Marriage, Divorce and Adultery
A sermon on Mark 10: 2-16 by the Revd Craig Thompson, 5 October 2003


This probably seems to many of us to be a text to be avoided or apologised for, because it is stark and seemingly without room for manoeuvre. As such a stark text is it an unusual text in Mark’s gospel… Although in Mark we continually hear Jesus challenging us and our assumptions about who are, who others are, and who God is, there is at the same time a lack of clarity about just what the specific target of Jesus’ words in us might be. Recall, for example, part of last week’s gospel reading:
Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Well and good! but there is nothing to tell us whether we ourselves have or have not placed such stumbling blocks, only that we should not.
Jesus continues, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out, etc!
The logic is clear enough, but there is nothing to say to us whether we have sinned in such a disastrous way or not – only the relative importance of what we lose or gain by sinning or not. And so it is for just about everything Jesus ever says – we hear that there is sin, that we are likely to be sinners, but in his teaching we are given very few marks by which to measure ourselves – perhaps even none at all…

And yet with this morning’s reading it seems otherwise – on the lips of Jesus we hear,
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
So the first thing to note is the character of what seems to be said here, and how we respond to that apparent character: whatever Jesus intends in making these statements, we seem to be in the unusual position of knowing whether he is talking about us – whether or not we are adulterers according to Jesus’ definition. And part of the offensiveness of the text for us is that it is so explicit in what it means: divorce inevitably leads to adultery.

Now, one way of dealing with the offensiveness of what is said here has been to see Jesus here not so much as the opponent of divorce as the champion of women. There were arguments abroad at the time that a Jewish man could divorce his wife for the most trivial of reasons, with the result that the discarded woman could be left without means of support in a culture in which a woman’s social and economic security was largely through her relation to her father or husband. No doubt Jesus had such injustice in mind when he criticised those who cast aside wives simply because they were no longer pleasing to them. But a problem with concluding that this is all Jesus is on about is that the cast-aside women themselves are also accused of becoming adulterers if they remarry – as if despite the dire circumstances a divorce might place them in, they are not permitted to marry themselves back into love or even simple economic security [cf. Matt 5.32] Other sayings about divorce attributed to Jesus all add up to no-one coming out of divorce un-marked – neither the divorcer nor the one driven away are free from the charge of adultery. [Matt 19.1ff; Lk 16.18] And Jesus seems uncompromising on the matter…

So having already noticed that Jesus is strangely explicit and seems to make it possible to determine directly whether or not we are sinners on this matter, we have to notice also that it is not just social justice which is at stake here. Divorce in those times didn’t just cast a woman to the wolves, it had the potential to make made her an adulterer, even if she was the victim of an unfair divorce action from her husband. Jesus sees divorce and remarriage as adulterous in effect, if not necessarily in intent. So, what to do with all this? How can we take Jesus with utmost seriousness, avoiding temptations to water him down, and yet at the same time hearing a word of good news for those who are divorced or facing divorce?

In passing, it’s probably worth noting again the interest we have in this passage. We read it, and we know whether we are divorced or not, or whether our parents or children or friends are divorced or planning to be. And so it seems that we know on this matter whether or not we are charged by Jesus with adultery. And that makes our ears prick up because no one who, for all the right reasons, fought for their marriage over many years and through many obstacles wants the charge of “adulterer” added to the trauma they have already experienced in finally deciding for divorce. We must be very careful here.

The fact that it seems that Jesus gives us here something by which to measure our sinfulness should set off alarm bells, because everywhere else in Mark’s gospel Jesus’ words and actions demonstrate that we are not able to measure ourselves, that we don’t “get it”, that we don’t understand what we are before God. Why should it be that suddenly he changes tack? Why should it be that suddenly he gives some of us respite while having a shot at the rest? To be consistent with what we encounter in Jesus in the rest of the gospel, a safer conclusion would be that here he is not actually doing that – that this text is not really about only divorcees at all – or only not centrally about divorce – but about things that we are all caught up in. And so as we often do in reading Mark, let’s shift the focus for a moment from what catches our attention – the temptation to judge ourselves for better or for worse – and look at the what’s happening in the background.

Jesus’ comments about divorce here arise in response to a question from the Pharisees. Most likely Jesus has been heard to teach against the divorce, and the Pharisees want to trap him, because Moses allowed for divorce. And so the Pharisees don’t ask a question about divorce in general, but a question about what is legal: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The trap is obvious – is the Teacher with Moses, or against him? To put it differently, and the intention to trap Jesus aside, the Pharisees ask, “What can we or can’t we do?” or, more roughly, “What can we and can’t we get away with?…” This kind of question seeks a hard and fast line along which we might stand.

Recall another situation of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees – their debates about the Sabbath. Jesus’ disciples are hungry, so they pluck grains of wheat on the Sabbath, which is technically a work which cannot be performed on that day. At another time, Jesus is approached by a crippled man on a Sabbath, and his opponents watch to see if he will perform the “work” of healing on the Sabbath. In both cases the issue is a conflict over boundaries – precisely where are the boundaries about the Sabbath, that we might not cross them and fall foul of God? The same is happening here – is it lawful? “Moses says yes, you say no; have you not over-stepped the boundary?

Jesus doesn’t answer the question asked about divorce but instead makes a statement about marriage: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” [NRSV] For Jesus the issue is not what can or cannot be done, but what is at stake.

