For a more complete account of the last year of the Lord’s ministry we must turn to the Gospel of Luke. But Mark gives us one chapter devoted to the months, weeks, and days prior to the Lord’s arrival in Jerusalem at Passover. And in Mark’s shortened account of this final period of the Lord’s ministry before the Passion Week there is a still more concentrated interest in the issue of discipleship: what it means to follow Jesus. The whole Gospel has revealed a special interest in this theme – after all, Mark is writing to Christians about what it means to be a Christian – but it is especially the subject of this section. And in particular we have in chapter ten the implications of a commitment to Jesus in respect to the most fundamental aspects of a Christian’s personal life: one’s marriage, one’s children, and one’s possessions. [Edwards, 297]
“That place” is Galilee, where most of the ministry had been conducted, and, specifically, Capernaum, the center of the Lord’s operations and the last place previously mentioned, in 9:33. Jesus was making his way slowly southward toward the capital.
Given the parallel to this text in Matt. 19 and given what is known about Jewish views of divorce at that time – and a good bit is known about that – it appears that Mark has abbreviated the question. All Jews admitted that divorce was possible under some circumstances; the debate – as is made clear in Matthew’s account of this same incident – was for what reasons divorce was lawful. Then as now there were those who argued that nothing short of adultery was grounds for a divorce and those who argued that a marriage might be ended for a number of different reasons. Generally speaking, divorce was easy to get in those days and most Jewish religious thinkers, including the Pharisees, thought it right to be so. Obviously the Pharisees knew or suspected Jesus’ views on the question to be different from their own and hoped to trap him in his answer.
The point of the Lord’s remark is often missed. He is not saying that the law of Moses was more lax than what he proposes. There is no difference between the Lord’s view of divorce and Moses’. But Moses’ concession in Deut. 24 – the text the Pharisees cite in v. 4 – does not disclose God’s true interest and intention in marriage. As one commentator helpfully puts it: “You do not learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions for a crash landing; you will not be successful in war if you train by the rules for beating a retreat.” [Edwards, 301] Jesus is interested, in other words, in God’s intention for marriage and we ought to be as well. The Jews of his day had turned the fact that divorce is permissible under some extreme circumstances into a pretext for making marriage a disposable contract. But, as the Lord summarizes the point in v. 9, it is not the husband, or for that matter the wife, who is the lord of marriage, but God himself who made men and women for marriage and made marriage the fundamental organism of human society.
I suspect many of you have fallen into the Pharisees’ trap. You are wondering where the “exception” is! Surely there are grounds for divorce. Surely Jesus is not saying that there can be no divorce for any reason whatsoever. You want to hear that there are certain sins against marriage that make divorce possible. And, to be sure, there are. The Lord does what is often done in the Bible. He makes a categorical statement that is qualified elsewhere. In Matthew’s account of this same incident the Lord expressly said “anyone who divorces his wife except for marital unfaithfulness and marries another woman commits adultery.”
But Mark leaves the exception out precisely because he wants to make the point the Lord himself was making, which was not about how to get out of a marriage but the importance of staying in it.
One other thing to notice here is the mutuality of the obligation. Husbands and wives are equally obliged to be loyal to their marriage and equally at fault if they betray that loyalty. It is often alleged that the patriarchal cast of biblical social ethics left women at a disadvantage. In fact, in the case of marriage and divorce, their rights and their obligations were the same.
By recognizing the emphasis that Mark is placing in this entire section upon the nature of Christian discipleship – what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ – the passage before us is transformed into something larger and more important than we often understand it to be. The tendency is to look at this passage simply for its ethics of marriage and divorce; as if Mark, getting near the end of his Gospel, realized that he had said nothing about that important question and thought he should stick in some teaching on the subject. In that case, it is simply a piece of law dropped into the narrative at a convenient place. It is a law; of course, there is no getting round that. But it is much more.
In the context we are being taught what it is going to require of us to be a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus. We are being given to see what loyalty to Christ is going to look like and what its implications are. And Mark starts with that relationship more profound and more consequential than any other, that of husband and wife. To be a follower of Jesus one must be a Christian there first of all. One must desire to honor Christ and do his will as a husband and as a wife.
