Saturday, September 26, 2015

Jesus on divorce: Law or Grace?

Mark 10:2-16 is a text that has bedeviled people of faith for generations.  It seems to portray Jesus as a law giver.  Is he?  Perhaps a few observations regarding the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees can give us a hint as to what is really going on here. 1) The Pharisees approach Jesus "to test him"(vs. 2).  This reveals that the question they ask Jesus they already know the answer to, and they expect Jesus to say something contrary to the law as they know it, (i.e.  they expect Jesus to say that divorce is not lawful when they believe it is); 2)  Jesus' question, "What did Moses command you?" is not the question they answered:  "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce."  (see Deut. 24:1) Jesus asked what was commanded; the Pharisees told Jesus, in effect, what they could get away with - a big difference; 3)  "Being joined" to a wife (vs. 7) means "to be faithfully devoted" to a wife, certainly a status implying care of wife as neighbor, (in faithfulness to the Great Commandment) not simply a legal arrangement.

(The following questions get at some of the issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For a complete look at my thinking in this regard, purchase my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word, is certainly functioning, at first glance, as lawgiver.  He is telling us what we may and may not do.  He is calling us to repentance for our "hardness of heart."  He is calling into question any practice that allows a person in authority to simply dismiss or discard another because they find them "objectionable." (Deut. 24:1)  But this same word, as overheard by the wives of the Pharisees, would have been pure gospel, for it would have revealed to them, "You are beloved of God.  You may not be cast aside.  You are as treasured in God's eyes as your husbands are."  So the audience will determine the function of the Word here.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Again, it is the audience who will determine the function here.  If the audience is the Pharisees and those who identify with them, then there is no word of Gospel here, but only the call to repentance.  If the audience is understood to be the women who overheard this, then this is not a call to repentance but a word of pure Gospel.  There is no word of Law here for the vulnerable women who heard this exchange, only good news.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This text is unusual in that we could choose to identify with those who overhear the dialogue, or those involved in it.  As usual, we do well to steer clear of identifying with Jesus, so our choices are simply 1) the men (Pharisees and disciples), or 2) the women, who also could be identified as "the little ones" with whom Jesus interacts after this exchange.  It is telling that the disciples are consistent:  they understand neither Jesus' concern for vulnerable women, nor his concern for children.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The command to care for the "little ones" - any who are vulnerable - is clear here.

5.  Exegetical Work:  Several brief articles from the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible are helpful in understanding this text.  First, the article on divorce (IDB, I, 859) reveals that "something objectionable" (NRSV) in Deut. 24:1 was very loosely defined.  Indeed there were two schools of thought as to what this meant:  "The Hillel school viewed this as a general term, and the Shammai school took it to mean adultery only."  A woman's inability to bear children was a common reason for divorce.  The article on marriage is also instructive (IDB, III, 278f).  Note the following:  "The husband has the power over his wife...She has rights and freedoms only within the context of this authority...  The husband may even revoke a vow that his wife made to God, if he sees fit. (Num 30:10-13)..." Finally, the article on woman is also revealing:  "The father received a bride price for his daughter and thus engaged in a contract with the prospective husband to make her sexuality available to him.  This transaction, however, was not a transfer of chattel property.  Rather it was the surrender of authority over a woman by one man to another." (IDB, IV, 864f)   All of this reveals why Jesus viewed wives as "the little ones" (i.e. vulnerable ones needing protection).  In his law-giving, Jesus was championing the cause of women who would be living in abject poverty, without support, if dismissed by their powerful husbands.

Blessings on your proclamation!


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  2. Positive site, where did u come up with the information on this posting?I have read a few of the articles on your website now, and I really like your style. Thanks a million and please keep up the effective work. divorce lawyer charleston sc

  3. Glad u found it helpful. The info is straight out of standard reference works like the IDB and often Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the NT.

  4. Divorce happens mainly due to not showing loyalty to each other in a relationship. And this disloyalty always attracts the spouses to doubt and shock every activity of their other halves. Even if they are loyal sometime, but their spouses always take them wrong. At that time they believe in others comments and sayings. So you should first confirm yourself by your own before bidding adieu to your husband or wife. Listen to the good things and you'll see the good things always.
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  9. Our marriages are to be as permanent, satisfying, as full of love, and as absolutely binding as Christ's relationship is to His church.

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  10. I really like your perspective on vulnerability and the historical context for Jesus saying these things. But any divorce, modern or ancient, has to grapple with the adulteration of the original promise and intention of marriage.

    Frederick Buechner has a brilliant reflection on this text called The Law of Love in his book Whistling In the Dark. You can find it at

    Also, as someone who has gone through a divorce, the description of the marriage/promise being adulterated is so true. It is a fact, not a condemnation, which I believe anyone who goes through it, experiences. Perhaps that is why some religious traditions try to undo the reality of the marriage to avoid the fact of a divorce expressing the adulteration of the physical union of two people. If one is judged by the Mosaic law we all fall short, I’m counting on the ultimate law being the Law of Love and being judged by Love itself. The Gospel is that judgment and mercy are joined as one. Unadulterated!

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