Sunday, March 19, 2006
Some thoughts on divorce and discipleship - Mark 10:1-31
The following are thoughts formed and informed by the reading community of The Rock / La Roca UMC that meets Sundays at 10 a.m.

Lift this section of Mark, particularly verses 1 to 12, from its literary and cultural context and you've got an iron-clad, black-and-white soundbyte of Jesus on divorce. No divorce. Not ever. No exceptions. Divorce equals adultery. But might there be something more going on here in the Gospel of Mark?

Consider, we find ourselves in the midst of Mark's third major movement in his narrative, structured around three different moments where Jesus predicts his death and resurrection. In fact, between 8:22 - 10:45 we see a cycle repeated three times: firstly, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection; secondly, the disciples act out in such a way as to display that they just missed the point completely; thirdly, Jesus engages in teaching that illuminates the harsh reality of discipleship.

Observe: At the close of chapter 8, Jesus has predicted his Passion, and Peter rebukes him. Jesus fires back and announces that the way to discipleship involves denial of self and taking up a cross. In 9:30 Jesus announces his fate a second time, and the disciples respond by bickering over who is the greatest. At 10:32 this happens a third time, and James and John in essence call "spiritual shotgun."

So what's the material on divorce doing in the midst of this cycle?

Let's go to the text. Jesus has gone to the region of Judea, beyond the Jordan. The Pharisees arrive to pick a fight. Location is important - who else in Mark appeared in Judea beyond the Jordan? John. What happens to John in Mark? He gets his head lopped off by Herod. And why is that? Because John speaks against Herod's unholy union to his sister-in-law Herodias.

The Pharisees aren't interested in divorce. They're interested in the "Impossible Question," the question that will be Jesus' undoing. From Mark 3:6 we know that the Pharisees have been conspiring with Herod's cronies to eliminate Jesus. In 8:15 Jesus warns his disciples against the "yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod." We're meant to associate one with the other. When we see the Pharisees approach Jesus, we are meant to see the associates of Herod there in the background. If Jesus answers, "Yes, its lawful to divorce," he validates a cultural practice that exploits women. If Jesus answers, "No, it's not lawful," he indicts the political authority and signs his death wish.

Again, the Pharisees aren't interested in divorce. Should that be our main concern with this passage? Jesus instead affirms marriage. He jumps the Mosaic commandment from Deuteronomy and goes all the way back to creation.

In private Jesus takes the opportunity to make his political commentary. The passage ends with "and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (10:12). Without the historical context, this maxim is nonsense. Jewish women cannot divorce their husbands. But the upper class and royalty lived above such rules. Herodias had divorced her husband Phillip in order to marry his brother Herod. Imagine the gossip.

But what does this mean in the world of Christian living? And again, why does Mark put this material here?

As the text continues, Jesus encounters a rich young ruler who wants eternal life, but can't quite sacrifice his wealth for it. Peter (who else?) the blue-collar fisherman wants to know what he's getting for all he's given up. Look at Jesus' response: "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, who will not recieve a hundredfold now in this age" (v. 29, 30). Look at this list: house (the Greek can also mean "household" or "home", connatating not necessarily a building but a social structure), siblings, parents, children, livelihood. What's missing? There is no mention of sacrificing one's husband or wife for the gospel.

Which leads me to wonder... is the juxtaposition of these passages an indictment against Christians would would abandon their spouse for the gospel, "The Ministry," or the mission field? Is Mark observing in his community Christians who would leave their marriages behind for the sake of Jesus' kingdom and speaking to that situation?

The call to discipleship is hard. It requires sacrifice. It requires denial of self. It requires re-ordering our priorities such that the Kingdom is more important than many of our social relationships. But not marriage. Discipleship is no excuse for walking away from one's husband or wife. That is not an option.

Matthew will redact Mark's words to include sexual infidelity as an exception to the "no divorce" policy. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians will provide an exception if an unbeliever abandons a believer.

But Mark is clear: Discipleship is not license for divorce.

[for canonical dialogue on divorce, cf. Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Matthew 19:1-12; 1 Corinthians 7:1-16]

posted by Peter at 11:59 PM
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