Just Marriage: Jesus, Divorce and the Vulnerable (Lectionary Reflection)

Just Married(2)

Copyright MZPromise

Proper 22B/Pentecost 19
Mark 10:2-16

Earlier in the gospel of Mark, Jesus has a very public falling out with his family. His brothers declare him insane and his family seeks to retrieve him so he won’t make a fool out of himself and the family anymore. In return, Jesus publicly disowns his family, a rejection that would have shocked the culture of his day.

And now, a few chapters later, Jesus seems to be speaking positively of keeping families together as part of God’s work. He forbids divorce, completely and with no exceptions, stunning his listeners and his disciples. Next he holds up dirty, discarded children as the emblem of discipleship, sternly chastising his followers for keeping their grubby hands at bay.

This dialogue of the family seems rather out of place, particularly as Jesus devotes so much of his teaching in the gospel of Mark to critiques of those in religious, political and economic power. Such an intimate, personal message about children and divorce – especially after fracturing his own family – seems out of place, even hypocritical. Jesus has spent the majority of his time in Mark’s gospel confronting systemic injustice and oppression. Isn’t this talk of marriage and kids a little off-topic?

Perhaps not. There is injustice and oppression everywhere, even in our homes. Sometimes especially in our homes. The personal is political, as the old axiom goes.

The family can become a microcosm, a twisted reflection, of the systems of oppression in our culture. Domestic violence against women and children – emotional or physical – is a ubiquitous example. Children – the little ones to which Jesus says come – are hit daily, not just in outbursts of abuse, but also to teach them ironically not to hit, all in the name of discipline. Spousal abuse spans all sections of American society and is jarringly common.

Violence, in our culture, seems to always be the answer, whether it is attempting to control a another country, a child or a spouse.

Sadly, Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark has been used in Christians churches against its original liberative intent. The reality of this teaching is that it is strikingly egalitarian and is intended to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation and injustice. It is a teaching intended to shield the least of these from the worst of society that allowed a woman to be discard for the slightest provocation.

Today, of course, Christian clergy have used this ban on divorce in quite the opposite fashion, to lock men, women and their children in abusive or unhealthy relationships in the name of a loving God. What began as a revolutionary teaching based in justice and equality has become a rule dogmatically rooted in oppression.

When Jesus teaches on marriage, he is actually confronting and challenging a patriarchal culture that considered women as second class at its best, less than human at its worst. In his time, women were little more than animated possessions that men could acquire through the legal contract of marriage. The teaching at the time varied, but a woman could be dismissed from her marriage for displeasing her husband. Some required marital infidelity. But whatever the case, a woman was completely powerless in the situation. Women were always the victims of divorce. A woman had no right to seek a divorce.

This powerlessness is the injustice Jesus addresses in his teaching on divorce.

Jesus upends the law and culture, by elevating women to equal partners when he suggests that a woman could actually divorce her husband. To a man, this notion would have been patently offensive. A woman could divorce a man? Such a teaching would break the law!

In this light, Jesus actually undermines the first-century marital institution. Indeed, one could easily imagine his critics rallying around the need to defend traditional marriage against Jesus’ attacks on it. That, of course, is the common response we see when oppressive traditions are confronted, and we see it today in the responses to the movement for marriage equality.

In reality, Jesus was protecting the most vulnerable in society who were caught in a legal contract in which they had no rights. It is not hard to imagine the fates of a first-century women after divorce. Had a woman found herself divorced, her economic options would evaporate. Divorce, largely, meant destitution for a woman.  So when Jesus tells men that they should not separate from their wives, on a deeper, more foundational level, he is protecting women from an unjust fate that is beyond their control.

Christian churches who emphasize the sinfulness of divorce based on this text miss the heart of Jesus’ teaching. The ethical force behind the teaching isn’t that divorce is wrong, but that treating women as unequal to men, as possessions, is blasphemous as both were made in the image of God.

America is still a land of patriarchy. Though there are deep fractures in the glass ceiling, it is more difficult to be a woman than it is to be a man in this country in almost every way. To deny it is to be complicit in it. Women of equal skill and education command less compensation on the job. Women still do the majority of household tasks, even if they work, even if they are the primary wage earners.  Women are still viewed through sexist lenses

And, it is still the wife who is typically affected disproportionately by divorce, particularly when children are involved. The husband becomes a single man. The wife becomes a single mom. It is still women and their children who suffer the most from domestic abuse or who become trapped in marriages through a husband’s economic control.

Jesus stood for equality and taught on marriage in ways that protected the powerless and abused person in a troubled relationship.

I believe Jesus stands there still.

I just hope the church does too.

____

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • Roepete

    As someone who has endured both the pains of domestic abuse as a child and the pains of a divorce, I have a slightly different take.

