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Mark 10.2-16 
Proper 22 - Year B

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[For an inductive Bible study on the topic of divorce try this CrossMarks resource:  Two Shall Become One]

I wonder about the wisdom of the scholars who put all these verses into one lection. What does Jesus talking to Pharisees about divorce and his disciples about adultery have to do with the blessing of young children? One connection is that both women and children were considered secondary citizens to the men. They were both people who often had little or no power or authority in first century society.

A QUESTION ABOUT DIVORCE (vv. 2-9) // Mt 19:3-8

Only Mark tells us that the Pharisees were testing (peirazo) Jesus with their question. When this word is used in Mark, it is either Satan (1:13) or the Pharisees (8:11; 10:2; 12:15) who are "testing/tempting" Jesus. It would seem that from scriptures (and personal experience) that the testings/temptings we face are more likely to come from human forces than from demonic ones.

Their question begins, "Is it lawful...?" However, they aren't really asking Jesus to tell them what the law says. They already know what the law says. They indicate that in v. 4. The law, from Deuteronomy 24:1, says:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house [NRSV].

It is clear that it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. However, the law as written did raise an important question: "What constitutes 'something objectionable'?" There were different answers to that question. R.T. France (The Gospel of Mark) has a paragraph full of quotes about the marriage:

While the permitted grounds of divorce were debated in the rabbinic world, the admissibility of divorce (of a wife by her husband, not vice versa: Josephus, Ant. 15.259) as such was not questioned: Dt. 24:1-4 (the only legislation relating specifically to divorce in the torah) was understood to have settled the issue. The more restrictive interpretation of the school of Shammai (only on the basis of 'unchastity', m. Git. 9.10) was almost certainly a minority view. More typical, probably, is Ben Sira 25:26: 'If she does not accept your control, divorce her and send her away', or Josephus's laconic comment (Life 426): 'At this time I divorce my wife, not liking her behavior.' Josephus paraphrases Dt. 24:1, 'He who wants to be divorced from the wife who shares his home for whatever cause -- and among people many such may arise -- ...' (Ant. 4.253), and the school of Hillel allowed this to cover a spoiled meal, or even, so R. Akiba, 'if he found another fairer than she' (m. Git. 9:10). (pp. 387-8)

Where do these different views come from? The root meaning of the Hebrew word, translated "something objectionable," is "nakedness" or "nudity." This led the School of Shammai, as noted above, to conclude that only adultery was grounds for divorce.

A secondary meaning of the Hebrew word is "offensive" or "shameful," which led the School of Hillel to conclude that anything the wife did that offended the man was grounds for divorce.

It should also be noted that according to Jewish law only the husband could divorce his wife. A wife could not divorce her husband. The divorce proceedings were very simple. As I understand it, the husband could draft a certificate of divorce. This meant writing on a piece of paper: "She is not my wife and I am not her husband." Give her the paper and kick her out of the house. They were divorced.

Some commentaries note that Jesus asks: "What did Moses command you?" They answer with what Moses allowed. In their reference to Dt, Moses does not command anyone to get a divorce.

Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) point out that the first century understanding of marriage is quite different than ours today.

For an understanding of divorce one must understand what marriage meant in a specific culture. Under normal circumstances in the world of Jesus, individuals really did not get married. Families did. One family offered a male, the other a female. Their wedding stood for the wedding of the larger extended families and symbolized the fusion of the honor of both families involved. It would be undertaken with a view to political and/or economic concerns -- even when it might be confined to fellow ethnics, as it was in first-century Israel. Divorce, then, would entail the dissolution of these extended family ties. It represented a challenge to the family of the former wife and would likely result in family feuding.

Jesus looks upon the married couple as "no longer two, but one flesh." This indicates that marriage is a "blood" relationship rather than a legal one. And because it is a blood relationship, like the relationship to mother and father (in v. 7) or to one's siblings, marriage cannot be legally dissolved. Moreover, just as it is God alone who determines who one's parents are, so too, it is God who "joins together" in marriage. This is not difficult to imagine in a world of arranged marriages, where choice of marriage partner is heavily rooted in obedience to parents and the needs of the family. Parental and family choices are readily seen as determined by God. [p. 240]

Given their understanding of marriage as something arranged by parents, divorce was a sin against one's parents (and in-laws, as we will see later). The divorcing son was dishonoring his parents by undoing the marriage they had arranged. It was the parent's promise to the wife's parents that was being broken by the divorce.

