Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Translation: And the pharisees came (and) were asking him if it is permissible (for) a man to release a woman, putting him to the test. But he answered (and) said to them, "What did Moses command you?" But they said, "Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release." But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment, but from the beginning of creation, he made them male and female. Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate."
And in the house, the disciples again were asking him about this, and he said to them, "Whoever might release his woman and might marry another commits adultery upon her. And if she, releasing her man, might marry another, she commits adultery."
And they were bringing children to him so that he might touch them, but the disciples were rebuking the ones bringing. But seeing, Jesus was indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to me, do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it." And he took them into his arms, was blessing them, laying hands upon them.
"The crowds again gathered around him"--the only use of the plural "crowds" in Mark's gospel. Further, to establish the link with previous teaching, Mark says "as was his custom, he again taught them." The mention of crowds also means that there will be a large audience for the rabbinical debate which is about to ensue.
The test: Mark has spoken of several controversies involving the pharisees (2:15-17, 2:23-3:6, 7:1-15, 8:11-12) so the mention of pharisees invites interest and suspicion. These pharisees come to "test" Jesus, as they had also done also in 8:11. What was the test? They ask if it was "permissible" for a man to divorce--"release"--his wife.
The test was to place Jesus squarely in the same position that had resulted in John the Baptist being killed. John had questioned Herod Antipas' divorce and subsequent remarriage to Herodias (6:17ff). "It is not lawful (exestin)," John had said.
The same question--"is it lawful?" (exestin)--has now been placed before Jesus. If Jesus agrees with John, that could be interpreted as treason against Herod Antipas. (Jesus is in Perea, keep in mind, on Antipas' turf.)
Mark has already told us that the pharisees were conspiring with the "Herodians" (3:6). If Jesus criticizes Herod Antipas' divorce, some of those "Herodians" would no doubt argue that he should deserve the same punishment as that dished out to John.
Rabbinical argument: Moreover, according to Deuteronomy 24, divorce clearly was "permissible"--or "lawful." (Deuteronomy 24:1: "Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house. She then leaves his house.")
The certificate of divorce was called a "get." This terminated the marriage and made it possible for the woman to re-marry. The certificate read: "You are free to marry any man." (France, p. 393) Remarriage was not an issue for men because they could marry more than one woman.
What defined "something objectionable"? This question was hotly debated between the two main theological schools of Judaism in that period, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. The more conservative school of Shammai argued that only adultery was an acceptable reason for divorce. The school of Hillel argued that almost anything could be considered "objectionable," such as burning the pot roast, for example.
Jesus responds to the question with a question, a typical rabbinical practice. "What did Moses command you?" he asks. The question is subtle. Moses had no "command" on this issue. The provision for divorce in Deuteronomy was, essentially, a concession to the reality of divorce and an attempt to provide structure and guidelines in its wake.
The pharisees respond that "Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release." With the understanding that a "permission" is not the same as a "command", this was true. Moses had permitted divorce. The pharisees present an acceptable legal argument based on the book of Deuteronomy.
Jesus dismisses this permission with a sharp rejoinder. "For your hardness of heart" Moses allowed divorce, he says. The accusation of "hardness of heart"--sklerokardia--is a serious one. "Hardness of heart" is associated with resistance to the ways of God (Jer 4:4, Ez 3:7).
Moreover, Pharoah, their ancient enemy, had also had "hardness of heart." No Jew would want to be lumped in with Pharoah. Secondly, Pharoah is a representative figure for patriarchy. Nobody is higher up the social ladder than Pharoah.
Having associated divorce with Pharoah and patriarchy, Jesus switches from the subject of divorce to marriage in general. In effect, he will base his argument on a broader understanding of Moses--not specific commands or permissions, but a general attitude toward life and relationships based on God's design of creation.
Jesus says, "from the beginning of creation, he (God) made them male and female." The reference is to Genesis 1:27: "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Note that the "image of God" is both corporate--"them"--and includes both male and female.
The sect of the Essenes used the same text to prohibit divorce. Contrary to the common assumption, Jesus does not actually "prohibit" divorce in this reading. What he does do is remove it from being something of a technical issue, and places it in the much broader context of God's desire for human life at the beginning of creation.
Jesus continues: "Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh." Here, the reference is to Genesis 2:24: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." Note that the man is to leave his family--that is, he is to leave his own patriarchal tradition.
