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Marriage and Children: Mark 10:2–16

In Mark's preceding material, Jesus has taught the Twelve—celibates, the first clergy—about the radical demands of discipleship as he traveled by stealth through Galilee. In the following material, Jesus will teach the crowds—representative of the laity—about the radical demands of discipleship as it applies to common matters of life, such as marriage, children, and possessions, as he travels through Judea on his final approach to Jerusalem.

The Pharisees take another shot at him, testing him on the question of divorce, asking him whether a man can divorce his wife (10:2). They phrase the question here in absolute terms, as if Jesus’s views on the absolute indissolubility of marriage were already widely known. Moses had permitted divorce (Deut 24:1–4), and Jews of Jesus’s day and later had a spectrum of opinions regarding what conditions were legitimate grounds for divorce. Rabbi Hillel thought men could divorce their wives for almost any reason, including bad cooking, while Rabbi Shammai permitted it only in the case of adultery. Rabbi Akiva, whose crucifixion by the Romans at the end of the Bar Kochba rebellion will delight many a woman once they learn his opinion, taught that a man could divorce his wife simply if he found a prettier prospect.[1]

Moses’s permission was designed under sin to make the best of bad situations, in which providing a woman with a certificate of divorce freed her to marry again lest she wind up in the streets or in the grave. Moses’s mechanism of divorce provided a means for women to move on. But it’s under sin, in Deuteronomy, in a second giving of the law. And that’s the key for understanding how Jesus can leapfrog back over it to the original intention of creation in Genesis 1–2.

In the Torah, the Israelites fail repeatedly, engaging in idolatry and rebellion. God and Moses each are tempted at times to give up on them. The ultimate act of rebellion is found in Numbers 15, when the congregation rejects the report of the twelve spies and God swears that none of that generation will enter the land (Num 15:20–23). The prophet Ezekiel, likely referring to this episode, refers to the Lordgiving the Israelites “statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life” (Ezek 20:25). Those are likely the statutes and ordinances of Deuteronomy in particular.[2] Ezekiel mentioned the law of Sinai in 20:11, but here (20:25), he is referring to the second giving of the law, Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy is thus a lesser law for a sinful, recalcitrant people. Unlike the Sinaitic law, which was a positive law whose two tables taught the people how to love God and neighbor, Deuteronomy is a negative law of restraint designed to keep the people from falling headlong into total sin. It’s no accident that, when Paul is most negative about the law, he’s usually dealing with Deuteronomy.[3]And so, Jesus can rightly say, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment” (10:5).

Jesus, then, goes straight back to creation, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 in Mark 10:6 and 7–8. He draws the moral for them: “So they are no longer two but one flesh” (10:8), and since God himself joins man and woman in marriage, no one may separate them (10:9).

That’s absolutely radical, in the ancient world and today. How can Jesus leapfrog back past not only Deuteronomy 24 but even Genesis 3? Why can he cancel Moses and speak as if the Fall is irrelevant? For the reason that he is Jesus, the divine Son of God and authoritative interpreter of the Torah, not Moses, and unlike Moses, he can not only save but also sanctify his people. He does not simply teach difficult things as a matter of dominical law but also empowers his people to do what he commands through their union with him in Cross and Eucharist.

And so, seeing the participatory, Eucharistic nature of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is absolutely crucial, lest we be left with a legalism we find impossible to live with. The bread section precedes the discipleship section for a reason: grace comes before law. Once fed with Jesus himself, we have the grace to fulfill his commands, for he himself is in us, enabling us to live his own crucified and resurrected life.

Now, as so often in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples are inside with Jesus and ask him for further clarification. We find the pattern here as in Mark 4, for Jesus has returned to addressing crowds, as he was doing in Mark 4. Insiders receive deeper knowledge, and so Jesus explains to them the import of his teaching that marriage is indissoluble. He explains that divorce and remarriage means adultery, which works logically when one assumes the indissolubility of marriage involved in Genesis 1 and 2. Man may break the bond, but the bond is not broken.