There is quite possibly a political agenda behind the Pharisees' "test." In Mark, the previous occurrence of the word "lawful" (exesti) is when we are told that John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." What had Herod done? He had divorced his wife (a Nabatean princess whose name is unknown) in order to marry Herodias! Would Jesus side with John and state that (this) divorce was not lawful? If so, the Pharisees might push to have Herod do to Jesus what he had done to John. Since Mark 3:6 we have known: "The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against [Jesus], how to destroy him." Perhaps this question was an attempt to have Jesus, in a sense, "hang himself," by speaking against Herod. The Pharisee's goal may have been to destroy Jesus more so than an honest inquiry about interpreting a biblical passage.

When we ask, "What does the Bible say about divorce?" we come up with a number of different answers.

It is impossible to come up with just one answer to the question, "What does the Bible say about divorce?" but I think that that is the wrong question; just as the Pharisees ask a wrong question.

Jesus answers the right question: "What is God's will concerning marriage?" God's intentions were revealed at the beginning of creation. Humans were created male and female. (I think implied in the Genesis context -- Gn 2:18-24 -- they were created with an attraction towards each other -- they were originally one and seek that unity again, which comes with marriage.) I think that the assumption was made in biblical times that marriage was for everyone. As I noted above, marriages were usually arranged by parents or other family members. It wasn't a matter of dating and then "falling in love" with someone. It was a matter of honoring one's parents. (I'm not sure if a marriage was based primarily on the promises made by the bride and groom or by the agreement made between their parents. I don't know what was said or what happened at a first century wedding ceremony -- except that they drank a lot of wine -- John 2.)

James Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) writes the following about looking at a text about divorce to try and understand marriage:

You do not learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions for making a crash landing; you will not be successful in war if you train by the rules for beating a retreat. The same is true of marriage and divorce. The exceptional measures necessary when a marriage fails are of no help in discovering the meaning and intention of marriage. Jesus endeavors to recover God's will for marriage, not to argue about possible exceptions to it. (p. 301)

A question this text doesn't answer is when and how does God "yoke together" the couple -- making "one flesh" of the two? Does it happen instantaneously at the conclusion of the vows in a marriage rite or the act of sexual intercourse? Does a couple's unity take place over time? Or, in other words: Is the "oneness" created (1) by the legal rite or (2) physical actions or (3) an emotional and relational connection? Can couples be legally marred, have sexual intercourse, and still not be one?

Paul says 1 Cor 6:16: "Do you not know what whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh." It seems to be his opinion that sexual intercourse is what makes two people "one flesh". A couple's unity has nothing to do with love, only sex. However, he goes on to say in the next verse: "But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him." The word translated "united" (kollaomai) in both verses is used of the marriage relationship in Matt 19:5. Mark 10:7 (also Ep 5:31) use a closely related term, proskollaomai) for the marriage relationship.

However, most often this word refers to a non-sexual, non-marriage relationship or association between people. That's how it is used in Acts (5:13; 8:29; 9:26; 10:28; 17:34). Luke also uses the word to refer to dust that clings to one's feet (Lk 10:11) and of an employee/employer relationship (Lk 15:15).

Contrary to Paul's understanding, it would seem that the uniting should involve something more than just sexual relationship.

I like the title of a book by Herbert Anderson and Robert Cotton Fite, Becoming Married. The title and the theme of the book is that "marriage" doesn't instantly happen with the ceremony or the signing of the license (at least in our cultural understanding of marriage). The "becoming one" begins before the ceremony and needs to continue progressing towards "becoming one" for the rest of their lives. Similarly, "divorce" or "separation" doesn't just happen when the legal document is signed. Most couples stop "becoming one" long before the divorce finalizes the one becoming two.

If it is not God's will that couples "who have become one," should be divorced, why are there divorce laws? "Because of your hardness of heart," (sklerokardia) is Jesus' answer (v. 5). This word is used in the parallel passage in Matthew (10:5), and again in Mark 16:14. More often Mark uses poroo or porosis ("to harden" or "hardness") with "heart" (3:5; 6:52; 8:17). The image of a "hard-heart" might be best rendered by the image of a "closed mind." It refers to people who are unwilling to learn. Their minds are made up. They are stubborn, unwilling to listen to anything new, unwilling to consider changing their minds or attitudes. In the OT, it is used primarily of people's attitude towards God rather than of the way they treat each other.

Does the "your" in v. 5 refer specifically to the Pharisees who are testing Jesus to whom Jesus directs his response? or to society in general? Is it just this small group who has hard-hearts or the Jewish people or the world?

Whatever Jesus (or Mark) may have meant, I think that we can safely say that the entire world is afflicted with hard-hearts. There are times when all of us are unwilling to listen and learn from God. There are times when all of us don't want to be confused with the facts, because our minds are made up. Or, as I sometimes paraphrase it, "Don't confuse me with the Bible, my faith is made up."

