10 Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
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.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ 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.”
(Mark 10:1-12 NIV)
Jesus has been teaching His disciples on the road to Capernaum, having quite a bit of alone time with them on the road and at Peter’s home while in Capernaum.
In today’s passage, Jesus and the disciples are on the road again, this time headed for Judea in the south, and ultimately Jerusalem. As was His custom, when the crowds showed up to see Jesus, He used the opportunity to teach them.
And wherever there was a crowd, there were Pharisees among them to keep tabs on Jesus and His disciples. This time, the Pharisees were not there to register a complaint or to watch and see if Jesus would violate their oral traditions that they considered to be “law”. Instead, the Pharisees were on the offensive, to test Jesus, to look for valid reasons to shut down His ministry.
The Pharisees asked Jesus their question – it concerned the subject of divorce. This was not a random question – this was a strategic ploy. Now that Jesus was back in Judah, this was Herod’s domain. Remember that Herod had divorced his wife and married his brother-in-law’s wife. John the Baptist had spoken to Herod and told him that what he did was wrong. Herod had John arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately killed. The Pharisees were undoubtedly hopeful that they could get Jesus to say something incriminating about divorce, then get Herod to do their dirty work of arresting and silencing Jesus also.
While the Pharisees were using this topic of divorce to try to test Jesus, the topic was indeed a critical issue of Jesus’ day. There were two schools of Jewish thought around divorce. The burning question was the meaning of the word “shameful” or “displeasing” in Deuteronomy 24:1. Was that term to be applied to sexual sin only, such as adultery, or did it have wider applicability, basically to anything and any situation?
The first school of thought was proposed by the Jewish rabbi Shammi. He thought that divorce was only in cases of adultery. The other school of thought, proposed by the Jewish rabbi Hillel, was a lot more lenient in its view of divorce – basically that a man could divorce his wife over anything, including preparing a meal he did not enjoy, the way his wife looked, or anything else that displeased him.
So the Pharisees asked their question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus, in true rabbinic fashion, answers their question with a question: “What did Moses command you?”
The Pharisees, experts in the Law, were quick to answer “Yes”, and recited the process from Deuteronomy 24:1. The Pharisees responded with the “what” and “how”; Jesus then responded with the “why”.
Jesus goes back to Moses, then proceeds further back to Genesis and to creation and answers “no” to their question. Jesus’ reasoning was that God made the bond between the two people in the marriage, between the man and the woman. Only because of humanity’s hardness of heart were they trying to break God’s bond.
Remember that divorce was God’s way to protect and provide for women. In Moses’ day, women were considered property or “things”, not people made in God’s image. This was not God’s view of women and not His plan in His original design for the family. God knew the hardness of some of the Jewish hearts and wanted to protect women from being treated like animals. The man could not just throw his wife out of the house; there was a formal divorce process, and the man had to provide for his wife financially.
Later, Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus what He meant when He answered the Pharisees. Jesus explained that the sin of divorce is compounded by the sin of adultery when the man or woman who initiates the divorce gets remarried. The reason is that the people are trying to undo the bond that God has made over the marriage – a piece of paper written by a human cannot undo what God has decreed on that marriage. The sinful act of adultery is the only way to undo the blessing and union God has created in a marriage.
May we remember that marriage is first and foremost a spiritual bond made by God; it is a physical bond second. Thus, as a spiritual bond, marriage is a responsibility entered into by the man and the woman to God and to each other first; pleasure and fulfillment are second.
May we see our spouse as God sees them, and treat them as if God gave our spouse to us on loan while here on this earth, knowing that we will have to give them back to God at some point and answer to Him on how we have treated them and cared for them.