The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked,
"Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?"
They were testing him.
He said to them in reply, "What did Moses command you?"
"Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce
and dismiss her."
But Jesus told them,
"Because of the hardness of your hearts
he wrote you this commandment.
But from the beginning of 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 they are no longer two but one flesh.
Therefore what God has joined together,
no human being must separate."
In the house the disciples again questioned Jesus about this.
He said to them,
"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another
commits adultery against her;
and if she divorces her husband and marries another,
she commits adultery."
And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them,
but the disciples rebuked them.
When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them,
"Let the children come to me;
do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to
such as these.
Amen, I say to you,
whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child
will not enter it."
Then he embraced them and blessed them,
placing his hands on them.
+ + + + + + +
Sunday's Gospel reading from the Lectionary is probably very familiar to most Catholics, and it is repeated across the three Synoptic Gospels, though with subtle shades of difference that have influenced theological thought and pastoral practice. I am thinking particularly of Matthew's exception clause in Matthew 19: 9 in which, after prohibiting divorce, Jesus states that "lewd conduct is a separate case." We will be hearing a lot about the Catholic sacramental status of divorced and remarried persons as the Synod on the Family unfolds, but for our purposes here the teaching of Jesus on the reality of marriage is quite clear and rightfully serves as the basis for all pastoral discussions to follow.
That said, the text from Mark on marriage has a unique setting and timing all its own. The Lectionary has paired this reading or "pericope" with Jesus' teaching on the kingdom and the need to accept it as a child. The logical connector between the two passages would seem to be "kingdom." This is in fact the Markan sequence from the New Testament, and interestingly Matthew pairs the two pericopes together in his Gospel, too. (Luke has roughly the same texts but divided into different contexts.) Mark's treatment of marriage is located near the climax of his Gospel, as he is heading toward Jerusalem for what he knows will be his final showdown in the battle of the Kingdom of God and the recalcitrant powers of evil. As was the case in last Sunday's liturgy, Jesus is urging his disciples to jettison all of the dangerous and inconsequential matters of their lives to stand in total readiness, like the wise virgins whose lamps are oiled, awake and alert for the coming of the bridegroom.
It is in this context that Jesus gives his famous teaching on marriage. Taking the long view, one could see this episode as an outlier for the ultimate battle with the Jewish authorities that will lead to Jesus' crucifixion. From the context of Mark, the issue of marriage was brought to Jesus by the Pharisees. There is no indication from the text itself that Jesus planned to expound on the matter here. As noted, he is too busy preaching the preparation for the coming of the kingdom to involve himself in a current rabbinical dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, essentially a disagreement of "strict" versus "lenient" grounds for divorce, though both schools accepted divorce as a religious/societal reality. The Pharisees are pressing him, and their phrasing indicates that they have indeed been following Jesus for some time and have some grasp of how radical his talk really is. Given that divorce was a reality of Jewish life, and given that as Jesus himself observed, Moses himself had addressed the subject, why would the Pharisees ask Jesus about the permissibility of divorce unless they were teasing out Jesus' teaching to include an overthrow of Mosaic Law? Mark observes that the questioners were in fact "testing" him.
I am indebted to Father Francis Moloney's excellent commentary for insight into Jesus' responses and subsequent teaching. This intense questioning serves as the perfect "now that you mention it" moment for Jesus. He concedes that Moses did allow for certificates of divorce by which the woman would be legally driven from her home. We forget how truly awful was the plight of an abandoned and shamed woman in early Hebrew society, and perhaps with this in mind Jesus forcefully states that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of the heart of Israel. This is a remarkably damning indictment. It is reminiscent of Hebrew Scriptural passages where Israel had hardened its heart against God himself. The marriage/divorce question, thus presented to Jesus, gives him the opportunity to illustrate how far the Israelite religious tradition had drifted from the very roots of its origins, the primordial paradise itself as described in Genesis.
With great effect (Mark 10:6) Jesus quotes from the first Creation account (Genesis 1, not the "Adam and Eve" account of different authorship.) Genesis 1 opens with the powerful phrase "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth..." Scholars of many religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic family, have understood this majestic, orderly six-day litany of creation as God's true vision of the world and the human species. Catholic theology actually has a technical term for the created human condition untainted by sin and evil, prelapsarian, or "before the fall." Jesus thus returns to the very heart of God's creative intent in defining marriage as two becoming one. He sets the marriage union in that metaphor of natural created unity, where as Isaiah would write, the lion and the lamb would lie down together and the child would play by the cobra's lair. In this instance Isaiah is both historian and prophet. It is no accident that earlier in his Gospel Mark describes Jesus' forty day post-baptism period in the wasteland in these words: "He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him." (Mark 1: 13) The consummate prelapsarian state.
A new aspect of the Kingdom of God is revealed here: it will bring a restoration of God's original creative plan: this kingdom will bring to fulfillment the prophesies of Isaiah and return the right ordering of man in the cosmos. Mark has woven the nature of marriage and family into the creative vision of God. The Genesis 1 creation account ends with the establishment of coupling and child bearing; after couples have received their own commission to create, God rested on the seventh day.
In absorbing all of this myself, I could not help but think that it all sounds very utopian, unreal, illogical. Certainly the disciples were having considerable difficulties with all this. Maybe Mark was just as baffled by the tradition he received. If that was the case, his editorial decision to follow up with the episode on the children makes eminent sense. There is a double metaphor in this story. "Children" in Mark function as newcomers, outsiders, novices to the ways of discipleship. They should not be stopped by "insiders" (read: Temple authorities?) But Jesus has another message in mind: the kingdom of God is attainable only to those who approach it as "children." We can interpret "children" as the little ones whose nimble imaginative minds are still open to the possible reality of all that Jesus promises, stupefying as it is, or as the convert full of energy and zeal, hungry for the promises of the Kingdom.
It is a remarkable Sunday Gospel.