I worked part-time for several years as a mediator in Nebraska. Most of my work in those years was assisting divorcing parents in developing parenting plans to which both they and the court could agree. I entered the work with a lot of idealism about how creative and flexible, how careful and compassionate, how specific and, well, human, these plans could be. In our training we saw examples of such sprightly and serious plans – where novel solutions to difficult problems produced real results.
It didn’t take long before Reality set in. As far as the court system was concerned, my job was to help parents produce a plan that was as simple as was practical and that hewed to the court-produced template as closely as possible. Deviations from that template were carefully scrutinized and often rejected with little comment. Creativity was a liability in this work, not an asset.
Please understand that I am not describing the attitudes of particular people in that system. I met and worked with many folks who wanted precisely what I did from the system – a human and humane response to a difficult situation that was unlike any of the thousands of other difficult situations that came through the system in a given year. But the demands of the law, the limits of human endurance and patience, and the layers of administration worked against all of our best instincts and intentions.
In my experience, human parents and children were made for the system. The system was not made for human parents and children. It’s not that every parenting plan was the same cookie-cutter result based on the pre-determined pattern. But it was the case that if the requirements of the system and the needs of the humans conflicted, the system always won.
In addition, no system built by humans is either objective or innocent. At the very least, the family plan system in our state was, at least in those years, built by attorneys for attorneys. I am not an attorney (although it would be fun to play one on TV), and I was not going to be part of that system. I was often regarded as an amateur who was taking money away from real professionals who needed every penny they could scrounge in a highly competitive business.
Finally, despite what some groups might assert, the system continued to lean in favor of the fathers. There were efforts to address that imbalance, but they were only modestly successful. There were and are cases where, in fact, the father is poorly and unfairly treated. That should not happen either. But in general, it was and is a system designed by males, run by males, and evaluated by males – at least at the levels of policy and administration.
Again, I am not suggesting that individuals in the system in general had such male-centric perspectives and priorities. I worked with people of all types who wanted the system to be as compassionate and humane as possible. Many people recognized the liabilities and abuses inherent in the system and did what they could to correct for such issues. It was the system itself that was designed in this way and functioned this way pretty much on its own.
Why have I taken this trip down my avocational memory lane? The Pharisees who come to Jesus with their question about divorce law remind me of representatives of the marriage and family legal system. Perhaps they regard Jesus as a rank amateur when it comes to the interpretation of the Law in the Hebrew scriptures, and they want to sort him out on that score. The “test” may have been designed to put the upstart, extra-normal rabbi in his place. I experienced such treatment from the “real” professionals on any number of occasions.
More than that, the question they ask is about a case, not about any real human beings. There is no mention of the possible abuse the woman received at the hands of her husband prior to being discarded. There is no thought given to the fact that the woman would likely be cast into destitution (and perhaps prostitution) when the process was executed.
There are no children mentioned at all – perhaps because infertility was often a cause of such divorces. Men wanted male heirs to inherit their power, position, privilege, and property. The ancients had little idea about male infertility. It was always the woman’s “fault.” And as mentioned in a previous post, there was no acknowledgment that the textual basis for the position on divorce was a flimsy platform at best.
It was a system designed by males, for males, and solely under male administration. The system regarded the sexual functioning of women – female bodies – as the property of a male. If a woman’s body was not the property of her father, then it should be the property of her husband. If the husband renounced that property right, the woman’s body did not become her own. It became the “common” property of any man who might take advantage of the situation.
It might seem that Jesus not only subscribes to the system in the end but raises the stakes regarding divorce and remarriage to the highest possible level. The Markan composer continues their practice of portraying Jesus’ public position to the crowds and then offering an insider’s view of the instructions Jesus gives to the disciples. Jesus takes the disciples “into the house again,” and this is where the action really happens.
Here the disciples inquire of him concerning the public position. Jesus says to them, “Whoever might divorce [release? Abandon?] his wife and might marry another commits adultery against her, and if she divorcing her husband marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:10-12, my translation).
Matt Skinner makes some helpful observations about these verses in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “When Jesus talks with his disciples in 10:10-12,” Skinner writes, “he says nothing about the rejected partner in a divorce and his or her remarriage. He seems to be speaking specifically against those who leave their partners for others. His point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery,” Skinner argues. “That is, his strongest words are against those who initiate divorce as a means to get something else,” he concludes, “sacrificing a spouse to satisfy one’s desires or ambitions.”
It continues to be important to situate this text in conjunction with Jesus’ three Passion teachings. In Mark 8 Jesus tells the crowd along with the disciples that Jesus’ followers are cross-carriers. Those who pursue the ethic of individual advantage (“those who want to save their life”) will fail in the end. Those who pursue the ethic of self-giving service (“those who lose their life”) will find the Real Life that comes in the Kin(g)dom of God.
The other end of the conversation then happens in Mark 10. The “greater than” game comes to a real head. Jesus declares that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life, a ransom for many. The self-serving, self-interested, self-absorbed power game of the world shall not be the “system” among the Jesus followers. That’s the game we disciples must simply refuse to play.
In the midst of this rhetorical stretch, we get our passage. Serial marriage was a normal reality, especially among the elites, in Greco-Roman culture. Divorce was not going to be one more tool in the self-interested tool bag of those who had the power – men. Nor was it to be, interestingly enough, a tool available to women who had the standing, the resources, and the nerve to pursue such a strategy.
Skinner points out that in his words in the house to the disciples, Jesus elevates women to places of greater equality. The Markan composer assumes that women can initiate a divorce. In addition, “by speaking of a man committing adultery against a woman (and not against her father or her past or present husband), Jesus implies that adultery involves more than violating the property rights of another man. It concerns,” he continues, “accountability to a partner, just as marriage does.”
Jesus’ description assumes that the control of a woman’s sexual functioning is not the “property” of a father or a husband. It is the “property” of the woman. That’s a revolutionary perspective in the first century and still, in some quarters, in the twenty-first century. No human relationship is to be for the advantage of one party in the relationship. No human relationship is to be a casual convenience for the powerful. No human capacity is to be the “property” of another human being.
David Lose puts it well in his 2015 comments. “In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically for the man who sought a divorce – and pushes his interlocutors to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable….The law is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting,” he continues, “and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.”
If Jesus is saying what I think he is saying, then human systems should be biased. Human systems should be biased in favor of the vulnerable and as a protection against exploitation. This will mean that systems should be biased against the powerful. After all, they don’t need any help. They are already powerful. Enlightenment notions of procedural “fairness” will not create such systems. In fact, such notions of “fairness” are mostly camouflage for the features of systems designed by and for the powerful.
The Church is many things. Of course, the Church is – among those things – a human system. We have a long way to go before we are the kind of system that is biased in favor of the vulnerable.
References and Resources
Lewis, Karoline (1). https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16.
Lewis, Karoline (2). https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/dependence-needs.
Lose, David. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-19-b-communities-of-the-broken-and-blessed/.
Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-5.
Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-2.
Vitalis-Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-3.