Context Matters: A Justice Stand on Divorce

A sermon based on: Mark 10:2-12 (NIV) *
given at Mount Vernon, OH, October 4, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

On the last night before the end of a winter break in law school I left Nance and three year old Tristan at home, grabbed a warm coat and one of those stubby pop-up umbrellas, and went for a long walk in the cold Oregon winter mist.
When I got back to family student housing I opened the unlocked front door and turned the kitchen light on. I was so surprised by what I saw I didn’t close the wide open front door. A bearded man wearing only (AND I MEAN ONLY!) a t-shirt was standing by the refrigerator.

I consider myself a pacifist, but fearing harm to my family I instinctively raised my little collapsible umbrella menacingly as I moved toward a kitchen knife saying . . . something like “What the ‘heck’ are you doing in my house?” The nearly naked stranger had complete fear in his eyes so I stopped going for the knife, but signaled with my now weaponized compact umbrella for him to sit on the couch. As he sat down a woman clad only in underwear walked out of our bedroom.

At that point I was befuddled . . . Actually I sort of freaked out . . . I somehow directed the scantily clad woman to sit with the virtually naked man in the cold winter air as I looked in panic for my family asking “Where is Nancy? Where is my daughter?” They both tried to answer as I simultaneously started bellowing “NANCY? NANCY?? !!!”

Nancy didn’t respond. So keeping the couple in sight I banged on Tristan’s bedroom door and finally heard Nancy mumble “What? What’s going on?” I opened the door and saw Nance laying on Tristan’s bed with a pillow on her head. Tristan was asleep beside her. To Nancy’s utter confusion I said “Stay in here” and closed the door. Only then did I hear what the shivering couple was saying with now visible breath. They’d been traveling, were invited to use the last unit on the left. Our neighbors-on-vacation’s unit was the last on the left perpendicular to the street, our unit was the last on the left parallel to it. I lowered the umbrella, “You have the wrong last house on the left” I said as matter of factly as I could. They got dressed, apologized and left.

It turned out before getting a chance to lock up Nancy fell asleep reading to Tristan, and pulled a pillow over her head when she mistakenly thought the strangers’ noises taking showers were made by me arriving home. I’ve always been glad I didn’t grab that knife and no one got hurt. I don’t blame myself for going crazy when I found unclothed people in my house and no family, but I have always felt sorry for that couple.

For a few frightening moments that night, nothing was what it seemed. Scary confusion ensued. I didn’t understand the context of the couple’s presence in our house–and at first I am sure they didn’t understand . . . I was a pacifist.
I’m telling this story as an illustration of something they drill into us at seminary, context matters. Without it there’s a good chance of mistaken understandings, even scary and confusing ones. The reading today can be scary and confusing. We hear the text and it seems to say Jesus said divorce is prohibited and that remarriage is adultery. It can make us kinda crazy. But we are hearing it way, way out of context. It was not written in our time and place. It is not addressing divorce as we know it. So if the lesson reading gets you huffing and puffing like a stressed out law student armed with an umbrella and naked strangers in your kitchen take a deep breath. (POINT WITH STUBBY UMBRELLA)

Today’s text’s meaning in context is different than our first impression. See Jesus is discussing Jewish law in first century Palestine, a law that allowed only husbands to write a certificate of divorce for the most trivial of reasons. (Deut. 24:1). And women basically could not seek a divorce. Once divorced by her husband the woman had little right to property, money, care or claim to status from a former husband. Ex-wives could be discarded with no hope for support, except begging and doing what they could to survive.

In the context of the patriarchy, women were considered little more than chattel which men could lawfully abandoned through divorce. 1 And it was only when a wife, as property of her husband, was “defiled” by a third party that adultery occurred. See adultery was a property offense. The unfaithful wife was considered damaged property, damaged by the male adulterer. But because husbands were not property, their extramarital affairs weren’t considered to harm the wife.

All of this means that in Jesus’ day women had very little rights in a marriage. They could be severed from it by divorce at the whim of a husband; and husbands alone were considered damaged by affairs. This oppressive type of divorce is what the text is addressing in a First Century Palestine context. It’s not addressing divorce in the context we know it. Divorce in our context can rescue spouses from unloving and dangerous relationships. Our divorce laws recognize the rights of both husbands and wives and allow both to seek a divorce and both to have equal input in the dissolution and disbursement of property. 2 That’s in sharp contrast with the divorce laws addressed in the text.

Alright, now we have the context, the background for today’s text. Divorce could be used to abuse wives and mothers and children. In context we can hear how it was for men and used to send women away, we’re told:

some Pharisees came up to Him, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?” And they said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

The religious elite in the story ask Jesus if a man can get a divorce. Jesus asks what the law is and they tell him: a man can write a certificate of divorce. Jesus doesn’t deny that law, but instead addresses the purpose of the law: “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law.” We can hear “hearts were hard” as an echo of Pharaoh’s heard heart as Moses tried to lead his people– the people Pharaoh treated as property– out of Egypt. It’s a not-so-veiled reference to the patriarchy’s hardness of heart in treating women as property. 3

And I want to point out that Jesus is directly challenging scripture here. He does not find it infallible, but rather written to satisfy a cultural fault, a nod to the hardness of the heart of the patriarchy.

