Mark 10: Unexpected thoughts about divorce (and marriage)

Application

As Mark 10 begins, we catch up with Jesus as he heads south toward Judea. Suddenly, we are confronted with the reality that, in the flurry of the last several chapters, we’ve almost completely lost track of time, and more than 30 months have past since Jesus’ public ministry began. Now, as he makes the week-long journey from Capernaum south, crossing the Jordan River and making his way along its eastern shore and into the area where the Israelites had camped out for forty years so many centuries ago, I can only suspect that Jesus’ was keenly aware of the historical parallels between then and now. It was sin that had exiled Israel for four decades, separating them from their inheritance and delaying their entrance into the promise land for an entire generation. It was sin that had exiled Jesus’ people – all of Jesus’ people – from God almost since the dawn of time. And as the Pharisees sauntered slyly toward him in verse two and floated their question in yet another effort to trap him, it was sin that was at the root of the gaping chasm that drove them to ask.

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they asked, according to Mark. When Matthew sat down to write his gospel, he elaborated on the question, maybe providing a little more accurate quote, when he recorded them inquiring, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matt 19:3 NIV, emphasis mine). It was a debate that had raged among the Jewish leaders for centuries, stemming from a seeming contradiction in Deuteronomy 24. There, even as Moses provided instructions for what to do (and not do) in the event of a divorce, he implied that men should want to repent of divorce but that, once a marriage was dissolved and the two parties remarried, it was dissolved for good. There was no going back after they were “defiled.” To be certain, it was pretty condescending language, and when coupled with the fact that this same Moses had written in Genesis 2 that God had designed marriage to be the one best solution to man’s alone-ness in the world, and the prophet Malachi had lambasted Israel for abandoning their marriages in Malachi 3, the religious leaders of the day found themselves facing a real spiritual conundrum.

On one side of the debate, there were the Pharisees. Regular people who had taken it upon themselves to study and interpret the law for everyone else, they recognized that Moses had not listed specific, acceptable grounds for divorce, but when taken in context of God’s intent in Genesis and the words of Malachi, they determined that divorce was okay if you had “good” reason. We’ll call them “conservative,” if only because they wanted to conserve marriage unless there just cause. Their problem was that they had a hard time defining what constituted just cause.

And on the other side of the debate, there were the Sadducees. Comprising the chief priests, scribes, and other professional religious experts, these men knew full well the passage in Genesis, but they rejected everything outside of the Pentateuch (i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Malachi, then, was out. And so they saw the provision for divorce in Deuteronomy and reasoned that a man could divorce his wife for any and every reason under the sun. We’ll call them “liberal,” if only because they were all for people being able to “liberate” themselves from less than absolutely perfect relationships. Their problem was that people could – and would – divorce their wives because she burned dinner or didn’t have a chance to put her makeup on before he saw her in the morning. In the wake of this cavalier disregard of marriage, one could find broken families and destitute women, while the men would just go on like nothing ever happened. Clearly, this was less than ideal.

When the Pharisees asked the question, they thought it was going to be a lose-lose situation for Jesus. If he listed specific reasons where divorce was acceptable, the Sadducees, who also happened to be the political leaders of the day, would tear Jesus apart. And if he said that it was acceptable for any reason whatsoever, the Pharisees would have a heyday telling everyone all about the heretic liberal.

They never saw Jesus’ answer coming. Rather than side with either the Pharisees or the Sadducees, Jesus’ response slammed them both. The Sadducees wanted freedom to do whatever they pleased. The Pharisees wanted a list of circumstances and guidelines so they could do the bare minimum. Jesus said, in essence, that Moses’ directive in Deuteronomy was designed to tell the Israelites how to make the best of it when they screwed up. In no way was it intended to granted license to disregard the perfect and good design which God laid out in Genesis 2, that one man should leave his parents’ home to marry one woman, and the two of them would be united physically, emotionally, spiritually, economically – all the way down to the very essence of their being – for the rest of their lives.

