Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? (Mark 10:2-16

As part of the course on morality and ethics that the chaplains at the Australian Defence Force Academy present to the officer cadets, we would show parts of the film, The Thin Red Line. This film shows a battle during WWII and illustrates how easy it is in the conditions of war to step over the thin line of what is considered to be moral or immoral. One episode depicts the final charge after some heavy and intense fighting where the allies overrun a Japanese headquarters. Every Japanese soldier is slaughtered without mercy, including those who were surrendering, those who were caught naked and defenseless, and those who were running away. As the smoke and noise die away, a voice is heard to ask the question, “Where does this evil come from?”

This is a question often asked, in different ways, as people observe the evil, the immoral and the unjust things that humanity inflicts upon each other and upon God’s creation.

In the passage from Mark 10:2-16, the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked a question on divorce. ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ Jesus’ response might be summarized to say, “If you were living God’s way, you would not even be asking this question!”

In this response, Jesus gives us an insight into the source of much evil. Although not the complete answer, we can determine that much of what is wrong in society arises from the hardness of heart of mankind. If mankind had not rejected God, and were still living in obedience and dependence upon him, then these things would not exist.

Whilst specifically addressing the question asked on divorce Jesus raised this question to a higher spiritual level of principle that today challenges us about whether we are living God’s way. We can draw two inferences:

I. If we lived Gods way, evils such as divorce would not arise

The question asked by the Pharisees seems, on the surface, to be simple enough. ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ But I suggest that the question of whether divorce is lawful or not is not really the issue. The Pharisees weren’t really interested in the answer. They already knew the answer. Moses had made divorce lawful in Deuteronomy 24:1, ‘If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, (then he can) … write her a certificate of divorce, … and send her from his house …’ As far as the Pharisees were concerned the answer to their question is determined: “Yes”, under the Mosaic Law, divorce is lawful! And all schools of thought within Judaism recognized the fact of divorce.

The only question within Judaism was how to interpret the detail of the phrase, ‘something indecent’. There were two interpretations of this. The followers of the Shammai school interpreted it as adultery; whilst those who followed the Hillel teachings saw it as embracing a multitude of much less serious things.

So, why did they ask this question? What is the real issue here? Mark gives us a clue in verse 2 where he states, they came ‘to test him’. Once again, it was an attempt to trap Jesus into saying something contrary to the accepted norms of the time.

Some commentators suggest that they were trying to get Jesus to side with either Shammai or Hillel. Others point to the fact that Jesus was now in a province where Herod Antipus was the ruler, and you will recall that he was the one who had John the Baptist beheaded for criticising his divorce of his first wife and subsequent marriage to Herodias. Perhaps they were hoping that Jesus’ answer would cause him to fall foul of Herod and subsequently suffer the same fate as John. Whatever was in the minds of the Pharisees, one thing is clear – they were once again out to trap Jesus.

But Jesus’ response was not what they were hoping. Instead of answering the shallow question of law, Jesus went right to the heart of the matter – God’s original intent for giving marriage in the first place. So, he took them back to Genesis (1:27; 2:24) where we can learn five points for God’s intent for marriage.

First, it is designed by God. `The Creator ... said.. .' Marriage was no mere social contract. It was a God-given ordinance.

Secondly, marriage was meant to be complementary: God `made them male and female'. There is a God-ordained difference and complementarity between the sexes.

Thirdly, marriage was intended to be permanent: `the two will become one flesh'. The bonding is meant to provide a permanent relationship that will not be broken by anything `indecent', whether interpreted by Shammai or by Hillel.

Fourthly, marriage is exclusive. The man is `united to his wife'. He becomes one flesh with her. In no way can infidelity be contemplated as being OK.

Fifthly, marriage is nuclear. It means ‘leaving’ as well as ‘cleaving’. It represents a fundamental transfer of loyalty and commitment from parents to spouse, and the making of a new family unit.

If all people went into marriage as God intended, then the question of divorce would not even be contemplated. And, rather than seeking to determine when divorce can be justified, we would be better to ask, “What was God’s original intent for marriage?”

So, Jesus stressed that God invented marriage and wants to preserve it. He does not want divorce. ‘I hate divorce,’ says God in Malachi 2:16. But, nevertheless, it happens! In Moses’ day it was so common that he made a concession in a regulation requiring something in writing before a divorce was valid.

