Divorce in the First Century
One of the most thoughtless and hard hearted ways to use scriptures is to take verses away from their context and use the words as proof texts to judge others. Unfortunately there is no shortage of those who would quote the Bible and use the quotations to condemn a wide range of behaviours that traditionally offend the self righteous. Today’s reading for example is a favourite of those who feel it their duty to condemn those whose marriages fall apart. In today’s reading Jesus is being tackled by the Pharisees on that most tricky of subjects – divorce and remarriage. Yet make no mistake about it. Here Jesus is not necessarily speaking to our generation or our social framework. Marriage in Jesus setting is not the same as marriage in our city in the 21st century – or even in our local community today. Nor was divorce in Jesus’ day what we would still call divorce. And still less are Jesus’ questioners, the Pharisees, even actually seeking guidance on their own marriages.
Yes, a young couple might go to a priest or minister for advice about marriage. And yes, for those with a marriage in trouble, there are traditionally many who can give advice. These days there are also marriage guidance counsellors aplenty and lawyers who spend their whole professional careers carefully ensuring that when the marriage does fail, as for instance in Hollywood where with more than 75% divorce rate, marriages are almost expected to fail – and in that setting, both the client and the lawyer might expect maximum advantage.
But divorce in Jesus’ setting is in no way what the majority might encounter today. What is more, in Mark’s gospel, what the Pharisees appear to be doing is deliberately setting out to trap Jesus. The Pharisees don’t come across as genuinely wanting guidance. What they do want is blood. It seems probable that ideally in their eyes the best outcome of their questioning might be to have Jesus trapped by his own words – and then perhaps even beaten then nailed to a cross.
As they seek – or insist – on answers for such debates, it is clear that they want to trap him. The law in their day was complicated with minute details and the Pharisees, perhaps rightly, realised that Jesus would have been hard put to know which clauses ruled on the really tricky issues. There were also probably a number of them who like our modern day experts in litigation were well able to use the minutiae to satisfy their personal desires. In Jesus day according to a number of the commentators, marriage had become lax with all the conditions tilted very heavily in favour of the man.
For example a man who was married in Jesus’ day and living as a Palestinian Jew – and who perhaps one day happened upon someone a little more desirable than his current wife, could simply cast his wife,( his possession), aside by the simple expedient of saying a simple formula which in Pharisee speak went like this On the……….day of the month……… in the year …….. I …………son of …………. (the father’s name since the mother didn’t count)….. and by whatsoever name I am called in this place………native of the town of ……acting of my free will, and without any coercion , do repudiate, send back and put away ….you (insert the wife’s name) daughter of ( and here you put in the name of your wife’s mother which both identifies your wife and stresses her inferiority to you) then the husband adds….and until this present time my wife. There were a few more words, but that was essentially it.
There is something else too. Since for most rabbis this declaration of divorce only officially had one reason – that of “uncleanness” on the part of the wife, the divorce was a polite way of saying she had been unfaithful, and divorcing your wife was therefore also an unspoken public accusation she was guilty of the crime of adultery. Since the law for the most part only allowed one cause for divorce – divorce assumed that cause. ( Deuteronomy Chapter 4 verse one). This left the community free to stone her to death if they had a mind to. But let me stress that no matter what the husband were up to – even if it were domestic violence or adultery – the woman was not allowed to seek a divorce on her own behalf. She was the man’s possession. Her only hope would be to ask her husband to free her by making the formula statement. And to obtain a divorce, that is all he had to do. No need for justification – divorce was its own justification. A simple statement by the husband and lo, they were no longer married.
Remember too, the divorce was nothing like our law of insisting on an equal division of property – or perhaps more and more commonly these days – a division according to the terms of the prenuptial agreement. For the most part, in Jesus time the divorced woman was totally without hope. If she was lucky she would not be stoned and some relatives might take her in despite her shame – but all too often she would become a society pariah – reduced to begging or prostitution for survival.