Jesus adds, "What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate." Jesus avoids the technical term for divorce (apoluse) and switches instead to "separate" (chorizo). He does not directly challenge the Mosaic law which allows for divorce, but instead bases his argument on God's intention in creation which is the unity of marital relationships and the essential equality of male and female.
Jesus explains further: Jesus and the disciples go away from the crowds and "into the house." The disciples have questions, which is not surprising since Jesus has just upended centuries of tradition. Jesus responds, "Whoever might release his woman and might marry another commits adultery upon her. And if she, releasing her man, might marry another, she commits adultery."
In the world of that time, a Jewish man could not commit adultery against his wife. The definition of adultery was of a married woman with a man other than her husband. If a man had relations with a married woman who was not his wife, that was considered to be adultery against the woman's husband, not against his own wife.
In a strong defense of women, Jesus asserts that a man who divorces and remarries abrogates not only God's intention in creation but also commits adultery against his first wife. Further, Jesus contradicted Jewish law by stating that a woman might divorce her husband. This was acceptable in Greco-Roman law, but not Jewish law.
That a man may divorce his wife, but not vice versa, is both an expression of the institution of patriarchy and a subversion of the intention of God "from the beginning of creation" for whole and unbroken relationships.
To summarize to this point, Jesus invokes God's intention in creation which is that relationships be equal and unbroken. He subverts the dominant patriarchal worldview that only men could get divorces, and only women could commit adultery against her spouse. His teaching recognizes the profoundly wrenching experience of divorce, as anyone who has been through it can attest, and also recognizes the reality of divorce and the importance of maintaining justice in its application.
Receiving the powerless: Immediately after these teachings, people were bringing children to Jesus "so that he might touch them." The disciples "rebuked" those who were bringing the children, apparently forgetting that Jesus had recently said that whoever welcomed a child also welcomed him, which was the same thing as welcoming God (9:36-37). The disciples get it wrong again.
"Rebuked" (epitimao) is a strong word, one often used against demons and demonic powers in Mark. Seeing the disciples turn the children away, Jesus was "indignant" (aganakteo). Aganakteo was also a strong word. It meant displeasure, annoyance, strong irritation, and is used only here in Mark's gospel.
Jesus then says, "Do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God." Children represent all the "little ones" cared for by God. Of these "little ones," the kingdom of God is constituted.
In Mark's gospel, the phrase "truly I say to you" occurs 14 times. It indicates a special pronouncement, and means the listener should underline what follows. Then Jesus says, "Whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it."
The saying is not about the "simple faith" of innocent children and how we all should emulate their unquestioning trust.
It is, rather, about the precarious state of children, their vulnerability, their lack of status. (60% of first century middle-eastern children died before their 16th birthday.) Indeed, already in Mark, the synagogue leader's daughter had died of illness (5:21ff.), the syrophoenician woman's daughter was ill (7:24ff.), and a man's son was demon-possessed (9:14ff.).
Nobody is more powerless than a child, then or now, and every child knows it. Hierarchical systems, of whatever kind, oppress those on the bottom. Pharoah oppressed his slaves. From the point of view of the child, families oppress children.
Any psychologist worth his or her salt recognizes that children will almost always internalize the conflicts of the family. If the family is experiencing stress, the children think it's their fault. Why wouldn't they? They often experience being at fault and earning the displeasure of their parents. This is part of their every day experience.
In the first century world, children were property of their father. They were accepted into the family on the father's say so, and were subject to his authority all through their lives. This made them sitting ducks for "Stockholm syndrome."
That is, they may feel oppressed within the family, they may have little if any voice, and they are generally not allowed to express their anger. Nevertheless, they also recognize their complete dependence on the good will of their father and, in a sense, come to identify with their father. In the process, they learn that it is all right to oppress those who are smaller and weaker, a view they carry with them into adulthood.
"Whoever receives a child receives me," Jesus had said (9:37). In the kingdom of God, which is to be practiced here on earth, children are to be "received." They are to be accepted. Again, in our lection, children are not to be "hindered." They are not to be turned away just because they are small and powerless. Quite the contrary, in fact. Turn a child away--turn away those who are weak--and you are not in the kingdom.
The episode closes with Jesus taking children into his arms, "blessing them"--a strong word, kateulogei, used only here in the four gospels--and "laying hands on them." The repetition of the three verbs--taking, blessing, laying hands--adds force. Jesus is overtly placing the powerless in the center of the community's life. Exactly this, says Mark, is the kingdom of God.
The children had been brought so that Jesus might touch them. He does that, and much more.
Image: Lucas Cranach, Let the Children Come