Friday, May 15, 2020

Mark 10 1-12

and he arose from thence
and cometh into the coasts of Judaea
by the farther side of Jordan
and the people resort unto him again
and, as he was wont
he taught them again

Curtain rises. Part two. 

The scene has shifted to a new location, but everything continues as it did before the intermission. People are still coming to Jesus and he is still teaching them. 

The first half of the story took place in and around Capernaum. The second half will take place in Jerusalem. But this short section is set in an in-between place: South of Galilee, east of the Jordan near the Judean frontier. Mark says that they are beyond — peran — the Jordan. There was a geographical area known as Perea, the Beyond Country. Some people go so far as to speak of a Perean ministry. The location is important. Herod, king of Galilee, who beheaded John the Baptist, is also King of Perea. 

and the Pharisees came to him,
and asked him,
“Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?”
tempting him.
and he answered and said unto them,
“what did Moses command you?”
and they said,
“Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement
and to put her away.”
and Jesus answered and said unto them,
“for the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.
but from the beginning of the creation
God made them male and female
for this cause shall a man leave his father and mother
and cleave to his wife;
and they twain shall be one flesh:
so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.
what therefore God hath joined together
let not man put asunder"

and in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter
and he saith unto them,
“whosoever shall put away his wife
and marry another,
committeth adultery against her.
and if a woman shall put away her husband
and be married to another, 
she committeth adultery”

Herod (not to be confused with Herod) had been married to a foreign princess called Phasaelis. His brother Herod (not to be confused with Herod or Herod) had been married to Herodias, the granddaughter of Herod. Herod and Herodias, in order to complicate their family tree even further, divorced their respective partners and married each other. John the Baptist told them that their new marriage was not lawful: so they had John the Baptist’s head chopped off. 

Jesus was himself baptised by John; and Perea on the far side of the Jordan is John’s old stamping ground. Doubtless some of the people who have come out to hear Jesus speak also came out to listen to John. They may even have heard the rumour that John survived his execution and has resumed his ministry under a new name.

And so along come the Pharisees with a trick question. 

“We were just wondering for no particular reason what you think about divorce? Suppose in some purely hypothetical case a man were to dismiss his wife and marry someone else; and supposing that someone else had a living spouse. What would you say about that?”

It’s a perfect trap. Either Jesus criticises the King, or he criticises John. If he says that divorce is never lawful, than he is in very grave danger of being the after dinner entertainment at Herod’s next birthday party. But if he says that divorce is sometimes lawful, then he is telling an audience of ex-John-ites that the Baptist died for nothing.

As so often, Jesus turns the question back on his interlocutor. Why are you asking me about what is and is not permissible? Isn't the Torah clear?

And like any good lawyer, he wouldn’t be asking the question if he didn’t already know the answer. Jesus thinks that the Pharisees sometimes use their own, oral teaching to wriggle out of the harder commandments of Moses’ law. But in this particular case everyone is on the same page. Deuteronomy chapter twenty four verses one to four, to be precise. Divorce is not absolutely prohibited provided you fill out the correct paperwork.

Moses’ stipulation about writing out a formal declaration of divorce is clearly for the benefit of the women who are being abandoned rather than the men who are doing the abandoning. Being able to produce a piece of paper saying that your husband sent you away is a lot better than being thought of as a woman who has walked out on her husband. The consequences of adultery were quite serious.

The Pharisees must have thought that Jesus had evaded their trap. He has forced them to give a straightforward answer to their own trick question. On the strictly legal point; John went too far. Herod’s marriage to Herodias was legal provided both of then had served divorce papers on their previous partners. 

But then Jesus drops a bombshell. He says something far more shocking than either of the things which the Pharisees were trying to trick him into saying. Yes, according to the law of Moses, Herod was entitled to dismiss his first wife. Which goes to show that the law of Moses isn’t the last word on these kinds of questions. 

Moses gave the instruction about marriage certificates as a concession. “Because your hearts were hard.” We are familiar with “sclerosis” being used as a medical term to mean the hardening of veins or liver; we are familiar with “cardiac” to refer to the heart. Jesus says that the pharisees are suffering from sklerokardia. Hard-heartedness implies a lack of empathy, and also a lack of understanding. Pharisees have previously been said to be hard-hearted when they tried to stop Jesus healing a man’s hand on the sabbath. The disciples were said to be too hard-hearted to understand the deeper significance of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Is Jesus saying “Moses allowed divorce because men lack the empathy to be faithful to one woman?” Or is he saying “Moses allowed divorce because people have too little insight to understand that God really prefers monogamy”?

Look at how he phrases the question. What did Moses command you? It is because your hearts were so hard that Moses wrote you this law. I don’t think Jesus can mean that the divorce concession was put in specially for the benefit of Pharisees. “You” must mean the people to whom the Law was given: the human race in general; the Jewish people in particular. And Jesus is standing outside that relationship. He does not consider himself to be one of those to whom Moses gave the law.

Jesus claims that there is an older law against which Moses’ law can be judged. More basic than the six hundred laws the Jews have to obey. More basic than the Ten Commandments which apply to everyone. Older even than the seven commandments which God gave Noah. So fundamental it hardly counts as a law or a precept at all. It is just a description of the way things are.

“From the first creation God made them male and female; and because of this a man leaves his father and mother and sticks to his wife; and they shall be — the two — for one flesh; so that they are no more two, but one flesh.” 

Translations which say “they will be like a single person” or even “they will form a new family” are trying to soften the force of the original. A man adheres to his wife. They are glued together and become a single being. It isn’t that you shouldn’t split them up: it’s that you can’t. 

The second creation story in the book of Genesis says that Eve was originally a part of Adam: that God made the first woman out of the first man's rib. The first story, more mysteriously, says

"God created Adam in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." 

Does this mean that Adam -- mankind -- was in the arch-creation a hermaphrodite; or that they were a composite being; or merely that they were spiritually masculine and feminine? Either way, there has been some kind of separation, pulling the two genders apart, and that separation is mended by marriage.

We can read this in two ways. We could take it very stringently. Last week Jesus scrubbed out some passages from Moses' law, with the result that his disciples could live freer than the Pharisees. All food is now kosher. Eat what you like. Today he repeals another section of the law; with the result that his followers are more restricted in how they can live. Moses said that marriages was a legal contract that the law could dissolve: Jesus says that marriage is part of the natural order of things and can never be dissolved under any circumstances. Absolute heterosexual monogamy or absolute life-long abstinence. Take your pick. I never said it was going to be easy.

But I think we could also read it more pragmatically. Elsewhere, Jesus has treated Moses’ law and God’s law as being interchangeable; so it is hard to suppose that he is saying “In this instance, Moses was in error: ignore him on this one.” So can’t we say that Jesus is allowing that there has to be a degree of realism — of concession to fallen human nature — in any interpretation of morality. In the arch-creation there was a man and a woman and they bonded for life; but God’s instructions for living in the world as it now is recognises that life is more complicated than that?

Mark seems to acknowledge that Jesus' words are cryptic and obscure. He says that the disciples asked him to clarify what he said when they were alone with him, and that he gave them a very plain answer. If a man sends his wife away and marries someone else, he is cheating on her, papers or no papers. And it goes for the woman as well: she’s committing adultery even if she can produce a certificate to say she’s not. So John was right: it wasn’t lawful for Herod and Herodias to be together.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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