Word of God and Salesian life by Fr Juan Jose’ Bartolome’ SDB
27th Sunday Year B Lectio divina on Mk 10,2-16
Mark presents Jesus’ teaching on marriage in the context of his journey to Jerusalem. The episode is in two sections: the first is part of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees on the indissolubility of the marriage bond. With a radical approach that was unusual at the time, Jesus opts to base his teaching on the original plan of God. No law or tradition, and not even a man of God like Moses, can go against God’s original plan. What God laid down in the beginning must be respected. Letting God be God, even within the intimacy of marriage, is the way to anticipate the Kingdom that is coming. The second part reveals the tenderness of Jesus towards little children, not just because they are children, but because their simplicity and their dependence on others make them a model and norm for all who seek the kingdom of God. Being a little child is not important, but becoming like one is! Acting like children is not an ideal to set before mature adults. What makes the believer a child of God is not just dependence on God but trust and obedience.
2 Some Pharisees approached him and asked, ‘Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife?’ They were testing hm. 3 He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4 ‘Moses allowed us,’ they said, ‘to draw up a writ of dismissal and so to divorce.’ 5 Then Jesus said to them, ‘It was because you were so unteachable that he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. 7 This is why a man must leave father and mother, 8 and the two become one body. They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. 9 So then, what God has united, man must not divide.’ 10 Back in the house the disciples questioned him again about this, 11 and he said to them, ‘The man who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her. 12 And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery too.’ 13 People were bringing little children to him, for him to touch them. The disciples turned them away, 14 but when Jesus saw this he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 I tell you solemnly, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ 16 Then he put his arms around them, laid his hands on them and gave them his blessing.
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
The central theme of this passage is the teaching of Jesus on marriage. The passage is divided into two parts. First, there is a discussion with those who ask if divorce is lawful (Mk 10,2-9), and then an instruction to the disciples on family life (Mk 10,10-16). The controversy begins with a question which is both ill-intentioned and unnecessary. The questioners knew very well what the law was. When Jesus questioned them they were able to refer to the biblical text that permitted a man to dismiss his wife (Dt 14,1-4). What seemed a simple question was, in fact, intended to embarrass Jesus. By making them reply themselves, Jesus uncovers their motives, and demonstrates their malicious intention and the futility of the question. Jesus avails of the occasion to reinforce the concept of marriage by means of a double argument. He first of all tells the Jewish people that they have an obligation to obey God’s law, and then reminds them of God’s original plan. It was their hardness of heart that compelled Moses to permit a writ of dismissal. It was not a privilege freely granted but a concession that was forced, because of a permanent weakness on their part. Recalling the original plan of God (Gen 1,27;2,24), Jesus shows that God not only forbids divorce but declares that it is impossible. Man and wife become one flesh that cannot be dissolved. The attitude of Jesus was more radical than his questioners were expecting. Divorce was a common practice (despite Mal 2.16) and the discussion was merely about what constitutes a sufficient reason – “shameful and seriously unbecoming” – for a husband to repudiate his wife. With a writ of dismissal, the woman was no longer under the legal protection of her ex-husband and free to marry another man. By denying the possibility of the dissolution of marriage, Jesus disapproved of the practice of legal dismissal. This went against the common practice and the prevailing cultural values. This position became too much even for the first Christian communities which tried to soften it (Cf Mt 5,32; 19,9; 1 Cor 7;7,12-16). This shows that Jesus forbade divorce because it is contrary to the plan of God our Creator. He said so clearly to the disciples when he told them in private that the divorced person, man or woman, who remarries, commits adultery.
