The Pharisees ask Jesus a question about divorce. Why did He answer their question with one of His own?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Mk 10:2-16)
In Mk 10:1, we read that Jesus “went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to Him again.” This tells us that Jesus left the northern territory of Galilee and returned to the area near Jerusalem and the Jordan River. “Beyond the Jordan” was a region also called “Perea.” It was governed by Herod Antipas and was the location of John the Baptist’s ministry. Knowing this helps us understand why the Pharisees asked Jesus a question about divorce to “test” Him. Recall that when John the Baptist preached against the divorces that Herod and his wife, Herodias, had obtained in order to leave their spouses and marry each other, he wound up in jail and lost his head. The Pharisees were hoping the same thing could happen to Jesus if He took a similar stand. They were waiting for the trap to spring shut.
However, as was often the case when Jesus was asked an insincere question—one meant to trap Him—He answered with another question: “What did Moses command you?” What better place to start than with Moses! The Pharisees pointed out that “Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.” In answering this way, the Pharisees played right into Jesus’ hands. How?
The “bill of divorce” by Moses, to which the Pharisees appealed, is found in Deuteronomy, a word that means “second law” in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. A careful reading of the Pentateuch (first five books of the OT) distinguishes the Levitical covenant God ratified with His people at Mt. Sinai (see Ex 19-24; Lev 27:34) from the Deuteronomic covenant ratified forty years later on the plains of Moab (see Deut 1;1-5; 29:1). This “second law” came about as a result of the hardness of heart in the Israelites, who, through their repeated infidelity to the Levitical covenant, proved themselves not ready yet to live its high ethical standard. The laws found in Deuteronomy were thus temporary and concessionary, designed to permit lesser evils in order to avoid greater ones. For example, requiring a man to write a bill of divorce for his wife protected her from arbitrary and abusive disregard.
Jesus, however, wanted the Pharisees to think about what Moses had written as a first command. He went all the way back to Genesis, because the Jews attributed all five books of the Pentateuch to Moses’ authorship. In marriage, Moses taught that husband and wife are joined together by God to form “one flesh.” Their union enables them to live in the same way as God lives—in a communion of love within the Trinity, Three in One. Since that Divine union of love cannot be broken, neither can the marriage union. It is indissoluble, just as the Church teaches. To emphasize this point, Jesus told the Pharisees that a married person who divorces a spouse and marries another commits adultery. With this reference to Moses’ earliest “command,” Jesus silenced His critics—for a time.
How interesting it is to see that the next episode St. Mark describes is one that involves Jesus and children. Children are the visible fruit of the great “one flesh” mystery of marriage. Husband and wife who come together in the marital embrace can form “one flesh” in the conception of a child. It is not surprising, therefore, to see Jesus become “indignant” when the disciples tried to keep children away from Him. The face of a child represents to the world the truth that God’s plan for marriage is good and beautiful. Why did the disciples want to shuffle them away from Jesus? Was it because they thought the weakness and dependency of children made them inconsequential to the mission they thought they were helping Jesus to establish in all His preaching about the Kingdom of God? If so, they must have been startled by what He said next: “…the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these…whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Not only are children perfectly able to receive the Kingdom of God—in utter weakness, completely dependent on grace—but they are to be constant reminders to adults that we, too, must receive it in exactly the same way.
The warm, blessed embrace Jesus extends to these children is a powerful icon of how all of us are welcomed into God’s family. If children disappear from a culture (through contraception, abortion, or the loss of true childhood), how will we remember who we really are?
Possible response: Lord Jesus, please show me today how to receive Your Kingdom as a child.
First Reading (Read Gn 2:18-24)
Here we have an opportunity to read again the story of man, woman, and marriage as it was “in the beginning.” We can see so clearly, without the distortion of the Fall, that, as the Church teaches, “The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (Catechism, 1605). As God solves man’s only problem in Eden (“it is not good for the man to be alone”), we can see that He does it in a way that retains both equality between the sexes as well as glorious differences. Their coming together in marriage, to “cling” to each other (the Hebrew word for “cling” is the root for the Hebrew word for “glue”) and become again “one flesh” helps us understand why divorce is unnatural and destructive. It is a ripping apart of what God Himself has “glued” together.
No wonder Jesus wanted the Pharisees to remember how it was “in the beginning” when answering their question about divorce.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, help us in Your Church to live marriage as You designed it, so that we can witness to its beauty, truth, and goodness.
Psalm (Read Ps 128:1-6)
The psalmist assures us that when we live life the way God designed it for us, we will experience the blessing of joy. God’s simple command to man and woman “in the beginning” was to be fruitful and to have dominion over the earth. In other words, He wanted us to be like Him: to create life, as He had done, and to work, as He worked for six days before He rested. Those who “walk in His ways,” as the psalmist says, and embrace His commands can expect blessing on their work (“For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork”) and on their family life (“Your wife shall be a fruitful vine…your children like olive plants around your table”). When God’s people live in God’s ways, they can anticipate great joy: “May you see your children’s children. Peace be upon Israel.” The song of praise we sing for a promise like this is in our refrain: “May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Heb 2:9-11)
When we see Jesus, in the Gospel, restoring marriage and child-bearing to the nobility it had “in the beginning,” and when we read the psalmist’s praise of the blessing of children, the fruit of marriage, we have a better appreciation of what we see in this reading in Hebrews. At first, it may seem difficult to find any connection with our other readings, but look carefully at its emphasis. Jesus, God’s own Son, was willing to become one of us—flesh and blood formed in a woman’s womb—in order to fully enter human life and save it from the destruction of sin, death, and the devil. His wholehearted embrace of human life, including its suffering, demonstrates unequivocally that God’s original design for us has not failed. Jesus is not ashamed to enter this drama and call us “brothers.”
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be—Amen.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, nothing confirms the joyous excellence of our human story more than Your willingness to share it and call us Your “brothers.” Thank You, O Lord.