1. The lectionary text combines subjects of divorce and children which to any contemporary reader are closely related. However, the tendency has been to stay away from the divorce subject (Mark 10:1-12) when turning to this section of Mark. Certainly Mark 10:13-16 which uses the children as subjects has similarities to Mark 9:35-37. Many interpreters note the similar uses of children around the theme of entry into the kingdom. Children had uncertain lives (high mortality rate) and were not particularly valued in late antiquity. Jesus concern was for the powerless, like children or the poor. Children could serve as example to the powerful of what they needed to become in order to inherit God’s kingdom.
2. Domestic issues in chapter 10 contain the longest ethical section of Mark’s gospel (marriage, children, riches, rewards of discipleship). Mark was addressing the issues of the house churches to whom he was speaking. Some see Mark 10:13-16 as being included because of disputes having to do with child baptism and the rite of admission.
3. I will focus on Mark 10:1-12 because it raises many questions for contemporary hearers. Were we to have more documentation I am guessing that many of the questions we raise relate to those of the initial hearers of Jesus words. Unfortunately we do not have updated news reports from Jesus time or Twitter accounts to suggest other takes people in antiquity may have raised.
Focus on Mark 10:1-12
Here is a summary of some of the background issues that are important to better understand this text.
1. These verses are divided into two sections by way of the people being addressed. The first (Mark 10:1-9) is speaking to the crowds as they seemed always to congregate around Jesus. Then in Mark 10:10-12 it indicates that the disciples continued to ask additional questions “in the house,” a new location from where they were previously.
2. The same incident seems to be expanded in Matt 19:1–9; a related reference in shorter form in Matt 5:31-32; and is abbreviated in Luke 16:18.
3. The first section (Mark 10:1-9) consists of the Pharisees’ “test” question about divorce and Jesus’ counter question, then the Pharisees’ response and Jesus’ rebuttal.
4. Marriage and divorce in the ancient world was a hot issue. The Greco-Roman world had a considerably more lax view on divorce by this time. Jewish factions were divided. We know a fair amount about the discussions of divorce during Jesus time and in the surrounding years when Mark was written. Jesus position on divorce is direct and clear. No divorce. From the small story in Mark there are no conditions given for the acceptability of divorce. In part this is due to the affirmation about the nature of marriage. Keep in mind the following points.
a. In antiquity issues of divorce and marriage mainly had to do with what men were entitled to do and not to do. Certainly as Israelite practices developed there was a movement from a more polygamous system to one of monogamy. In Jesus time it is clear that Jews were disagreeing about divorce.
b. Mark would have had to know about how tricky the “test” question was for Jesus and the distinctive response Jesus made on this particular occasion.
c. We know that John the baptizer had spoken out against Herod’s marriage to Herodias (Mark 6:17ff.) on the basis of the law of forbidden marriages that specifically excluded marrying one’s brother’s wife (Lev 18:16; 20:21).
d. We know that the Dead Sea Scrolls community took a fairly strong stand against divorce and remarriage.
e. Paul was certainly familiar with Jesus saying on this matter (1 Cor 7:10-11) and seems to have based his position on Jesus saying.
5. The way Jesus sets Gen 1:27; 2:24 over against Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is unusual but not entirely unheard of in the biblical and related traditions. Genesis is understood as a part of the Torah (Law) as much as Deuteronomy. In part it is the bringing up of the Genesis reference that leads to my saying the text is more about marriage than about divorce or the circumstances surrounding divorce. Jesus unequivocally says that from creation the two becoming one flesh means any dissolution of that joining is prohibited.
We could ask a series of questions as we turn to the implications for contemporary Christians. One question that comes to mind is, “What would Jesus say today?” To be honest I cannot imagine his answer would be any different to the test question the Pharisees ask him. What is not in the answer is the rest of Jesus words and ministry that dealt with sin and repentance. There is no difference between the breaking of this commandment and any other of God’s commandments. Everyone gets another chance was one of key elements in everything we read of Jesus in the New Testament. This is indeed where having the right answer to any question we might raise about divorce or marriage does not tell the entire story.