This unusual severity is softened considerably in the following scene in which Jesus receives with great tenderness the little children who came to him (Mk 10,13-16). At the time of Jesus, children were even more vulnerable in society than women. They were an economic burden, depending always on adults, and counted for nothing in society. The scene shows the affection of Jesus for the children as he defended them from his disciples. The words of Jesus, even more than his actions, clarify the reasons for his preference. It is not that they are deserving of mercy because they are weak, but because they are a model of how those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven should behave. The little child, weak and needy, who accepts what is given him, is worthy of God and his kingdom. This is the reason why Jesus wants them around him as living models for those who are to inherit the kingdom.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Already in Jesus’ time, divorce was a topic of discussion! And as the Gospel records, Jesus got involved in the discussion. An ill-intentioned question from some Pharisees forced him into taking sides in the argument. Jesus’ reply does not seem very modern – a criticism often made by the so-called learned people of our day. It does not seem practical, when we look at the private lives of many prominent people in our society. It may also seem inhuman in the demands it makes, and yet it must be accepted by all who wish to be recognised by Jesus as his disciples. There is another aspect of the teaching of Christ on the indissolubility of marriage. Our being Christian depends on our acceptance and daily living of it. To understand Jesus’ response, we need to remember that, in his time, not even the strictest of his contemporaries questioned the lawfulness of divorce. The law approved of the dismissal of one’s wife if the husband found something improper or displeasing in her (Deut 24,1). The discussion focussed on what was meant by “improper or displeasing” to justify the ending of a marriage. In his reply, Jesus entered this discussion. He did not deny that Moses had permitted the practice of divorce and had instituted a legal procedure to be followed. He explained, however, that this was a concession due to the hardness of their hearts, and not the original will of God. He regarded it as an unacceptable exception. For him there was nothing, no matter how improper or displeasing, that could lead to marriage separation. We know that is was God’s plan, right from the beginning, that man and woman should become one flesh in a single community of life. Jesus makes himself the spokesperson and resolute defender of this plan, admitting no exception.
It is hard for us to appreciate the scandal this position of Jesus provoked among his listeners, and not only because of the severity of its consequences that are obvious to us even today. By denying the lawfulness of divorce he was actually going contrary to the written law of God. He was refusing to accept what had been established in the law of God. Here was a man challenging God! To misinterpret the law of God was worse than to disobey it. Jesus left himself in danger of being deemed a sinner.
Our situation is quite different. Nowadays people, even those who claim to be Christians, go against the will of God which Jesus defended, contrary to the accepted interpretation of his time. Many at the present time want to live in a state of life which Jesus declared contrary to the original will of God. And like the people of Jesus’ time, they appeal to norms that are more understanding, more human, or to customs that are more universal, as an excuse for going against the will of God. They even go so far as to say that God is old-fashioned and outdated, that his demands are exaggerated and inhuman, and they think this justifies their unwillingness to obey his teaching, without any qualms of conscience.
It is no mere coincidence that in a world where God is being sidelined more and more, that spouses, even Christian spouses, are finding it more and more difficult to remain faithful. Neglect of God leads inevitably to neglect of one’s neighbour, even the one who is loved and to whom one has committed one’s life.
The intransigence shown by Jesus is as hard for us to understand as it was for the people of his time. He calls people back to the original plan of God for mankind. There are two lessons we must learn if we want to be disciples of Jesus. The first is the wholehearted acceptance of God’s plan, and its practice in our daily lives. This is the distinguishing mark of authentic Christians today.
The relationship between man and woman was first conceived by God. It is not the result of mere human wisdom or thought. It is the plan willed by God and must remain always subject to God’s commandments. It does not depend on human choice or decision. Attacking the stability of marriage or working in any way for the dissolution of the union willed by God, is an attack on God and a refusal to accept his original plan.
In today’s world, Christian marriages face their own difficulties. They also have to withstand attack from the prevailing culture, which tends to look upon fidelity as something rare and even impossible. Society does not respect or accept God’s plan. When we defend the indissolubility of marriage – our own or that of others – we are following the example of Christ and defending God’s will. Could we, who are weak, desire any more worthy task? It may cost us a lot to give reason for our faith in public, in defence of the indissolubility of marriage, in a society that permits and promotes divorce. It may be even more difficult to defend marriage from the attacks that come from within, from our own heart. We need to remember that we have chosen to be on the side of God and, having God on our side, we can be assured of the final outcome.
God will choose those who choose him, and this is the second lesson Jesus teaches in this episode. His intransigence in defending marriage is the result of a radical option for God. The position of Jesus will be understood only by those who, like Jesus, put God before everything else, and allow God to be God at all times. Letting God be God, even in married life, will allow his will to determine our lives and the lives of those we love most. Making his will the supreme law of our affections is the principal basis of fidelity to the one to whom we have promised to be faithful. It means living according to the plan determined by God from the very beginning.
We should not be surprised that those who opt for God in practice, as the gospel teaches, by opting for his original plan for the indissolubility of the marriage bond, will meet with irony and incomprehension from the world at large, and sometimes pain in their own hearts. However, this is the will of God and those who live by it show that they are authentic disciples of Jesus.
To live life, including married life, in accordance with God’s plan, is what is expected of Christians in today’s world.