Today we get to reflect on everyone’s favourite topic: divorce. The verse before our Gospel begins today provides a little more context when it tells us that Jesus was travelling with his disciples and the crowds down through the Jordan Valley into Judea and onto Jerusalem. When the Pharisees approach Jesus and ask the question: “is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife?” we need to read this against the historical and political background of the time. The Jordan river should remind us immediately of the ministry of John the Baptiser – who had recently been executed for daring to challenge the so-called King Herod on his illicit second marriage with his brother’s first wife. So the question is a test, because it was so politically charged. In general, no one was very concerned about divorce. It was at the time of Jesus generally accepted and practiced within Jewish society. What was disputed was the exact grounds for a divorce.
There were three schools of thought and Rabbinical interpretation concerning the only passage in the Hebrew Scriptures that deals with the question of divorce (although other passages do condemn the practice) – namely the first 4 verses in Deuteronomy 24. This somewhat obscure passage suggests that a man was able to provide a decree of divorce to his wife if he found something objectionable about her. It then indicates that she is free to enter into a second marriage, but that if the second marriage ends, she is not able to remarry her first husband. This seems to be a protection for the woman; her first dowry would have been kept by her first husband in the divorce; if her second husband died, then she would keep the second dowry, but the first husband may only be offering to marry her to get his hands on this money – so don’t let him.
What this ‘something objectionable’ or others translate this as ‘sexual immorality or indecency’ was was the subject of much discussion. There were three major schools of thought. The first is associated with the generally hard-line and conservative Rabbi Shammai who indicates that the only grounds for divorce is infidelity by the woman. The more liberal leaning Rabbi Hillel (who Jesus usually follows in his interpretations) provides an example that could be a cause for divorce: if the woman spoils a dish while cooking! An even more extreme example is offered by Rabbi Aqiba who says that the only thing necessary for a divorce is if the husband finds another woman to be more beautiful. So, even though Jesus normally follows the thought of Hillel (as also does St Paul), in this instance, once he is able to speak to the disciples alone (and not the crowd) he follows Shammai and even places significant restrictions on that teaching. He indicates that the only reason that Moses even provides the exception for divorce was because the people were so unteachable, or more literally, have hard-hearts (or uncircumcised hearts), which in the Greek is sklerokardia – which, by the way, could make a great insult if you are in the market for such things – as in, Richard, why are you being so sklerokardic?!
Recorded at St Paul’s (9.30am)
Sunday 27, Year B. Mark 10:2-12