Jesus said to them, “For your hard-heartedness God wrote this commandment for you.” Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples.
Pharisees, in whatever era, want rules. Rules are about power and control. Rules don’t care about people. Jesus does. Jesus makes it about relationship. Jesus describes why marriage and divorce are so hard. Pharisees want to keep it all on paper. Jesus goes literally to the heart of the matter.
Marriage and divorce are hard because they go to our hearts. A marriage makes two people into one flesh. Divorce tears that one flesh apart. Marriage is the birth of a new reality. Divorce is the public funeral when that reality dies. Jesus assumes that divorce happens. He knows this is terrible and tragic. He has no time for armchair discussions. This is about real people with real hopes and real pain. Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples.
In Jesus’ time, wives were the property of their husbands. Marriages were not based on love between two persons but on property, status, and honor considerations between two families. Marriage was a legal contract between the families of the bride and groom. It was often about rules, not relationships.
So a prohibition of divorce was a safeguard for women. Without that protection, the woman was left naked and vulnerable after a divorce. In situations where either party could initiate a divorce, it’s the faithful partner that is harmed when his or her spouse divorces in order to marry someone else. Committing adultery is not an abstract, moral sin. It is a real, hurtful action against one’s God-joined partner.
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.”
God’s Law is designed to protect the vulnerable. When God’s law is used to promote the powerful, we are being hard-hearted. Jesus refuses to render a legal judgment on divorce. He turns the question upside down. He shifts the conversation from legal to relational categories. He seeks protection for the most vulnerable. Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples
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.”
Jesus is concerned about exploitation. Serial divorce was a way to throw someone away. Divorce treated people as disposable. For Jesus followers, there are no disposable people. The heart of God’s kingdom is embracing the vulnerable. Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples.
That’s why we get another story about Jesus blessing children. Children in the ancient world had few rights and no social status. Jesus blesses them, not because they conjure sweet images of cherubic innocence. Jesus blesses the children because he has concern for the vulnerable and scorned, for those ripe for exploitation.
The “divorce text” is framed by this concern for those who are vulnerable and un-valued, those who are subject to the power and whims of others, those who are regarded as barely human and of the same honor status as slaves. Children were valued only when they could provide some utility and not before.
When we read and interpret the divorce text, this is where we ought to begin. Human beings are not created in order to serve as objects of convenience for one another. That is the case whatever the age, gender, class, status, power, color, or orientation. In the beginning, human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. Thus, every person is intrinsically valuable regardless of the perceived utility that person can produce.
The “hardness of heart” Jesus identifies in Mark 10:5 can be described precisely along these lines. God’s desire is for all human beings to be regarded as the Divine image and likeness. Sin warps that desire in us so that we regard others (both human and non-human, by the way) as means to our ends. Therefore, the law is necessary to curb and critique such treatment.
This is about community. But it’s not a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent. This is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community of those who know their need and seek relationship with each other. It’s a community where people have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.
The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints, we say. Is that how it works out? Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples.
Can we talk about the reality and pain of divorce? My first wife died suddenly. My second wife has been divorced. Our relationship and marriage provoked consternation and disapproval, not least among some church people. Each of our previous marriages ended in a death–mine, the death of a spouse; hers, the death of a relationship. Out of those deaths, the Holy Spirit has birthed a new relationship–a new life. That’s the God we worship–the God of resurrection. That’s the God we expect to meet in the Church.
If divorce is the public funeral for a relationship that has died, then there is the possibility of new life after that death. I have seen Jesus bless far too many later marriages with life and love, with joy and happiness, with grace and growth, to believe that they are not of God. This does not make our words about divorce any easier. But we can acknowledge what we see and thank God for the new life.
Can we talk about the pain and reality of marriage? Can we talk about the pain and reality of widowhood, of being a child of divorce, of having friends who divorce? I pray that this is a place where our relationships and conversations can be real. I pray that this is a place where we can support one another in all our ups and downs.
Our culture still wants us to believe that there are people out there somewhere who have blissful lives together with no problems now or on the horizon. I’ve not met any such people. Being married is a demanding kind of intimacy. We can help people by admitting that out loud as the norm for our human communities. And we can think together about how our faith communities can be supportive of all sorts of intimate and committed connections.
I’m glad to say now that marriage is not only an issue for heterosexuals. People are just people, and marriage is just as hard. Marriage is also not the normative standard for relationships. Friendship is hard. Being someone’s child or parent is hard. Being a sibling is hard. The standards Jesus describes for healthy marriage apply equally, but with different dynamics, to any human relationship we can mention.
So, can we talk about the loneliness that infects and infests our American culture? This is the number one mental health issue in our society. Can we talk about the pain and reality of losing a pet? We are made for community–with God, with one another, and with Creation. People know in their bones that it is not good to be alone.
The Church is the community of the blessed and broken, as David Lose has written. Does that ring a bell? Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it. We are a eucharistic community. Just as the body of Christ is blessed and broken for us, so we are blessed and broken for the life of the world. Just as the blood of Christ is blessed and poured out for us, so are we blessed and broken for the life of the world.
Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples.
Finally, can we talk about the pain and reality of being marginalized and vulnerable in this society? We live in a culture where power and control, defense and denial, hostility and hatred are the order of the day. There are no disposable people–no matter their age, gender, color, citizenship, language or merit. Every thought, word and action must be held up to this standard. There are no disposable people. Any rule that says otherwise opposes God’s love.
Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples