Whom God Has Joined

Ordinary 27B

Mark 10: 1 16


Jesus is leaving Galilee for the last time. He has been concentrating on teaching his chosen twelve, although the general population are not denied their share of his attention.

Mark is usually a Gospel of action and mighty deeds, but this journey to Jerusalem is mainly taken up with profound teaching. Our text this week is one of those lessons.

The core subject treated in this captured encounter with the learned authorities in Judaism is well known to Christians. In our day the topic brings much heartache to those who try to honour our Lord's obvious intentions. Our notes cannot possibly cover the moral law arising from and based on this type of teaching. Our purpose is to present the "first base" only: what actually took place in this episode.

It is significant that as the passage unfolds we observe Jesus do something no one had done before him: he recognised that a man could commit adultery against his own wife. There were some who would have executed Jesus for this alone!

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 1

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.

The exact route Jesus took as he headed South around the Sea of Galilee, is impossible to define; it is the proclamation of divine truth which has primacy in Mark. The mention of crowds indicates common folk willing to listen. These people could hardly spare the time to listen to an itinerant preacher, but for Jesus they made time: in other words, they simply took it!

Verse 2

Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

We note St Mark's care to record that "some" (not "the") Pharisees came to test our Lord. We observe also that they came to "test" Jesus. In rabbinic tradition this was not always sinister. Our Lord seemed to have no difficulty discerning the motives of any of his challengers. We know he loved a good honest debate, as we see in the account of his evening with the venerable Nicodemus. On the occasion described in the present text, it was clear to Jesus that the learned authorities were not there to enquire or to debate, but rather to trap. They chose the time, the place, and the topic.

The question of these Pharisees — "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" — can only mean, "Is it taught in the Law (the Torah, first five books of the Bible: the Law of Moses) that a man can divorce his wife?"

We note that the question put forward was not:

  • Is divorce allowed by God?
  • Can marriage be annulled?
  • Can a woman divorce her husband?

The focus is entirely upon the rights of the husband.

Verse 3

"What did Moses command you?" he replied.

Jews often joke about how good they are at answering a question with another question. And Jesus was very good at it!

The question from Jesus, in Jewish culture would have been interpreted as, "What commandment about this did Moses (meaning God through Moses) give you?"

The only reply from his listeners which would have been correct, would be, "Well, actually, none". Our Lord, in this scenario, was well in control of the direction the dialogue was taking. In strict Orthodox Jewish tradition he began his answer with a reference to the Torah (albeit a shrewd question). In the best tradition he enquires, "What divine commandment is there? What is God's will in this matter?" After all, that is the basis of all moral law, and Jesus shows only a desire to support it and not undermine or supercede it.

Verse 4

They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away."

The reply from his adversaries is as quick as it is smug! They concede to Jesus the point he scored but, from their experience, they probably anticipated that anyway. The answer from the Pharisees actually meant that a man, if dissatisfied with his wife, was authorised by Moses to employ the privilege of simply writing out a certificate of divorce which immediately terminated the marriage.

In Jewish Law at that time, there were two principal schools of thought, one according to Shammai and the other according to Hillel. At this point we turn to a short passage which provides crucial information.

There was the school of Shammai They interpreted the matter with utter strictness. A matter of indecency was adultery and adultery alone. Let a woman be as bad as Jezebel, unless she was guilty of adultery there could be no divorce.

The other school was the school of Hillel. They interpreted that crucial phrase as widely as possible. They said that it could mean if the wife spoiled a dish of food, if she spun in the streets, if she talked to a strange man, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband's relations in his hearing, if she was a brawling woman, (who was defined as a woman whose voice could be heard in the next house). Rabbi Akiba even went the length of saying that it meant if a man found a woman who was fairer in his eves than his wife was.

Human nature being as it is, it was the laxer view which prevailed. The result was that divorce for the most trivial reasons, or for no reason at all, was tragically common. To such a pass had things come that, in the time of Jesus, women hesitated to marry at all because marriage was so insecure. When Jesus spoke as he did he was speaking on a subject which was a burning issue, and he was striking a blow for women by seeking to restore marriage to the position it ought to have.

(From The Gospel of Mark by William Barclay,
St Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1975)

This quotation helps is see where the Pharisees "were coming from". It was that kind of reasoning which they thought enabled them to declare, "So Moses approved divorce".

Our Lord, however, considered their argument to be based on a misrepresentation of Deuteronomy 24: 1. Moses did, in that passage, declare something of very great importance. Paraphrasing it into our manner of speaking may illustrate the dilemma he was facing:

"There is nothing that I can do or say that will stop you breaking your marriage contract. So, if you must do this, then it can only be after you have given her a bill of divorce certifying that you have released her and that she is free to marry again."

In this way, Jesus wanted to point out, Moses at least protected the woman repudiated by her husband.

Verses 5 and 6

"It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied.

"But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female.

In these words our Lord continues to make a distinction between what Moses needed to do under duress, and what the Pharisees present were claiming it empowered them to do. Moses could not hold back the tide of public opinion; but as Jesus acknowledges, he tried to limit sinfulness and control its consequences. Jesus therefore implied, "Moses had to do something, since you wanted everything your own way, and had little concern for the woman, who had no rights at all."

Then, in the very best tradition, our Lord presents to his opponents the basis of his argument: the creation by God of man and woman at the beginning. Rabbinic tradition at that time taught that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, and so Jesus was also quoting Moses who recorded, under inspiration, the most holy will of God our Creator and his plan for humanity.

Verses 7 9

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,

and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one.

Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

Perhaps we could paraphrase in order to try and hear it the way it sounded to our Lord's listeners, with their highly specialised cultural background: "In God's plan," says Jesus, "two different people shall marry and shall be just as they are one person". (By "one flesh" Jesus denotes a relationship more intimate and binding than any other. UBS).

"As such", continues Jesus, "they have equal rights and obligations. Thus since this is God's plan for us, his will (Torah), no male can claim the right (as you are now) to get his own way simply by writing out a certificate and sending his wife off! The escape clause provided by Moses is therefore now rescinded!"

To this bold declaration of Jesus no one uttered a single sound!

Verses 10 12

When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.

He answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.

And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."

Wisely, the disciples (the Twelve) waited until they could go inside the house before they asked Jesus to explain what he had said. In fact he didn't seem to explain very much but rather drive it home even more emphatically. We do not need to paraphrase it; Jesus is very clear. The only thing we need to note, due to the difference of language structure, is that the reference to "adultery against her" refers to the first wife. Likewise the wife could commit adultery against her original husband.

Thus we witness, yet again, how Jesus deals with the inappropriate use of Sacred Scripture to support one's own agenda. The Pharisees laid a trap. Jesus made it a lesson not to be easily forgotten!

Verses 13 - 16

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them.

When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."

And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.

And so Jesus concluded his powerful delivery with one of his best remembered lines: "Let the little children come to me…" He thus went on to recall what the Pharisees had not even considered: the children! We could sum up his attitude towards them in this way:

"These children demonstrate something about God's will, about what is eternal in God's plan for all people: married, single, young and old".


We close with an excellent summary and overview of this important lesson by Jesus, plus one of his favourite prayers.

The divorce case 'test' the Pharisees designed was either to show Jesus untrue to the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures or to get him into trouble with the ruling Herod clan (whose quantity of divorces, remarriages and intermarriages was quite appalling).

The Jewish rabbis of Jesus' day differed widely on their interpretations of the Deut. 24: 1 — 4 prescription for divorce. It was customary for a man only to be allowed the option of initiating a divorce, which was obtained simply by the husband writing a certificate of divorce to give his wife.

Jesus challenges Jewish practice, because in reality it had resulted in women being sent away for such reasons as appearance or cooking. In first century Palestine, that was throwing a woman on the streets, for she would be an embarrassment and burden to her family of origin, and would have had no way of making her own living. Jesus sought to correct what he felt was a gross injustice against women of his time, and against God's intent for marriage.

Jesus, ever a step ahead of his adversaries, relies not on Moses' rules, but hearkens farther back to God's intent at creation. If God truly joins a man and a woman together, then they have so become one (Gen.2: 24) that they cannot be separated For partners so joined, to marry others is adultery.

Jesus' teaching must also have been aimed at protection of children who would undoubtably have suffered from such divorce practices. Like women, children were considered "property", had no rights, and no respect as human beings. Jesus is angered by his disciples who try to send the children away as if they were of no value. Instead he caresses them and blesses them, recognising them as valuable, as persons. He does not hesitate to point to children as examples of the trust and openness to the values of God's reign that all disciples must learn.

Mary Betz


Blessings of Those Who Fear the Lord

BLESSED is every, one who fears the Lord
Who walks in his ways.
When you eat the labour of your hands,
You shall be happy, and it shall be well with you.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
In the very heart of your house,
Your children like olive plants
All around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed 
Who fears the Lord
The Lord bless you out of Zion,
And may you see the good of Jerusalem
All the days of your life.
Yes, may you see your children's children.
Peace be upon Israel!

(New King James Version)

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