Certainly there are passages from Scripture which can be taken at their face value. When Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” – well, he was pretty clear (and no, he didn’t stutter!). But today’s reading from Mark is a perfect example of a text which, if taken as a “bare reading,” can be terribly misunderstood and even do positive harm.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce is known as one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus and if we take it on its surface and only deal with it on a literal level then we open up all kinds of painful issues. First is the nature of divorce itself which, regardless of the circumstances, is always painful because it involves the death of a relationship. God grieves when divorce happens because real people – his very real flesh and blood children – are hurt. And then, when we speak of divorce, we are forced into looking at the flip side of the coin which is marriage – and that has certainly been a hot topic of conversation in our culture. What constitutes marriage? Is marriage “one man and one woman” as some would have us think? And if so, how do we explain King David and his 300 wives and concubines? And if we dig a bit deeper, we find marriage defined as a rapist and his victim, a man and his wife and his wife’s property (other female slaves), or a man and any woman he takes as the spoils of war. Clearly, the Biblical definition of marriage is checkered at best. And how do we understand this in light of the questions surrounding other relationships which bear some of the marks of marriage? What about same-sex couples who, by operation of law, are barred from the civil protections marriage provides me and my husband? What about elderly couples who, because of financial considerations, cannot get married without plunging into destitution? These are all very real issues which cause pain and suffering to real people. And if we only take this Gospel at a “bare reading” level, we continue to heap abuse and hurt on God’s children. I believe this is an abuse of Scripture and I strongly believe there is another layer of meaning behind this teaching.
If we were to travel back to first century Palestine, we would find that marriage was a very different arrangement than what we experience in the 21st century in the United States. When children were toddlers, their parents began the process of arranging for their marriage – often to a distant cousin of the same tribe in order to consolidate family wealth and provide for the parents in their declining years (this is what 1st century Palestinian “social security” looked like). This contractual arrangement was known as betrothal and it was just that – a business arrangement. Generally, this isn’t how marriages happen in our modern culture.
So in the midst of this cultural understanding of marriage, the Pharisees come to question Jesus about whether it is “lawful” to divorce ones wife (notice the legalistic language of questioning the lawfulness in light of the contractual business nature of marriage). At this time, there were two schools of rabbinic thought on this. The first said it was lawful if the woman was guilty of adultery. The second was much more lenient and gave all kinds of conditions under which a woman could be put out by divorce, including “burning the bread” (sorry ladies, if you burn the toast, you are out of here!). Instead of giving into either side, Jesus lifts the question to a whole new realm: it isn’t about a business dealing and the lawfulness of a contract – it is about people … real flesh and blood people … and especially women! Who stood to lose the most in the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ day? Women! To be put out of one’s home by divorce was a disgrace to the woman and her family. Women were often left destitute and their prospects for remarriage were very limited. Jesus goes on to say that if a man remarries, he commits adultery against his wife. This is radical because if a man remarried, the crime of adultery was considered to be a shaming of the woman’s father and male family members, not against her. If anything, Jesus is elevating the status of women who were often considered “non-persons” at this time and place.
This helps us understand the tie in with the teaching about the children coming to him. Children are also relegated to “non-person” status – even in today’s society (which is why it is so easy to cut education and Head Start from our national budget … after all, children don’t vote, do they?). Jesus elevates both the status of women and the place of children through these combined teachings.
So rather than see this as a teaching about divorce, I’m persuaded that divorce is merely the “presenting issue” and the real underlying teaching has to do with who the non-persons in our society are and how we treat them. Jesus came to save the last, lost, little, least and lifeless – and those who are pushed aside into non-person status fit most of those categories.
The faces may change, but there are always those among us who are considered “non-persons.” In our day, it is the homeless, the physically or mentally ill, those with crippling addictions, children, the poor and hungry, the elderly, the developmentally disabled – all of these people are precious to God and yet they are those often relegated to non-person status in our culture. Our baptismal vows call us to seek and serve Christ in all persons by loving our neighbors as ourselves and to strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being. If we move beyond the bare reading of this passage to see it is about how we treat the last, lost, little, least and lifeless, we can see a broader call and implication for our own lives. Christ did this work of reconciliation and healing in his day – and the work continues for each of us, here and now.