And then, when the disciples asked him about it later, Jesus put it in no uncertain terms. Generally speaking, if you divorce and then remarry someone else, you are committing adultery. That is a sin against God, but notice that Jesus says in vs 11 that it’s also committed “against her.” The problem is that we don’t know which “her” he’s talking about, and I would submit to you today that he’s talking about both the former wife and the new. In the case of a woman divorcing her husband, verse 12 makes clear that the same statement applies equally to her.

Let me be frank for just a second. Our culture has come up with all sorts of excuses for ending a marriage. We have “irreconcilable differences,” “falling out of love,” “different directions,” “outgrown,” “I’ve met someone,” and more, and they’re all supposed to be okay.

But they’re not.

God designed marriage so that two people would become intrinsically connected. In fact, as Jesus pointed out here, God’s design for marriage, the one solution He provided for the one “not good” thing in all of His creation, was, quoting from Genesis 2:24, “the two will become one flesh.”

You cannot divide one and come up with something whole ever again.

Now, we have people who have experienced divorce in our church. In fact, two of the three people who have served as vice-chair of our board since we arrived have been divorced (not from each other). Both of these people are godly, upstanding people, and their lives today are clear evidence of the fact that divorce is neither an unforgivable sin nor something that can’t be overcome with time. Also, I do believe that there are Biblical reasons for divorce (cf Matt 5:32; 1 Cor 7). Quite simply, there are times when divorce is the last recourse.

But none of these things take away from Jesus’ point and mine. Marriages are not disposable because people are not disposable.

And as believers in and followers of Jesus Christ, it is time for us to start acting that way.

So if you’re married, decide here and now that you will be united to your spouse for the rest of your life; divorce is not an option. If you’re thinking about getting a divorce, ask yourself if your situation holds up to Jesus’ standard; the vast majority of the time, I think it will not. If you’ve been through a divorce – or are going through one right now – know that while Jesus hates divorce as much as you do. And as much as it hurts, as much as it just outright stinks, as alone as you feel, and on and on and on, Jesus wants nothing more than to wrap his arms around you and restore you to some semblance of whole.

