Then He arose from there and came to the region of Judea by the other side of the Jordan. And multitudes gathered to Him again, and as He was accustomed, He taught then again. The Pharisees came and asked Him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" testing Him. And He answered and said to them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her." And Jesus answered and said to them, "Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. 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 then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." In the house His disciples asked Him again about the same matter. So He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it." And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.
- Mark 10:1-16
In yesterday's reading, Jesus continued His discourse from the day before, in response to the disciples' arguing about who would be greatest in the kingdom. "But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, but it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched -- where 'Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.' And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched -- where 'Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.' And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire -- where 'Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.' For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another."
Then He arose from there and came to the region of Judea by the other side of the Jordan. And multitudes gathered to Him again, and as He was accustomed, He taught then again. Jesus comes to Judea, closer to the center of religious life and the temple in Jerusalem. Here again, we're given to know that multitudes gather to Him. He is a popular teacher in this region as well, and of course the leadership takes note.
The Pharisees came and asked Him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" testing Him. And He answered and said to them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her." This question is one that reflects controversy in its own time. The common practice had rendered it very easy for any man (not a woman) to get a divorce. What was required was a certificate written for almost any reason. The Pharisees themselves were apparently divided on this issue, with one party in favor of a stricter interpretation of the divorce law given by Moses regarding the causes for which divorce could be obtained. But here, we're told, they're not asking Jesus seriously to adjudicate this question, they are testing Him. Here in Greek the word translated to test Him can also mean to tempt Him. (In modern Greek, it commonly means to "bother" or "disturb.") So it's safe to assume they are looking to trip Him up by His answer: Will they be able to use the words of Moses against Him? Will He speak against the current practice in use? Jesus chooses His words carefully, which we can always count on. He refers back to Moses, asking that they reply with Moses' teaching. Perhaps we can infer by their simple answer that these Pharisees are part of the larger school which followed the teaching that divorce was permitted for almost any reason a woman would be deemed displeasing to her husband.
And Jesus answered and said to them, "Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. 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 then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." After they reply with Moses' words -- that Moses permitted divorce to a man -- Jesus gives His own teaching. This is permitted because of the "hardness of your heart." Jesus gives quotes from Genesis here to express God's intention for a love that isn't easy to separate from. In Genesis 2:24 we read that husband and wife become one flesh, and that for this a man separates from his father and mother. It is necessary to understand that He's speaking to men -- and they are men of authority in this case -- and that it is men for whom divorce is made easily available. Women could not do so. At stake also is a question of money and social standing, whether or not a man could retain the dowry a wife brought with her, and she lose not only the dowry but also social standing and even reputation in the eyes of family and community. This is where Jesus brings in His teaching about their "hardness of heart" and God's aim of the eternal character of marriage, and the bond between husband and wife.
In the house His disciples asked Him again about the same matter. So He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Jesus' words here seem to reflect directly back upon Moses' teaching regarding divorce. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Moses prohibits remarriage concerning a man who divorces his wife, then she marries another -- and the second husband dies or there is divorce, and the first husband wants to remarry her. Again, according to some commentators, at issue here is also dowry, the money she brings with her into the potential remarriage to a first husband (bringing him a "second" dowry from another marriage in which the husband has died). But Jesus' words in private to His disciples reflect a greater strictness, and bring into the question laws concerning adultery, which was punishable even by death. This is a much more serious perspective.
Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it." And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them. My study bible teaches that the mothers here are rebuked for bringing their little children because their manner was "unruly" and the disciples thought they "diminished His dignity as Teacher and Master" according to the commentator Theophylact. Jesus instead sets the children as examples of those who would inherit the kingdom of heaven. They are perhaps examples of those who are poor in spirit. Children therefore from earliest times in the ancient Church were invited to participate in the Kingdom through prayer, worship, and various sacraments of the Church, including communion and chrismation.
In Matthew 5:31-32, in the Sermon on the Mount (when ostensibly speaking to those who are His disciples), Jesus teaches that, except in the case of divorce for a cause of sexual immorality, whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery, and he who seeks to marry a previously divorced woman commits adultery. My study bible says that the permissible reasons for divorce were expanded in the ancient Church to include threat to a spouse's or child's life and desertion, in all cases acknowledging the spiritual tragedy of such a situation. Jesus' emphasis on the eternal nature of marriage tells us that marriage can be destroyed by sinful behavior, abuse of many kinds. In this context, the church allows divorce and second marriage "as concession to human weakness and corrective measure of compassion when a marriage has been broken" (says my study bible). Context is essential to our understanding of a woman's place in Jesus' time, and by extension that of children also. The fact that in today's reading there is also a discussion of the place of children at Christ's side is significant. In addition to the considerations of Jesus' time and place that we've already mentioned, it's important that we understand the ancient idea of women as property out of which laws regulating treatment of wives and marriage contracts were shaped. Marriage, furthermore, has for most of the world's history, been a matter as well of family finances and financial exchange. Even in Christ's time, practices varies by country in terms of what a woman retained in her own right, and who could obtain divorce (Roman women could do so). But regardless of the circumstances of the time and the times that have changed for many of us around the world, Jesus' teaching still remains important and true regarding the nature of marriage as a spiritual institution. His teachings are always rooted in love as the basis for our understanding of community and relationships in God's perspective and desires for us. In modern times, much is made of the "man and woman" statements, but I think we really have to see them in the context of human beings who are not only dissimilar but come from differing experiences of life, status, upbringing, and in most cases social power. Regardless of how we think of marriage -- especially questions of same-gender marriage -- what He calls us to is an understanding of love between "unequals," in which two are made one flesh who may be coming from completely different worlds, and differing status. A man leaves his place, his family and whatever status parents have, in order to "become one flesh" with a woman from another, in the model that Jesus quotes from Genesis. What it all comes down to is love that binds people together. Marriage isn't a competition nor a consolidation of power and wealth. Spouses aren't to be used as a form of one-upmanship or gain, and discarded when it doesn't work out in order to "trade up." One is not more powerful than the other. Two becoming one flesh is the nature of love and care, and the root of relationship in Jesus' order. And whether or not we raise other questions about marriage in a modern context, this is the true dimension that Jesus teaches -- love and relationship on a spiritual basis and as a spiritual institution, as opposed to one that is social or political. In this context, the teaching on the importance and essential belonging of children in a spiritual context comes most importantly: the true example of "poor in spirit," they are the ones Christ exemplifies as models for everyone of how we receive the kingdom of heaven. And this truly ties together the teaching on marriage and fidelity, what constitutes love and loving relationship. It's in how we are capable of learning and looking at one another, forgiving one another, trying harder and better -- with God's help, making love grow and learning all the dimensions of love in our own lives. For Orthodox Christians, marriage is "the lay-person's way to sanctity" - teaching in relationship what monastics seek to grow into in community. Jesus speaks to men because it is men, in His context, who are afforded divorce, who held the power in the immediate circumstances He's addressing. But when "two shall become one flesh" the onus is on both, and that still applies to all of us. Jesus will speak of His great love as exemplified in His sacrifice for His friends, and in marriage we find that sacrifices on all sides are called for, in order for two to become "one flesh." The same is true for the care of the littlest ones, the children. Jesus' models for leadership in His Church maintain the same principle of care for the littlest ones -- that they should be received as if they are Christ Himself, or even the Father who sent Him. He teaches us about love. Our circumstances and social and political concept of rights may change and shift, but He always teaches us about love and its nature and its growth within us, the spiritual nature of this Kingdom and marriage in its context. And that is always our lesson.