Sunday, August 19, 2012



This is the twenty-sixth installment, comprising Act 4. Scene 5, chapter 10: 1-12, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the twenty-fifth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.

This is my division of the Gospel:


Prologue,  1:1-13;
Act  1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).

Scene 5

1 He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. 2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." 5 But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female.' 7 "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (NRSV)

Act 4, Scene 5 is a Scene of conflict, in which some Pharisees challenge Jesus regarding the Torah and its interpretation, and teaching. Following so quickly on the heels of the second Passion Prediction, it actually begins to awaken one to what is at stake in Jesus’ ministry: not only must he teach his own disciples; but he must parry challenges to his authority which are coming from those who have the right and the power to ask religious questions in Judaism. It also focuses the reader on the Passion Predictions again. The reader is so drawn in by the inability of the disciples to understand Jesus’ clear words that the meaning of those words is lost, but also the significance of them: Jesus is going to die and this conflict is inevitable. Even more, if what Jesus says is true then Jesus knows, that is, he has prophetic foreknowledge of what will take place. Is there anything he can do to change the minds of those who wish to kill him? He is trying to explain who he is to his followers, but can he do the same to those who fear and challenge him? Jesus has said his death is inevitable, but he will not cease trying.

Jesus has traveled south from Galilee to Judea, closer to the sources of religious and political power, “beyond the Jordan” (10:1). Even outside of his home region, the people have knowledge and awareness of Jesus, for crowds gather around him to be taught. A group of Pharisees have also come “to test him,” and “they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”(10:2). It is not clear to me whether the test is simply Jesus’ basic knowledge of what is taught in Torah or whether they are looking for a specific answer; perhaps they have gotten word of Jesus’ teaching on the matter which bothers them or runs counter to their own school’s teaching.  Mark presents Jesus as direct and straightforward. As he does throughout the Gospel, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter and begins with a question: “What did Moses command you?”(10:3). The Pharisees answer Jesus as directly: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” (10:4; cf. Deut. 24:1). Is this not the end of the challenge, the test? The Pharisees have answered their own question.

Jesus, though, does not stop here, which indicates that he wants to take the test to the Pharisees, to challenge them. If he wanted to avoid conflict, he would turn to the crowds and begin to teach. Jesus is not seeking conflict, I will suggest, but conversion. If Jesus is who his followers think he is, believe him to be, he must go to only one place: the truth. So he goes beyond this simple statement of fact, which both parties would clearly know, and begins to interpret the Scripture at a deeper level. Jesus will claim not just to know the law, but Moses’ intention in promulgating this law. Jesus claims that this law is provisional, and that it was “because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you” (10:5). But how can Jesus’ know Moses’ own heart and intention?

Jesus now takes us even farther than Moses’ intent in drafting a law on marriage and divorce. Jesus returns us to paradise and to God’s intention for humanity:

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, let no one separate." (10:6-9)

Mark gives us no reasoning beyond Jesus’ interpretation of these passages from Genesis (cf. 1:27; 5:2; 2:4) – other than that divorce was implemented due to human hardness of heart – so that we are left to accept that Jesus understands marriage as a lifelong joining due to God’s original intention “from the beginning of creation.” The “beginning of creation,” however, brings us to a point before the fall of humanity into sin. Certainly, the “hardness of heart” which Moses’ law accounted for is due to sin, which all human beings participate in. What has changed?

What has changed? What will change? Mark is placing Jesus in a position beyond natural human authority, as one who knows both the mind of Moses and the mind of God. It is God’s intention that we shall return to “the beginning,” Jesus implies, but how will we get there? Mark again has the audience asking, “is this the one who returns us to paradise? How can you fix ‘hardness of heart’? Who but God can fix it?”

These are not necessarily teachings the disciples are familiar with, nor is the nature of the person of Jesus clear to them, because when they are alone with them, quite frankly, they have the same questions of the Pharisees: genuine, human questions. All we are told is that when they were alone with Jesus, “the disciples asked him again about this matter” (10:10), but that simple phrase indicates much. Could they believe or accept what their Master had told them? Jesus is clear in response 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” (10:11-12). This must have been clear to the disciples, but it ran against the grain of normal human conduct within Judaism, and the surrounding cultures, of the day. The deeper question, really, that remains is if Moses allowed divorce for “hardness of heart,” how or when would this hardness of heart be transformed or taken away? And, by who?

John W. Martens
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