Mark 10 on Marriage and Divorce (Part 2 of 3)
In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus declared that whoever sends his wife away and marries commits adultery against his first wife. A piece of paper did not justify what was otherwise unjustifiable. The sent-away wife is the victim of her husband’s decision to cast her aside in favor of another. He has harmed her economically, socially and personally. Jesus affirms the dignity of women by denying that they can be thrown away like yesterday’s stale bread.
Here Mark also observes that marriage is a two way street. In the Roman world, some women could also divorce their husbands. Gentile woman who had the power to cast away their husbands and marry another were also guilty of adultery if they did so.
Note that in Mark, it is only the sender-away who remarries whom Jesus identifies as an adulterer. He does not describe the one sent-away who remarries in these terms. (Although see Matthew 5:31-32, which deserves its own discussion).
Also note that In Mark, there is no exception for porneia as there is in Matthew. The legal remedy for adultery was death (Leviticus, 20:10, Deut 22:22), not divorce. (However, Jeremiah 3:8 suggests by way of analogy that adulterers were sometimes divorced, not killed).
As we think about our own context, the question becomes how closely divorce and remarriage are related in this passage. Is Jesus speaking about those who cast their spouses aside in order to pursue another, or is he speaking about those who divorce because of tragic circumstances beyond their control and who later decide to remarry. I think the grammar and the cultural context suggest more of the former than the latter.
While Mark does not use the common “in order to” grammatical form, the divorce and remarriage are closely related. In verse 11, the structure is ambiguous. Divorce and remarriage are in the subjunctive mood, joined together simply by the word “and”. The logic implicit in the grammar looks like this: if (x and y) then z. If “send away” and “marry another” then “adultery”. In verse 12, “sending away” is a participle while “remarry” is a subjunctive. It reads grammatically more like this: “and if she, sending away her husband, marries another, she commits adultery.” The second form does appear to me to indicate a close logical and temporal relationship between the divorce and the remarriage.
I think the cultural context suggests the same. I don’t think one divorced in order to reenter the world of singlehood as we know it today. Marriage was not primarily a matter of romantic affection and personal attraction. The social and economic forces at play within the culture pushed most adults toward marriage. The same forces would apply to divorcers and divorcees. I’m not sure how many men sent their wives away without having something else in mind.
So I’m not sure that Jesus would identify as an adulterer an abused and mistreated spouse who obtained relief from the courts in the form of a divorce, but who later found and married a decent person. But those who wrong their spouses and who use the court system to toss them aside, to them Jesus’ words apply most directly.
Jesus does not speak about divorce in general, but about men who send away their wives to marry another and wives who leave their husbands to marry another. His words in Mark 10:10-12, then, focus on a specific situation, one with clearly identifiable victims and victimizers.
Jesus’ cultural situation was significantly different than our own. His words don’t fit a culture in which “no fault” divorce makes any sense. The legal mechanism of divorce will vary from culture to culture, but they only exist because people are tragically broken to begin with. More on that tomorrrow.