Summary: Divorce is a difficult subject to deal with, not merely because the issue is complex, but because divorce is so widespread and painful. We must consider it honestly before the Lord and examine our hearts in light of it.
Divorce is a difficult subject to deal with, not merely because the issue is complex, but because divorce is so widespread and painful. This is one subject I know that affects nearly everyone in any church. Some of you have divorced parents, some divorced children, or divorced siblings, or divorced friends. Some of you are divorced, and some of you may even be contemplating it. No one who has had contact with it as been left unscarred. I don’t mind trying to convict you of sins and failings; but I do have trouble preaching things that prick old wounds.
Nevertheless, the passage is before us and we must consider it honestly before the Lord and examine our hearts in light of it.
Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
We are finally back to Jesus’ public teaching ministry. There has been no reference to public teaching since chapter 6. For the most part Jesus has been trying to avoid crowds and concentrate on teaching his disciples. He is also moving closer to Jerusalem. As a result, the Pharisees have more opportunity to observe him and test him.
2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
Let’s get clear what is going on here. The subject of divorce was a highly debatable issue among Jewish rabbis in Jesus’ day, just as it is among Christian teachers today. This is not an unusual question to raise. On the other hand, Mark wants us to understand that the Pharisees were not innocently seeking Jesus’ opinion. They were testing him. The word for test is the same one Mark uses in 1:13: [Jesus] was in the desert forty days, being tempted (tested) by Satan. It is the same word Jesus uses in 12:15 responding to the Pharisees another time: Why are you trying to trap (test) me?
Remember now, Jesus has a crowd around him. They are listening. They too have strong opinions. The Pharisees can count on a fair number of them turning against Jesus, whatever view he may give. Remember also a particular instance of divorce and remarriage – Herodias and Herod, back in chapter 6. Herod had John the Baptist imprisoned for speaking against his marriage to Herodias who had left Herod’s brother for him; and Herodias, of course, contrived to finish John off. Do you know who’s territory Jesus happens to be standing in at this moment? Herod’s. This is not a mere academic discussion taking place; it is an attempt by Jesus’ enemies to turn his followers against him and even place his life in jeopardy.
But the question is asked, and Jesus responds: 3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied. What a great response. Jesus immediately puts the discussion where it belongs – under the teaching of Scripture. That is a good principle to remember when we are discussing with one another controversial issues. Start the discussion by finding out what Scripture says, rather than committing yourself to a position and then hoping Scripture will back you up. How much controversy would be avoided if we began our discussions with “Let’s consider what Scripture has to say,” rather than “Well, I think…”
So the Pharisees, who do know their scriptures, reply. 4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” The Pharisees are referring to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Let’s read it.
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
The Jewish rabbis all agreed that divorce was permissible; what they differed on was what justified a divorce. What does “indecent” mean in verse 1 that gives cause for a divorce? The King James Version translates the word “uncleaness.” The Hebrew actually has two words and literally mean “nakedness of a thing.” In Jesus’ day, there were two schools of thought based on the teachings of leading rabbis who lived a generation before Jesus. The school of Rabbi Shammai taught that the word only referred to being unchaste; the spouse commits some form of adultery. The school of Rabbi Hillel taught that the word covered a wide range of acts that dishonored the husband. One rabbi taught that finding a woman more attractive than his wife was grounds for divorce. Which rabbi do you think would be the more popular today? Which do you think was the rabbi of choice among the men of Jesus’ day? With whom would Jesus side?