I wonder, "What's the difference between a hard-heart and a steadfast faith?"

Anyway, to put it in simple terms, we have divorce laws because of human sinfulness. If human beings were perfect, we wouldn't need divorce laws -- we wouldn't need any laws. We would instinctively know and follow God's will in all that we do -- including our relationship with a spouse. We are not perfect. We need laws -- even divorce laws.

REMARRIAGE AND ADULTERY (vv. 10-12) // Mt 19:9; 5:32; Lk 16:18

Jesus offers some private teaching to his disciples.

In these verses, Jesus follows the Greco-Roman rules which allowed for a woman to divorce her husband.

Jesus has already established that God's intentions are that a man and a woman become one flesh and that they should not be divided. Now he says that when a separation happens and a man or a woman marries another, they are committing adultery.

Note that Mark (nor Luke 16:18) do not have Matthew's one exception, "except on the grounds of unchastity" (5:32; 19:9).

I quote again from Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) because they help us understanding the culture and common thinking that was present when Jesus spoke these words.

It is important to read this text carefully. In Mark's community, what is prohibited is not divorce, but divorce and remarriage, or divorce in order to marry again. The community also knows of women (or a woman's family) who can initiate divorce. It would be such divorce that inevitably would lead to family feuding, a true negative challenge to the honor of the other family. However, for Mark's community, nothing is said about cases of divorce not with a view to marrying some other person.

For a married woman to have sexual relations with someone other than her husband is adultery, clearly the implication in v. 12. Given first-century understandings of adultery that makes sense. She dishonors her husband. But given those same first-century understandings, for a male to marry another after divorce (v. 11) simply cannot be adultery. Adultery against whom?

Adultery means to dishonor a male by having sexual relations with his wife. Take this definition quite literally. Since it is males who embody gender honor, and since only male equals can challenge for honor, a female cannot and does not dishonor a wife by having sexual relations with the wife's husband. Nor can a married man dishonor his wife by having sexual relations with some other female. A husband's relations with a prostitute do not dishonor the honorable wife.

If a husband divorced his wife in order to remarry, which male would be dishonored? On any obvious reading, it would have to be the father (or other males) of the family of the divorced wife. In other words, it is the family of the divorced woman who is dishonored by her husband's divorcing and marrying another, precisely what led to family feuding. That is what is prohibited here. [p. 241]

What is "committing adultery"? The ancient concept of "adultery" was "taking another man's property." One could not "commit adultery" with an unmarried or unengaged woman. It might be sexual immorality (porneuo), but not adultery (moicheuo, or moichaomai).

Contrary to what Malina and Rohrbaugh state: Mark has the little phrase "against her," in v. 11. He presents adultery as a sin against her, rather than her father or other males. However, it isn't clear whether the sin is committed against the new wife or against the old wife. Mark is also not clear whether or not the new spouses had previously been married (compare Mt 5:32). It is clear that with the remarriage, faithfulness towards the first spouse has ended. "Adultery" is often used to mean "unfaithful," e.g., being unfaithful to the one God by worshiping idols.

Mark is not giving us detailed rules about what constitutes adultery. However, it is clear that divorce and remarriage is not part of God's plan, but because of human sinfulness it happens. The unity of flesh that God intends sometimes breaks apart.

Some additional thoughts about "committing adultery" (moichaomai). A closely related word is used later in the chapter. One of the commandments that the rich man has kept is "You shall not commit adultery" (10:19 - moicheuo). However, keeping that commandment or all the others isn't enough to inherit eternal life. Remaining married to one another "'til death do them part" is not what saves a couple. While such faithfulness to one another is commendable and needs to be encouraged and celebrated, it doesn't save them. It does not bring eternal life to them. If this is true, then neither is not staying married bring condemnation. One can be divorced and remarried, and not be condemned by God. Whether a couples stays married for life or they divorce each other because of hard hearts, their salvation, in both cases, is based on their relationship with and their faith in Jesus Christ that counts.

We also need to recognize that Jesus brought a new definition to "committing adultery" in Mt 5:28. Anyone who looks at another lustfully has committed this sin. I doubt that any of us can plead "not guilty" to this commandment. In our imaginations we break faithfulness with a spouse (if we are married). In our imaginations we consider someone to be a sex object -- something less than human. I think that each of us is just as guilty of "committing adultery" as those who go through the public trauma of a divorce; and then marry again. We can't point fingers at "those sinners." We are also them. (My mother used to tell us that whenever we point a finger at others, there are three fingers pointing back at us.) I heard a clergy colleague comment about the number of men in her congregation who commit adultery through internet porn sites. Even if they never had sex with another woman, these sites encourage their imaginations to break faithfulness with their wives.