If we then go back to what Jesus says about adultery, the second part of his statement….. that “if a woman divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery….” this added nothing new to the situation because in Jesus day, divorce assumed adultery on the part of the woman anyway. What was however quite novel was the obverse statement. “Whoever puts away his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her“. The radical bit was in the implication that the man has an equal responsibility for the well being of the marriage.
If you notice what Jesus was doing, he was shifting away from the tricky wordplay about the law back to the principles behind the law. Marriage he presented as total and genuine commitment to one another, and more importantly, commitment on both sides.
So the Pharisees had come to Jesus to ask their trap questions and his answers, particularly the bit about the man’s position, would have left them feeling uncomfortable. But let us be careful, their topic may well have been marriage yet it is not really what marriage means here and now. And their divorce is not our divorce.
Another point that we would do well to remember is that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew living in a Jewish society. His words in reply cannot then be used to make pronouncements on situations far removed from this setting. He is not talking of divorce in Hollywood or Auckland. Nor for the record can we use his words for direct judgement on gay marriage or what is still sometimes called living in sin. Nevertheless he does appear to be drawing attention to a useful principle that could benefit many relationships in his reply.
Jesus’ notion of commitment to one another would indeed provide a strong basis for marriage and a variety of relationships and even today, as an attitude, mutual commitment would certainly reduce the possibility of a modern time divorce. But that is not to say we should pretend the world is different to our reality. In this city, as is the case right through our nation and our church congregations, divorce is still a fact of life. Marriages and de-facto relationships do fail and sometimes tragically. Even if our citizens and friends were themselves single minded about the sincerity of their commitment to their partner, unless the partner can also bring the same degree of commitment, stress and even marriage breakdown can and does occur. We can be grateful that years of wise law making have removed some of the worst excesses of what might happen to those caught in such situations often beyond their control, but can I suggest judgement of others is not what it is all about. There is implied judgement it is true, but I hear Jesus calling for his listeners to look to their own values and actions, not someone else’s.
Jesus is wise to draw attention to the need for mutual commitment, and by implication to the absolute need to avoid the breakdown of the marriage, yet in any marriage or one of its many different modern equivalent forms, only the couple themselves will know how this plays out in practice. Putting it bluntly, it is not someone else’s relationships which are our concern, it is our own. Even if we know Jesus was recorded as talking to an audience with different motives and within an entirely different setting we can still take his over-riding principles as ask ourselves how we are using such principles in our own lives.
The attitudes that Jesus talks about seem anything but rule-bound. There is unfortunately a way of approaching others which is to do with conventions and rules. If society conventions happen to rule against some form of relationships, this can get in the way of the natural warmth of interactions with the technical transgressors. This way whole classes of people can be socially shunned. Homosexuals, women wearing traditional Muslim dress, neatly scrubbed and suited young men on bicycles wearing Mormon badges, Sikh men wearing turbans, orthodox Jews and in fact anyone who does not instantly fit in with the social expectations of one’s own social group can be dismissed. In Jesus day this would include divorced women and even children. In many instances Jesus is recorded as overturning this attitude, whether it be the tax collector, the prostitute, the tax collector, the many times married woman with the wrong religion at the well Jesus was modelling his teaching.
Back then children were often socially shunned and not always considered to be worthy of consideration until puberty when they were able to become synagogue members with the Bar Mitzvah and the equivalent ceremony for girls. It would have been considered bad form to allow children near anyone important, including teachers and rabbis.
Today’s reading records parents bringing their children to Jesus to be touched in blessing. That Jesus stopped his disciples from the accepted custom of keeping children from anyone important is again a helpful model for our own attitudes. “It was not only let the children come to me for to such as these the Kingdom of God belongs…..” but then he goes that one step further and says in effect that the attitude of these children is what we all need.
It is not rules or conventions that will ultimately transform our relationships and our pilgrimage, but rather an open hearted and even childlike openness to one another. The question then is not for others but for ourselves. Can we approach others with a child-like openness, for as Jesus reminds us, it is only for such pilgrims that the kingdom of God will come to have meaning.