    I take marriage as sacred. I made a vow in front of God, my family, and my wife to be with her “til death do us part”. I took this vow seriously.

    I totally agree with the author about the egalitarianism in marriage and society. Women should be treated as equals.

    BUT, what about in the case of abuse?? Should the woman leave the husband??
    My answer is both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

    My mother dated an abusive man. She lived with him and, on occasion, would strike her and her children. Later, she married him thinking that he might change if he was a married man.

    He didn’t.

    My mother, my siblings, and me had to endure many physical abuses. At one point, my mother took us children and moved to stay with her parents about an hour away. She had had enough. She later divorced him. To this day, my other siblings resent her for having us endure this.

    So, should she had stayed in the abusive marriage. Stayed in the marriage?? Yes Stayed?? No

    In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul writes, “To the married I give this command (not I, but the LORD): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

    Notice that he is talking to the wife here.

    So, if the wife is being abused, she is to leave/separate but she is to stay faithful to her husband. It is now the husband’s duty to prove to her that he is no longer abusive (there are numerous programs to help). I would even go a step further – he has to prove the wife’s parents that he is no longer abusive (this, of course, is a parent speaking)

    Also, I would even encourage the abused wife to call the authorities and have the husband thrown in jail. To me, this is an action of love!! Too many abused spouses do not do this because of their love for their spouse but this is where they need to love themselves and their children more.

    Many will disagree with me and I have no problem debating this — just please keep it civil ;-)

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      First off, I appreciate you sharing your story, and I am truly saddened that you had to endure such abuse. There is never a good excuse for that. I am happy that your mother was able to get away.

      I think your solution is a bit problematic, because we are taking a text in a culture in which abuse or striking a woman would not have been considered wrong. It is also a problem when we take a few verses from a first century Jewish man and apply them in a literal way to modern conceptions of marriage.

      The major problem I see is that, even with help (which getting help is even a stretch for most abusers), it assumes that it will solve the issues. Most abusers are habitual, according to the research, even with professional help. Further, the way I see it, it continues to make marriage (a sacrament in some traditions) oppressive for the victim of abuse.

      I think it is imperative that the church offer a generous and gracious response to victims, not to force them to remain in an abusive marriage.

      Thank you again for sharing.

      • Roepete

        I agree that abusers are habitual but just like any habit, it can be broken. This is why I suggest the abused leave the situation – that is something no one should have to endure.

        Also, this is why I advocate a long courtship. An abusive person will eventually show their stripes and this is where the abusee has a choice — stay in an abusive relation (in which this case, a small part of the problem is theirs) or leave. If they stay (as in the case of me mum), they most likely will reap the violent seed that usually are sown in the abusers upbringing.

        If during a courtship there is abuse, the problem can be nipped in the bud. Sometimes an abuser doesn’t show these signs until after the marriage. The first time it happens and the abusee leaves, it sends a loud and clear message that this will NOT be the norm.

        @Bro. Henson – I appreciate the tone of your response. You disagreed with part of my response and yet you didn’t sound like a typical Democrat replying to a Republican post (or vice versa ;-)

        1. Maybe the culture might have not addressed marital abuse but the tone of Jesus message would not have accepted it.

        2. Getting help is a method to remove the oppression. I agree that it can be used to the abuser’s advantage (“Smacking the crap outta you, sweetie, but I am getting help”).

        This is why I suggest when someone is being abused to:

        a) Call the police. If the abusee really loves the abuser, this is a viable option. My mother holds part of the responsibility for being abused (just ask my siblings).

        b) GET OUT OF THE SITUATION!! Getting out of the situation, combined with having the abuser jailed, shows the abuser that abuse will NOT be accepted.

        c) Get the church involved. If the abused does not have the means to fend for themselves financially or have no where to go to get out, the church MUST get involved to protect the well being of the abused.

  • Jean Baker

    I teach an adult Sunday school class and have struggled all week with this lesson. I have been blessed with a beautiful marriage for 56 years, but I hurt for people in abusive relationships. To deny people who have made mistakes, often in youth, from finding a fullfilling relationship with a loving Christian spouse, seems wrong to me. I thank you for helping me this morning to find a compassionate way to approach this subject. The second part, little children, is easy.

  • Questioner

    There’s a lot of feminism and progressiveness in this, but there isn’t much to do with Biblical context. There’s no discussion about what the definition and expectations for married and divorced people are according to the rest of the Bible – especially for women. There’s also no discussion about why Jesus only mentions a single exception for he general rule on divorce and remarriage: fornication. Surely Jesus must have known that there were more ways than just fornication to devastate a marriage. How do you derive from this that the ethical teaching isn’t about divorce but about equality?

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