When Jesus was asked to judge a woman who had been caught in adultery (what about the man?), he refused to condemn or punish her as the law of Moses dictated (John 8:3-11).

Divorce is not God's intentions for marriage; but, because of human sinfulness it happens, and we need divorce laws for protection. (Divorce is probably better than murder <g>). Divorced (and remarried) people are sinners, but so are all of us. Jesus refused to condemn and punish the one who had been caught in adultery. I believe that that same grace and mercy is extended to all of us sinners -- even those who have been through divorce and remarriage. How much more does someone whose life has publicly been torn apart need the comfort and love and acceptance from a community?

THE CHILDREN (vv. 13-16)

A contrast can be made between the intentions of the Pharisees who come to Jesus -- to test him and are unwilling to learn from him (v. 2) and these people coming to Jesus -- to have their children touched by Jesus.

In the first century, there was not a very positive attitude about children. Some comments that express their feelings about children

They didn't talk about "sweet, innocent children." Children were seen as "spoiled, rotten, undisciplined brats." They were often hardships on families in poverty. With that attitude, it isn't hard to understand why the disciples thought it best to keep the children away from Jesus.

Why were they bringing these children to Jesus? Why do they want Jesus to touch them? Every other time the word "touch" (apto) is used in Mark, it is part of a healing (1:41; 3:10; 5:27, 28, 30, 31; 6:56; 7:33; 8:22). I would conclude that these children were brought to Jesus because they were sick and in need of his touch for healing.

The mental picture this brings to me is not at all like so many paintings of Jesus and the children, where all the children have a squeaky-clean look; children full of life and smiles. Rather, it is more like a pediatrician's waiting room -- or the emergency room at a children's hospital. Jesus is surrounded by sick children -- and all the problems and smells that come with that: runny noses and dirty faces; diarrhea and smelly diapers; nausea and its unpleasant eruptions; crying or whimpering that just won't stop. With this picture in mind, it makes even more sense to think that the disciples would want to protect Jesus from these sick children. Somebody like Jesus -- a great teacher and scholar -- wouldn't want to waste time with sick children -- especially since 60% of them died before age 16. He'd have more important things to do, wouldn't he?

Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels) say something quite similar about these verses:

In view here are the proverbial vulnerability and helplessness of children. The picture is one of peasant women, many of whose babies would be dead within their first year, fearfully holding them out for Jesus to touch. Jesus' laying his hands on children to protect them from or clear them of the evil eye (this is the main malignancy from which parents have to protect their children in the Mediterranean) is offered as a model for how to enjoy God's patronage (= entering the kingdom of heaven). The argument is that God's patronage belongs to those ready and willing to be clients. [p. 243]

Earlier the disciples had tried to stop an exorcist from doing his deeds in Jesus' name. Jesus tells them not to stop him (9:38-39). Now they are trying to stop parents from bringing children to Jesus. Jesus tells them not to stop them. This may be a warning to all of us who believe that we are doing Jesus' will when we are trying to stop some activity in the world.

Perkins (Mark, New Interpreters Bible) gives this summary of the children-image.

Verse 15 turns toward the disciples. Once again, Jesus is warning the disciples that they must give up the normal human calculations of greatness if they are to participate in the rule of God. Jesus' saying that one who does not "receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (v. 15) is puzzling. Modern ideas about the innocence of children cannot be carried back to the first century. In the philosophical context of the teacher and student, "babes" are those who are still without any real understanding of serious teaching (see 1 Cor 3:1-4). Therefore, it is not likely that the image referred to the disciples as recipients of Jesus' teaching. The child in antiquity was radically dependent upon the pater familias. The father decided whether the child would even be accepted into the family. Children belonged to their father and remained subject to his authority even as adults. The saying "to receive the kingdom like a child," which most scholars treat as originally independent of the scene about accepting children, must, therefore, refer to the radical dependence of the child on the father for any status, inheritance, or, in families where children might be abandoned, for life itself. It warns the disciples that they are radically dependent upon God's grace -- they cannot set the conditions for entering the kingdom. [p. 647]

Beyond this dependency image of children. One might also talk about the "non-persons" of society today. Perkins suggests that Jesus would not use the image of children today, but maybe "homeless 'street people'" or "particularly in under-developed nations, indigenous peoples might provide a more telling example" [p. 647].

In order to enter the kingdom, one gives up power, status, importance -- one dies to one's self; so that one's power, status, importance, and life can come from God. How much easier is it for children to do that than "Pharisees" or the "hard-hearted"?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901