Notes

  • (2) It should be noted that Matthew phrases the Pharisees’ question a little bit differently: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matt 19:3 NIV)
  • (2) The trick question about marriage is interesting. The Pharisees, of all people, knew that Moses had allowed divorce, but the foundation for that allowance had been up for debate for centuries. Was divorce lawful, or was it simply allowed because God knew that there would be occasions when it was necessary and appropriate? The debate stemmed from the fact that Moses had said things like, “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to her…” (Deut 24:1 NIV) and “[If] her… husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce…” (Deut 24:3 NIV), but also, said that a divorced woman who remarried was “defiled” (Deut 24:4 NIV). At any rate, the Pharisees and co. had managed to twist the ambiguity so that men could divorce their wives for virtually any reason at all.
  • (5) Jesus clarifies the matter and says that divorce was allowed because humanity was defective: our hearts were hard. It is an interesting statement. Essentially, it states that the source for divorce was not God, but man’s sin. And so the permission to divorce was less about what God wanted than it was about “Well, this is what you need to do if this terrible thing happens.” In addition, it strikes me that Jesus uses the past tense here. This would seem to imply that our hearts don’t have to be hard anymore. Indeed, Jesus would soften our hearts to the things of God and open the possibility of us knowing and demonstrating real love for others, including our spouse.
  • (6) Now Jesus lays down the gauntlet. Moses’ law had provided for divorce because God knew it was going to happen. But now that Jesus had come with the power to save from sin once and for all, the state of marriage was reset to its original standard: one man, one woman, together for a lifetime. Please note that the reference back to Genesis is interesting. It was in Genesis 2 that God, on the sixth day, considered all of His creation and found that it was all wonderful except for one thing: man was alone (Gen 2:18). Marriage between one man and one woman, united as one flesh, was the solution. God invented marriage specifically this way to be the absolutely best solution to the problem of alone-ness. There are other solutions that seem okay and alright. This is the one solution that is absolutely, comprehensively good.
  • (11) This is another interesting statement. It occurs to me that the pronoun “her” is actually ambiguous. Is the man sinning against the first wife or the second? Maybe the answer is simply “yes.” Maybe it’s not a matter of either… or, but of both… and.
  • (11) It’s also interesting to note that sin of adultery is not only an affront to God. It is committed “against her.” So it violates both of the two great commandments, to love God, and to love neighbor.
  • (12) It’s also essential to note that Jesus’ statement was not just directed at the men. He reiterates it for the women as well. This was interesting because women were generally not permitted to initiate a divorce for any reason. Mosaic law had not provided for that. But Jesus recognized that the woman may be the one who was guilty and was sure to close the loophole.
  • (13-16) Again, Jesus uses children as an illustration for the disciples. Traditionally, kids were second-rate citizens, expected to be seen but not heart. Jesus highlights them, saying that the kingdom of God should be embraced with the same awe and wonder that kids have, and with the same obedience.
  • (16) It occurs to me that touch was a very important part of Jesus’ ministry. He was here, on this world, as a human. And while he was, he communicated a number of essential messages without words: he cared, he was concerned, we have value, and more.
  • (23-26) While we often take this for granted, it was actually a revolutionary concept. The Jews held wealth as a sign of God’s favor, and God only favored those who were good and thus bound for heaven. So for Jesus to say it was tough for the rich to enter heaven, the disciples immediately thought that it would be even more difficult, if not impossible, for them to get there!
  • (23-25) It should also be noted that, while few of us think of ourselves in this way, we are actually richer than the vast majority of people in the world. So this observation could very easily be extended to us.
  • (29-31) This is an interesting statement. On the one hand, Jesus states clearly that whatever sacrifice we make will be worth it in this life. As in, we will not regret our decision to follow Jesus in this life. But notice the almost ironic coupling here: we’ll receive blessings to offset our sacrifices, “and with them, persecutions.” Persecution will come, but we will receive so many blessings from God’s hand that it will all be worth it in the end!
  • (32) It is interesting that Mark notes the order of the procession. Usually, when going to Jerusalem, there would be no real order. Everyone traveled as a crowd. But here, Jesus was definitely out in front, leading the way. Even though he knew he was going to the cross (vss 33-34).
  • (32) It’s also interesting the response of those who were with Jesus. The disciples were astonished. Having followed Jesus for three years now, they knew what he could do and had no concern about the Romans; Jesus was going to overthrow them and make himself king! And those who followed them were afraid. Like the disciples, they were pretty sure Jesus was messiah and going to make himself king, but they also assumed it was going to be a military campaign. And with an undeniable lack of equipment for war, they knew they were hopelessly outclassed by the professional Roman garrison stationed at Jerusalem. If there was a fight, though, and Jesus was nothing more than the messiah, it could quickly become a bloodbath. They were afraid.
  • (35-45) The secret to being great in the kingdom of God is to make yourself the least in this world. Service is essential to Christian leadership.
  • (46-52) The account of Bartimaeus is significant for a couple of reasons. Having been blind since birth, his healing was certainly a miracle. The stigma of this is important: it was assumed that, if someone was born with a birth defect such as this, it was because there was sin in the life of the parent. Yet Mark not only records Bartimaeus’ name (being blinded from birth would have made him an outcast and object of scorn for sure!), but his father’s name, Timaeus. And Jesus’ actions demonstrated the singular truth: the assumptions of sin and the scorn shown to these people were unwarranted and ungodly.
  • (49) I wonder if Jesus would have done this if the people hadn’t been rebuking Bartimaeus. They were probably telling him, “Why would Jesus want to talk to you, the broken product of sin!” Jesus stopped, almost in spite of them, and called him!
  • (52) It is important to notice that the miracle led to Bartimaeus following Jesus. God does things in our lives so that we will follow him. It’s also interesting to note that Jesus (a) did NOT tell Bartimaeus to keep quiet, and (b) did NOT tell Bartimaeus to go on to the temple and/or go on his way. I guess this was Jesus taking off the proverbial gloves. The time had apparently past for Jesus to keep things low-key. The time had comed for everyone to see what Jesus had done and hear who he was.
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