1-2 From there he went to the area of Judea across the Jordan. A crowd of people, as was so often the case, went along, and he, as he so often did, taught them. Pharisees came up, intending to give him a hard time. They asked, “Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife?” MSG
One of the first things I did when I started research on the reading in Mark was to look up the divorce rate in America. It turns out that the oft quoted 50% is wrong. It also turns out that no one really knows the true percentage. It depends on too many variables to be properly calculated. Several states don’t even report their figures.
What is important to know is that divorce in the First Century was a hot topic, much like it is for us today. The Romans, Greeks, and Jews had different views on divorce, so it is of some value to know which group Mark had in mind when he put together his Gospel—most likely Greek.
You might also note that the question is one-sided. What about a woman divorcing her husband? The Pharisees didn’t bother asking the question because Jewish women had no rights.
I’m sure you will know by now that Jesus knew what the Pharisees had in mind before they asked the question. They were hoping to trick him in some way. We don’t know just what they had in mind. They may have heard what he said about divorce last year and wanted to catch him in an inconsistency. Being in Herod’s territory, they may have hoped he would say something to offend the king who ordered John the Baptist to be murdered.
As he so often did, Jesus asked them a question first. 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” ESV This is practical advice for all of us. It can clarify what the questioner wants to know.
Jesus asked specifically about Moses to prepare the Pharisees for his hard response. Deuteronomy 24:1. If a man marries a woman and then it happens that he no longer likes her because he has found something wrong with her, he may give her divorce papers, put them in her hand, and send her off. MSG If she prepared a meal he did not like—grounds for divorce.
4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” NIV
Jesus has set them up, turned the tables on them. Now for the punch-out. 5-9 “Moses gave you that commandment,” returned Jesus, “because you know so little of the meaning of love. But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female’. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’. So that in body they are no longer two people but one. That is why man must never separate what God has joined together.” Phillips
Genesis 1:27. And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. New JPS Translation [In his commentary on this verse, Robert Alter wrote, “Him, as in the Hebrew, is grammatically but not anatomically masculine.”]
Becoming ‘one flesh’ is the perfect setting. I have been privileged to know some for whom this seems to have been true. There are people who seemingly cannot live without their dearly beloved and die shortly after the other passes.
But most of us live all-too-mortal lives. Jesus made it clear, God did not intend for us to divorce. Nor did He intend for us to sin. As Jesus put it in Matthew: I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. NIV God’s plan for us is perfection.
We do the best we can and trust God to make up the difference. Notice in verses 10-12 when Jesus was inside with his disciples, he did not change his statement. Nor did he say, “I’ll forgive you if you get a divorce.”
We know that Peter was married, and it was likely that most, if not all, the Twelve were married. But let’s pick on Simon Peter. He gave up a reasonably prosperous fishing business to travel around preaching and teaching for no pay. What do you suppose his wife thought? Grounds for divorce? Oh, yeah, the wife had no chance of getting a divorce. Today, spouses are not always on board with the ministry choice, and it can break up the marriage.
Perfection is not easy.
There is another consideration to this tough statement about divorce. Jesus is the groom, and his followers are to become his bride. For Jesus there will never be a divorce. Once his bride, always his bride. I think Jesus wants us to feel secure in that knowledge. More importantly, he wanted Peter and the gang to never doubt the presence of the Messiah/Son of Man/Son of God in their difficult lives to come.
Briefly, on the closing verses of this reading, Jesus gives everyone another lesson on how easy it is to join the bridal party.
13 Some people brought their small children to Jesus so he could touch them. But his followers told the people to stop bringing their children to him. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was displeased. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me. Don’t stop them. The kingdom of God belongs to people who are like these little children. 15 I tell you the truth. You must accept the kingdom of God as a little child accepts things, or you will never enter it.” 16 Then Jesus took the children in his arms. He put his hands on them and blessed them. International Children’s Bible
I’ve not used this translation before, but it seems appropriate.
William Barclay, in his commentary on these verses, makes the following points about children and their example for us. They are humble, obedient, trusting, and they have short memories.
Be righteous and do good.