Did You Read What It Says?
What is the immediate focus of the debate in our text? “And when Pharisees came to him, for the purpose of testing him, they asked if it was proper for a man to divorce a wife” (Mark 10:2, my translation). This is a test. Such a test usually has aggressive or hostile intent. It may be that they are trying to determine what rabbinic tradition Jesus supports. The divorce question is a way to determine this.
Later rabbis varied in their interpretation of the proper grounds for divorce. One school thought that mere male dissatisfaction was enough reason to write the bill of divorce. Another school thought that the issue had to be much worse, such as actual adultery on the part of the wife. The divorce question could serve as a sort of theological litmus test for folks who were trying to put Jesus into the proper “box.”
Some commentators argue that these Pharisees are laying a political trap for Jesus. He is heading south again, into territory that is much more dangerous. He goes to the area where John the Baptizer worked and preached. We recall from earlier in the Markan composition that John criticized the divorce and remarriage engineered by Herod Antipas. That condemnation cost John his head. These Pharisees may be hoping for a similar declaration and outcome from Jesus.
In any event, Jesus answers their question with a question of his own. Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that this is how the game of challenge and riposte is played. Never answer a question directly. Instead, always try to put your opponents on the defensive with a question of your own. At the very least, this allowed Jesus to buy time and to get a better sense of what was at stake.
Any public person has experienced the quiet “gotcha” question. The person – usually in my case some motivated parishioner – has a particular perspective to prosecute. But that perspective is hidden behind a simple, brief, and apparently innocent inquiry. In my experience those questions are never simple and rarely innocent. So, it’s a good idea to get some more information and to uncover the real assumptions and agendas behind the query.
“But answering them he said, ‘What does Moses command you?’ But they said, ‘Moses allows that he should write a certificate of divorce and to divorce (her)” (Mark 10:3-4, my translation). The language soon gets slippery. Jesus asks for what Moses “commands.” The Pharisees reply by describing what Moses “allows” or “permits.” Even a casual listener can tell that these are not the same things.
The Pharisees refer to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 for their case law citation. The NRSV heads this section with the title, “Laws concerning Marriage and Divorce.” That’s too broad by half. Instead, this paragraph sets out a hypothetical case and then resolves that specific case. It begins as any such argument would – “Let us suppose the following:”
The text goes on to describe a situation where a man is displeased with his wife and cuts her loose. Without resources or defense in that patriarchal system, she is married to a second man. Either the second man puts her out or dies. The manner of how the second marriage ends is of no consequence. The first man wishes to reclaim his former wife, for whatever reason. That is not permitted under this case law.
The Pharisees, along with a large part of rabbinic tradition, lands on the phrase in verse one: “so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house…” It’s not so much the case that Moses “permitted” the writing of a certificate of divorce as it is the case that the text simply assumes that such a certificate would have been written. Since it is in the text without question or comment, later readers took that as permission for the practice.
The problem that is addressed in this text is the remarriage to the first husband. That’s not allowed, the text says, “for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession” (Deut. 24:4b, NRSV). The text says that the woman has been “defiled” by the previous set of transactions. But what does that mean?
Some commentators focus on the status of the woman. They suggest that she has been “defiled” by her sexual relations with more than one man or whatever was “objectionable” about her to begin with. I think it is more likely that she has been “defiled,” that is, dishonored by the way the first (and perhaps the second) husband have treated her. The law, then, would be put in place to protect her from further exploitation – at least by the offending first husband.
In any event, the “proof text” doesn’t really seem to prove much of anything pertinent to the argument happening in Mark 10. Nonetheless, the Deuteronomy text is taken as a basis for the practice of men writing bills of divorce. This seems to me to be a pretty flimsy platform upon which to build a social and legal practice. Historically it is the case that the practice existed, and what was needed was a story to underwrite the practice.
We could wonder if anyone in the debate was really familiar with the actual text of Deuteronomy 24. No one certainly had the text in hand at the moment. Both Jesus and the Pharisees may have had some or all of the text committed to memory, but neither recites it here. We can be sure that the listeners in the crowd didn’t know the text very well. Nine out of ten in the crowd were illiterate and got their scriptural knowledge from what they heard being taught.
Jesus listens to the response to his question and points out the flimsy, temporary, and contingent nature of the Pharisees’ argument. It was due to the “hardness” of Hebrew hearts that Moses wrote the commandment, Jesus says. Hardheartedness is the diagnosis of the condition humans have when rigidly resisting the good intentions of God the Creator. Whatever the Pharisees read in Deuteronomy 24, it was a temporary concession to human cussedness, not an expression of the Creator’s intentions.
We should note that the first century audience would assume that Moses wrote both Deuteronomy and Genesis. So, Jesus is on firm ground in contrasting the case law in Deuteronomy with the much larger framework of Creation in Genesis. Looking at a text from before the entrance of sin into the world stands a much better chance of getting at what God wants than does a somewhat obscure text designed to work out a specific situation in Israel.
I wouldn’t chase this rabbit trail very far in a sermon. It is, however, worth some consideration here. Jesus displays a method of scriptural interpretation that is honored more in the breach than in practice in some Christian circles. An obscure text with a specific case in mind is not the platform upon which to build a theological or ethical edifice. Yet, some Christians will do precisely that. An obvious example is the misreading of the so-called “rapture” stories in the New Testament and then building a whole mythology that results in the multi-volume fabrication of the Left Behind series.
If Jesus will not play the “gotcha” game of these Pharisees with Deuteronomy 24, then we should be careful in our interpretation not to play the same game with Mark 10. While there is much to debate in these verses about marriage and divorce, we must exercise great care in how we apply this material in some sort of general, programmatic way. Unfortunately, in the history of the Church, that care has not been exercised.
“Nothing in the text compels contemporary interpreters to see Jesus’ teaching as an eternal moral code with universal applicability,” Luis Menéndez-Antuña argues in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “Instead, our imaginative crisis in approaching these texts does a disservice to the rich textures of Scripture itself. The Gospel itself offers no shortage of techniques, narratives, arguments, theological positions, and inspirations,” he continues, “to move us beyond a Christian rhetoric captive in the jails of moralistic views.”
We can read this text as a content resource for our Christian ethical reflections on marriage and divorce. Given the nature of the debate described, however, I would suggest that it is much more important as a description of a method of Christian ethical reflection. Jesus goes behind the case law to God’s intentions for Creation. This can allow us to move past the principles to see the people involved. As I noted in a different context last week, until we can see real people in the midst of an ethical issue, we really see nothing.
I fear that the Pharisees in our text would agree with certain American theologians that too much empathy, too much consideration of real people, is bad for Christian ethical reflection. If we allow ourselves, this perspective would say, to become too empathetically enmeshed in the real lives of others, our moral reasoning will become murky and our principles will lose their anchors in the rules. Such thinkers don’t wish to be confused by the facts of people’s lives.
That is the one methodological choice that Jesus will not tolerate. Whenever his debate partners fly off into the ether of ethical principle, Jesus reaches out for the nearest child, embraces that vulnerable one, and anchors the debate back in the Incarnate reality of authentic human existence.
“Instead of reading passages like this as a ‘rule book,’ as a set of injunctions and prohibitions on how to experience and codify marriage,” Luis Menéndez-Antuña writes, “this pericope is a test case for our ability to read Scripture otherwise.” We’ll continue that otherwise reading in the next few posts.
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