Well, Jesus goes further in restricting it, and he does so by returning to the original purpose of marriage. Whilst it may be the lesser of two evils under the circumstances, it is still not in accordance with God’s ideal for marriage. Divorce simply does not enter into God’s divine plan but is just one of the many evils that have arisen through mankind’s hardness of heart, i.e. our rejection of God and failure to live in obedience and dependence upon him.

The second inference that we can draw from Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question is …

II. If we lived God’s way the injustices arising from evils such as divorce would not exist

I don’t think that any of us needs to be convinced that divorce is not a good thing; although in some circumstances we might like to argue that it is the lesser of two evils. Daily we read of the pain, bitterness and long-term negative impacts that result. I have come across this during pastoral counselling - people who are carrying long term and deep bruises from the experience of their own or their parents’ divorce. I vividly recall a man sobbing with the hurt that he still carries from the time many years ago when his wife left him.

And of course, it is not only the couple themselves that are impacted. Despite some people trying to believe that the children won’t be affected, many studies have proven the negative impact of divorce on the children. A study in 1978 showed that children who were less than six years of age when parents were divorced were by far the loneliest adults. Another study around this time showed that small boys were the worst victims of divorce and their painful attempts to adjust often lead them into a mutually destructive conflict with their mothers.

I am sure that if you Google the effects of divorce today you will find a lot more research detailing the negative impacts upon relationships and people’s lives.

The inference from the response that Jesus gave to the Disciples when they questioned him further, is that divorce also produced injustices in Moses’ day, and it is the injustice that prevailed towards women in particular that Jesus spoke against in verses 10 to 12. Moses had made reluctant legislation to control its worst excesses, that had allowed a man to divorce his wife for even a trivial disagreement. At least the giving of a certificate of dismissal freed the woman to enable her to be married again.

Against the customs and the idea of male dominance which ran through Hebrew thought and practice, Jesus gave to his listeners and to the world a new conception of women as persons equal with men in the sight of God.

But he didn’t stop at that! In verse 11 Jesus introduces the concept of a man committing adultery against a woman, which was not a normal concept at that time. According to rabbinic law a man could commit adultery against another married man by seducing his wife; and a wife could commit adultery against her husband by infidelity; but, a husband could not be said to commit adultery against his wife. By redefining and sharpening the concept of adultery, Jesus’ words had the effect of elevating the status of the wife to the same dignity as her husband, and placed the husband under an obligation of fidelity.

Note that Jesus did not criticize Moses’ law. The problem is not so much the efforts to provide guidance in a situation that no longer conforms to God’s ideal; but, the sinfulness of the human heart, which is contrary to God’s purposes and ideals and subsequently leads to the evils of life.

It is the sinfulness of the human heart that is the source of the evil that the narrator in the film The Thin Red Line was questioning when he asked the question, “Where does this evil come from?” This is the depth of Jesus’ teaching which might then be generalised from our failure to live in accordance with God’s ideal for marriage, to the general evils of society arising from the hard-heartedness of men and women.

This then is the point of this passage: Whilst those who have been through divorce will always feel uncomfortable reading this passage, regardless of whether they may have been able to find justification, or vindication, for their actions, the rest of us should also feel uncomfortable because we have all, in many other ways apart from divorce, failed to live in accordance with God’s design.


So how are we to apply this teaching to our lives today?

First of all, we should not seek to make rules and regulations out of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus was not legislating, i.e. giving us a law; he was giving us a principle. We should avoid the tendency to want to take the principle and turn it into a law. Legalism is not the position that we should take.

Secondly, we must recognise that Jesus was giving us an ideal, a goal. Marriage in God’s kingdom should be indissoluble, loving and exclusive. Divorce should not be an option. Nevertheless, people do fail. And when they do, Jesus is consistently compassionate towards those who repent, and come back to him for restoration. So, we too should acknowledge and act consistently with the unbounded mercy and forgiveness of God. Legalistic rigorism is as inappropriate for the Christian community as is casual divorce.

Thirdly, we might apply the principle behind this teaching to the wider question of why evil exists in the world. The breakdown of marriage, and its outcomes, is just one example. Jesus said that breakdown in marriage and the unjust treatment of the woman came out of the ancient Israelites’ hardness of heart. In the same way, much of what is wrong in society arises from this same hardness of heart - this rejection of God, and failure to live in obedience and dependence upon him. Recognising this we should renew our determination to seek to live in the spirit of God’s original design.


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