Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalms. 128:1-6; Hebrews, 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16
I shared Tammy Wynette’s award-winning song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” because it captures the pain that more than half of married people go through when they decide to divorce. Tammy’s opening words, “I want to sing you a song that I didn’t write, but I should have,” as well as the way she sings capture the very sad experience that divorce is for couples who all started out so full of love and hope. As all of us know, divorce is often characterized by regret and feelings of failure especially relative to the children involved. The irony is that many divorced people will come to church this morning and find their pain compounded by today’s readings and no doubt by sermons they will hear.
However today’s liturgy of the word is surprising for what it says about Jesus and his teachings about divorce. The readings tell us that Jesus wasn’t really against divorce as we know it. Instead as the embodiment of compassion, he must have been sympathetic to the pain and abuse that often precede divorce. As a champion of women, he must have been especially sensitive to the abandonment of divorced women in his highly patriarchal culture.
What I’m suggesting is that a sensitive reading shows that what Jesus stands against in today’s Gospel is machismo not divorce as such. Relative to failed marriages, he implicitly invites us to follow his compassionate example in putting the welfare of people – in his day women specifically – ahead of abstract principles or laws. Doing so will make us more understanding and supportive of couples who decide to divorce in the best interests of all.
By the way, the gospel reading also tells us something important about scripture scholarship and its contributions towards understanding the kind of person Jesus was and what he taught on this topic.
First of all consider that scholarship and its importance relative to the topic at hand.
To begin with, it would have been very unlikely that Jesus actually said “let no one” or (as our translation went this morning) “let no human being” put asunder what God has joined together. That’s because in Jesus’ Palestine, only men had the right to initiate a divorce. So in prohibiting divorce, Jesus was addressing men. The “no one” or “no human being” attribution comes from Mark who wanted Jesus’ pronouncement on divorce to address situations outside of Palestine more than 40 years after Jesus’ death. By the time Mark wrote his Gospel, the church had spread outside of Palestine to Rome and the Hellenistic world. In some of those communities, women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men.
Similarly, Jesus probably did not say, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Such a statement would have been incomprehensible to Jesus’ immediate audience. Once again, in Palestine no woman could divorce her husband. Divorce was strictly a male right. Women could only be divorced; they couldn’t divorce their husbands.
So what did Jesus say? He probably said (as today’s first reading from Genesis puts it) “What God has joined together let no man put asunder. “ His was a statement against the anti-woman, male-centered practice of divorce that characterized the Judaism of his time.
And what was that practice?
In a word, it was highly patriarchal. Until they entered puberty, female children were “owned” by their father. From then on the father’s ownership could be transferred to another male generally chosen by the father as the daughter’s husband. The marriage ceremony made the ownership-transfer legal. After marriage, the husband was bound to support his wife. For her part however the wife’s obedience to her husband became her religious duty.
Meanwhile, even after marriage, the husband could retain as many lovers as he wanted provided he also able to support them. Additionally the husband enjoyed the unilateral right to demand divorce not only for adultery (as some rabbis held), but also according to the majority of rabbinical scholars for reasons that included burning his food, or spending too much time talking with the neighbors. Even after divorce, a man’s former wife needed his permission to remarry. As a result of all this, divorced women were often left totally abandoned. Their only way out was to become once again dependent on another man.
In their book Another God Is Possible, Maria and Ignacio Lopez Vigil put it this way: “Jesus’ saying, ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ is not the expression of an abstract principle about the indissolubility of marriage. Instead, Jesus’ words were directed against the highly patriarchal marriage practices of his time. ‘Men,’ he said, should not divide what God has joined together. This meant that the family should not be at the mercy of the whimsies of its male head, nor should the woman be left defenseless before her husband’s inflexibility. Jesus cut straight through the tangle of legal interpretations that existed in Israel about divorce, all of which favored the man, and returned to the origins: he reminded his listeners that in the beginning God made man and woman in his own image, equal in dignity, rights, and opportunities. Jesus was not pronouncing against divorce, but against machismo.”
Here it should be noted that Mark’s alteration of Jesus’ words is far less radical than what Jesus said. Mark makes the point of the Master’s utterance divorce rather than machismo. Ironically, in doing so and by treating women the same as men, Mark’s words also offer a scriptural basis for legalists who place the “bond of marriage” ahead of the happiness (and even safety) of those who find themselves in relationships which have become destructive to partners and to children.
Traditionally that emphasis on the inviolability of the marriage bond has represented the position of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It is very unlikely that the historical Jesus with his extremely liberal attitude towards law and his concern for women would have endorsed it.
Instead however, it never was Jesus position that any law should take precedence over the welfare of people. In fact, his refusal to endorse that precedence – his breaking of religious laws (even the Sabbath law) in favor of human welfare – was the main reason for his excommunication by the religious leaders of his own day. In other words, Jesus was the one who kept God’s law by breaking human law.
So instead of “Anti-Divorce Sunday,” this should be “Anti-Machismo Sunday.” It should remind us all of what a champion women have in Jesus.
Sometimes feminists complain that Christian faith finds its “fullness of revelation” in a man. But as one Latin American feminist theologian put it recently, the point of complaint shouldn’t be that Jesus was a man, but that most of us men are not like Jesus. Today’s Gospel calls us men to take steps towards nullifying that particular objection.