Actually, man or woman, or man and woman together, can “break” it and it still not be broken. The form of Jesus’s teaching here is egalitarian, assuming conditions under which both men and women may divorce. Some have said this indicates the Gentile, and specifically Roman, setting of Mark’s Gospel, since, under Roman law, women could initiate divorce, whereas they supposedly couldn’t under Jewish law.[4] Be that as it may, a better literary and canonical reading of the passage sees Jesus here giving his teaching in a way that parallels the mention of both sexes, male and female, man and woman, in the relevant verses of Genesis 1 and 2, and Mark might have made Jesus’s teaching here egalitarian as a way of slamming Herodias, responsible for John the Baptist’s murder (6:14–29).

I write as the debate regarding Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia is raging, and my view is that this beautiful document can be rightly and fairly read as a pastoral exhortation in continuity with John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio and the broader Catholic Tradition on marriage, which is my own Ordinary’s understanding of the document. Francis has issued a clarion call to better attend to the pastoral care of marriage so that it might be a joy and not a burden, and Mark’s recipe for joy is ready embrace of the Cross.

For those who fail in marriage, however, Mark’s Gospel is also a source of hope. Mark’s Jesus teaches, “all sins will be forgiven the sons of men” (3:28), and as we will see ever more clearly as we approach its final chapters, Mark’s Gospel is a Gospel for failures, like Peter and the disciples, who are ever invited to return to Galilee (16:7) and to follow Jesus on the way of discipleship, embracing the Cross of their salvation again and again.

The lectionary makes the following verses concerning Jesus’s reception of children optional, but if one follows the flow of Mark’s Gospel, they flow naturally from Jesus’s teaching on marriage, as one would expect.

Mark’s Gospel is a Gospel of the Church and written for the Church, its ultimate context. In Mark 10, Jesus addresses the crowds (10:1), representative of laypeople, marriage, children, and possessions in that order, and the order is suggestive. Laymen and laywomen who marry according to Jesus’s teaching (10:2–12) ought to have and welcome children as Jesus himself welcomed them (10:13–16), and economic life (10:17–31) comes last, presumably because it is to be oriented around marriage and family and serve them. This contrasts with the sad state of modern life, in which many put economic concerns of career first, reject children, and engage in serial monogamy.

Many who had borne children bring them to Jesus for his blessing touch, but the disciples, of course, rebuke them (10:13), perhaps wishing to keep Jesus to themselves (as John does in 9:38), or perhaps seeing Jesus himself as so high and mighty that he shouldn’t be bothered, an attitude Jesus will later reject with direct reference to himself in 10:45: Jesus came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

“Rebuke” is a strong word: in Mark’s Gospel, demons are rebuked (1:25, 3:12, 9:25), and Peter has recently been rebuked as Satan (8:33). And Jesus’s response is commensurately strong: He is “indignant” (9:14), the sort of anger that arises not from personal slight, but the sort aroused by perception of deep injustice. And so, Jesus speaks his famous words: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (9:14)

And we’re back to children as a model of discipleship. Their humble receptivity illustrates the way one receives blessing from Jesus. And it’s the only way: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (9:15).

Adapted from Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark

[1]In the Mishnah, see m. Git.9:10.

[2]See Scott W. Hahn and John S. Bergsma, “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25–26,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004): 201–218.

[3]See especially Gal 3:10–14.

[4]See Josephus, Antiquities 15.259, but the picture in Jewish law is not nearly so clear-cut. One example comes from Mark’s Gospel itself: Herodias divorces Philip to marry Herod Antipas (Mark 6:17; see Josephus, Ant. 18.110). Rabbinic literature includes grounds for Jewish women seeking divorce, which courts could then enforce against men, using a beating if necessary to achieve the man’s consent (see m. Ketub. 5:6; 7:2–5, 9; m. Ned.11:12; b. Ketub. 77a; m. Giṭ. 9:8, and m. ʿArak. 5:6; this last speaks of “writs of divorce for women”). Philo of Alexandria assumes women can divorce husbands in his treatment of Deut 24:1–4 (On the Special Laws 3.30). Other ancient documentary evidence reveals Jewish women initiating divorce well before and after the time of Jesus; see James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 304, and David Instone-Brewer, “Jewish Women Divorcing Their Husbands in Early Judaism: The Background of Papyrus Ṣeʾelim 13,” Harvard Theological Review 92 (1999): 349–357.

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