Jesus knows what the law of man is. He avoids possible trouble with authorities by not denying the law allows a man divorce. Instead Jesus cleverly appeals to a higher law, God’s law noting that.

“from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.”For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh; consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh.”What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

I chose to use the American Standard Bible translation today because the NRSV says “let no ONE separate.” The Greek actually refers to not letting “MAN” do the separating. It can be heard to not preclude a woman, or a couple together deciding to divorce.

Certainly God can undo through human action what God has done through human action, but divorce laws allowing the whim of one partner acting as property owner of another partner is anything but Godly.

Marriage in Jesus’ view is grounded in creation. 4 God is not only in charge of love and marriage, but has made it so that the two in love become one. “One” means neither is better that the other. Husband is equal to wife. Wife is equal to husband. God’s ideal is that coupling creates a oneness that a no single partner should be able to separate with total disregard of the other.

Jesus takes on a law that lets men treat women as property; let’s men have much greater power in the relationship and mistreat their partners– which is exactly what was going on in the context of Jesus’ culture. Jesus is publically opposing the one-sided male dominated misogynistic divorces of the status quo in first century Palestine. He does not deny the law allows divorce. He does not say “Don’t get divorced.” He is certainly not saying that unloving couples must stay together or tolerate abuse. What he can be heard to be claiming is that God’s law trumps hardness of heart and human law that promotes oppression and misogyny.

To Jesus women are equal to men in marriage. The two become one. He claims that no MAN ought to be able to separate what God put together. Under God’s way males do not have all the rights and females do not hold a lesser property-like status. This is a huge, huge and liberating thing to say in first century Palestine. If you follow God’s laws you don’t let men willy nilly dump women on the street. You don’t let men make one-sided decisions in disregard of women’s rights. Hearing our lesson in this way ought not to sound scary, but rather like another effort at justice and bringing love to rule where hardness has ruled.

After publically challenging legalisms that defy God’s plans Jesus then has a private conversation with the disciples. We are told:

in the house the disciples began questioning Him about this again. And He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.” (Mar 10:2-12 New American Standard Bible)

While Jewish law did not provide that a man committed adultery against his own wife, Gentile laws did and they allowed women to initiate a divorce. This suggests this part of the text was added after the Jesus movement found traction with Gentiles, most likely after Jesus’ death. Meaning Jesus probably did not say it. But it nonetheless suggests that equality of women continued to be important in the early church by recognizing woman’s rights in the marital relationship.

We can hear that early in the church wives are not seen as property, but as humans with feelings and interests in the relationship. The wording “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her” recognizes women have interests in the marriage relationship which can be harmed.

In the early church women were provided the very same marriage rights as men. This is mind boggling big! The text evidences that Christianity, at its earliest stages, understood women to be equal to men in marriage. It’s how the first church communities understood broken marital relationships. The Interpretation Bible commentary concludes its discussion of the text like this:

A divorce may revoke a legal contract, but one cannot un-live the vital ties created by life together in marriage, however painful they may be. Jesus does not legislate by saying “No remarriage,” but recognizes what divorce and remarriage do to the residual relationship with a former partner and insists that his disciples understand that the problem cannot be avoided by legal means. The answer was – and is– shocking . . . It set the early church counter to easy selfish views of the marriage relationship in the surrounding culture . . .”5

So today’s reading can be heard to say what we all know to be true, that marriage is not to be taken lightly; that love is a Sacred relationship which touches both parties deeply and intertwines them together as one making them equal; that divorce hurts both parties; and that a martial relationship can never be fully un-entangled. And human laws cannot diminish that fact nor alter that harm. Accordingly, while the divorce laws in First Century Palestine may have treated the matter lightly, Christians are not to take it lightly. It deeply affects couples for life, the wife as well as the husband.

Anyone who has been involved in divorce knows that while the law claims to separate the couple, reality at one level or another keeps them tied together for life with: children, in-laws, obligations, memories, even continuing care and love.

So the bottom line is that this text heard in its proper context is not something to fear or feel guilty over. It’s about Jesus and the early church being remembered as challenging hard hearted laws. It’s proof that Jesus and the early church saw women not as property, but as human beings. It’s proof that laws that allowed women to be treated unequally and thrown out on the street are only manmade laws trumped by the laws of God– and opposed by the love of Christ. It’s proof again that God sides against oppression of all types – and sides with love all the time.

We don’t have to be afraid of today’s reading. In the proper context it can be heard to indicate Jesus was and is all about equality and justice, righteousness and love. And that’s always good news!


* This sermon is based at least in part on a sermon I originally wrote in 2009
1. Crossan, John Dominic, The Historical Jesus, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1992), 301.
2. Ibid.
3.Cf, Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler, In Memory of Her, Crossroad, New York (1984) ,143
4. Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Mark, 176
5. Ibid., 178.