptures that seem to speak otherwise, consider who benefits from that.  Whose hardness of heart caused that blemish in the sacred text?  Whose hardness of heart is maintaining that interpretation even now?

After all, one thing hasn’t changed.  When religious people read Scripture, we’re still quite capable of using it to support and affirm our own hard-heartedness.  Christians in the early nineteenth century justified slavery by the Bible.  Christians have justified wars by the Bible.  Christians have justified inquisitions by the Bible.  Christians have justified the subordination of women by the Bible.  Some Christians justify homophobia by the Bible.  I suspect some Christians in the USA are now trying to justify the keeping out of refugees by reference to the Bible!

Hardness of heart is something that just keeps on cropping up.  It wasn’t unique to Jesus’ audience in Mark.  It’s not specifically Jewish.  It’s the property of the whole human race.  You can’t escape it just by being religious; but you can’t escape it by ceasing to be religious either.  And if you quit reading the Scriptures, you not only lose the passages that cater to your particular kind of hard-heartedness, you also lose the ones that might wake you up and suddenly let you see how really big and generous God’s love is.

There are people in our own day who like to wield the Bible as a weapon — they like to claim that they’re just reading it all literally.  They’re not.  They pick and choose what they will take seriously, just as Jesus did in this morning’s Gospel story.  They just prefer not to notice what they’re doing.  The big difference is that Jesus knew what he was doing and said it straight out.

Jesus expected something important from the Scriptures; he expected to be challenged and surprised by God.  And he also expected that when you are challenged and surprised by God, some of the details enshrined in the sacred text will be revealed for what they are, as concessions to hardness of heart — and they will have to go.

But how do you decide which ones to discard?  That’s still the big question isn’t it?  Well, you know, this passage does one more thing for us.  It actually gives us a principle for making those decisions:  When Scripture seems to confirm your own hardness of heart, it’s wrong.  Ditch it, just the way Jesus did.  Conversely, when Scripture breaks your world open and makes it bigger and more loving, it is achieving its true goal.

Hang onto that principle.  It may not be the whole story, but it’s a great place to begin and it will take you a long way.  Hardness of heart is a dead giveaway that we’ve got it wrong.  Only generous love can open the door to the truth called God.

[i] Deuteronomy 24:1-3.

[ii] The school of Hillel interpreted Deuteronomy 24 as giving the man permission to divorce his wife if she did anything displeasing, whereas the school of Shammai restricted the cause to the wife committing adultery.

[iii] There were some exceptions. We know that women from influential families sometimes had the right to divorce their husbands; but that right had to be written into the marriage contract.

[iv] Note that St 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 Corinthians 7:10-16].

[v] Of course in Matthew 5:30-32, Jesus, following the School of Shammai, makes an exception for the unchastity of the woman.

[vi] Malachi 2:13-16.