In the dispute about the eating or the healing on the Sabbath, as in every other case where Jesus seems to contravene the traditions and conventions, the conflict was between a particular reading of the regulations, and the humanity of the persons to whom that reading is applied. Here, the Pharisees want to argue for the legality of divorce but Jesus counters with the humanness of marriage. The Pharisees want the “can do/can’t do” lines drawn but Jesus points them to what is at stake. “Moses gave you the law because you are hard of heart, because you just don’t get it”, he says.

Within the biblical understanding of the human being and human relations, marriage and divorce are not a matter of law but have to do with the very essence of humanity. When the scripture says “and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh”, it’s not being poetic but saying that sexual union touches on the very core of our humanity. It’s not that we have to have sex in order to be whole but that if it is part of our experience the bodily act of sexual intercourse does fundamentally change us and really joins us to the one we are with. We are no longer our own but part of the one we’ve had intercourse with, and vice-versa.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul criticises those Christians’ use of prostitutes – “Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” When he speaks about marriage between believers and non-believers he says that “the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband”, which is to say that the Christian identity before God of the believer spills over to the non-believer.

This is quite extraordinary stuff! Sexual intercourse involves a dying of a self and the creation of a new self. But this way of thinking makes little sense in this day, because we are so used to distinguishing ourselves from our bodies that we can tell ourselves that we need not be wholly involved in sex – it can be “just” my body, and the real me is somewhere else, somewhere deeper in my mind or psyche, or wherever. We learn today that marriage is what we do with our minds and our will; biblically, marriage is what happens when bodies are joined.

When Jesus speaks against divorce he is not being a legalist like the Pharisees, making his own law over against theirs – countering one proof text with another – but pointing out what is at stake in divorce, which many people who’ve been through it know: it’s not about the tearing up of a piece of paper, not the breaking of well-intentioned promises, but a rupturing of human being, and human identities and futures. And so adultery is not so much a sexual act with someone other than our first lover as it is the breaking of the bond with our first lover by taking a second. And the breaking of that bond is a breaking of the new identity we established in that first union (the only exception to this is those who remarry after are being widowed and in cases of rape [Ex 22; Deut 22]).

One further link needs to be made to widen the scope of the implications of all this. In another place Jesus pushes the definition of adultery past actual sexual union to simply looking lustfully upon another person and so reducing them to an object for sexual gratification; here it wouldn’t be going too far to say that not only divorce but “thinking about” divorce risks or even brings about an adultery. In both cases it’s not the act but the desire which is paramount – in one case the desire to possess someone illicitly, in the other the desire to get rid of them.

That at least makes rather a lot more of us still married look a little more shaky in the face of Jesus’ teaching here! Perhaps it is not so clear whether we are guilty or not of the adulteries Jesus talks about, whether we can measure ourselves on this matter quite as easily as it first appeared. When he speaks about marriage and divorce Jesus is uncompromising, and uncompromising about the very same thing he is always refuses to compromise on: that we know and be enabled to live our fullest possible humanity – this time in relation to our embodiment as it is expressed in sexual union.

Of course, our world is one in which we rarely achieve the “oughts” of God’s plan for us. As we commit our adulteries – whether through justified or unjustified divorce, or through the extra relationships we hide in our marriages, or through the lusts by which we objectify women or men around us – in biblical terms we die again and again, because the new selves which real or imagined intercourse creates are put death by the creation of yet more selves through more unions. A string of lovers – real or imagined – is a sequence of deaths of our selves, a dissolution of ourselves.

Just as each literal death of someone we love is a kind of death of our own identity, a reduction of our selves, so we also die in the creating and breaking of sexual relationships. Sexual promiscuity is tantamount to serial suicide. The result is a situation which is impossible to unravel, as impossible as it is that the dead might rise.

But at the heart of the life of the church is not a simply a naming of our adulteries – a naming of our brokenness – but also the naming of a liberation from that brokenness. This is not a Jesus who simply names our sinfulness, but one who himself is prepared to become the victim of that sinfulness – “adulterated” by us, so to speak – his own identity ruptured by our rejection of him. The one who seems so uncompromising about divorce is the one who is uncompromising about “breaking” the Sabbath laws or insistent upon hanging out with the so-called “dregs” of society, and for the same reason: that through him we might know life in all its fullness. Pharisees name by keeping their distance, by drawing lines and staying on the right side of them; Jesus names by showing us in himself what we are. Yet he doesn’t simply become our victim, but by the power of the one who sent him Jesus is returned to us as one who suffered our rejection and yet now speaks words of forgiveness. Broken because of us, “made sin” because of us, and also the source of our own healing. We can’t save ourselves. We can’t undo our failings or the failings of others. There are no lines or boundaries which the Pharisee in us can draw which the Jesus in God cannot prove to be missing the point.

There is a stark word Jesus speaks here about what we do with our bodies and the significance of our relationships, but it’s a word which is spoken by one who also promises a new beginning when we find ourselves lost in this way, whether because of our own failures or the failures of those we’ve been joined to. Wherever we think we stand before God with our bodies and relationships, let it be first a matter of his forgiveness – a matter of his own experience of our rejection of him and his overcoming of that rejection in God – and only secondarily a matter of how we try to read his law.