Let me begin by saying that when we are reading the Bible and the Gospels in particular we must never forget that the spiritual world of that day is, for all intents and purposes, the very same world as that in which we live today. People weren’t different really. Their lives were in most important respects the same as ours and they thought about life in the same way we do. Their problems were our problems, their sins were our sins. C.S. Lewis made this point in a memorable way.
“The things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so…if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism…from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the unchanging human heart, and on this we are to concentrate.” [A Preface to Paradise Lost, 62-64]
He once put the point in a more homely way when he wrote, “I would not cross the room to meet Hamlet. It would never be necessary. He is always where I am… [Selected Literary Essays, 102-103]
Well, people had marriages in Jesus’ day like they have them in ours. Some were happy and some were very unhappy. Some were romantic and some were dull, lifeless, and cold. Some were sexually lively and some were devoid of sexual fire.
And then as now a great marriage was one of life’s greatest blessings and a bad marriage one of its most crushing disappointments. Sometimes the marriage began badly and remained a pale shadow of what it ought to be. The choice of a spouse was foolish from the start. Some people are a lot harder to live with than others.
Jonathan Edwards’ sister Martha was such a person. She was hard to get along with, so hard that when a clergyman suitor asked for her hand, her father, Timothy Edwards, took the occasion to warn him of his daughter’s temperament. The suitor was persistent, however, and replied that he had heard that Martha had received God’s converting grace. “Oh yes; yes,” Timothy replied, “Martha is a good girl but…the grace of God will dwell where you or I cannot.” [Cited in Marsden, Edwards, 18-19] There were women like that in Jesus’ day and, no doubt, many men as well. And, no doubt, there were many marriages that started well but, for one reason or another, lost steam and under the pressures of life, of advancing age, and the unrelenting influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil turned into something far, far less than either husband or wife had hoped or expected at the beginning.
And it was true then as it is now that even repentance cannot altogether make up for an ill-made or unhappy marriage. Being married to a man or woman you do not particularly like or respect is a very difficult thing.
I am very happy and very grateful to acknowledge that there are many faithful and genuinely happy marriages in this congregation. There are a large number of husbands and wives who are very happy to be married to their spouses and look forward to however many years of unbroken happiness together the Lord will grant them. The American Puritan pastor and poet, Edward Taylor, wrote to his wife that his passion for her was a “golden ball of pure fire.” The Puritans, indeed, often illustrated various aspects of the relationship between the Lord and his people by speaking of the ardor and pleasure of married love. It was something they knew about because many of them had experienced it. Thomas Hooker, the English Puritan who later came to New England, highlighted God’s constant love and care for those who are his people by comparing him to a loving husband.
“The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parlies with her in each place where he comes.” [Cited in Packer, Quest for Godliness, 265]
Hooker would never have thought to speak that way if he hadn’t been describing his own love for his wife. The husband’s love for his wife makes a good illustration of God’s love for his people only when that love is warm and delightful and constant. And they knew enough marriages in which it was so to make a husband’s love for his wife a meaningful illustration of God’s love. And what was true of the husband’s love was as true as the wife’s. Anne Bradstreet was Hooker’s near contemporary. She wrote of her husband,
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if ye can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the east doth hold.
And so it is with marriages here, with the love of husband and wife, here in this congregation, thanks be to God. It has never entered the minds of these men and women that they might ever have reason to get a divorce. Quite the contrary, they think of one another very much as two people who are deeply and happily in love. They kiss – a lot –, they hold hands, they laugh, they make love, they live their lives together, partners in everything. They are never happier than when they are together. Surely this is what marriage is intended to be. Not only does the Bible say so and very clearly, but the fact that every human being dreams of having such a marriage also proves it so. Such a marriage is one of the supreme blessings of human life as God made it.
Other couples in this church are, perhaps it would be accurate to say, reasonably content in their marriages. They would admit that they are not head over heels as perhaps they once were. They are not giddy. They don’t worry that people might think them silly or improper for the way they gush over one another or for their frequent public displays of affection. There isn’t much danger of that. They are realistic about certain disappointments, even imperfections in their marriages, but, nevertheless, are glad to be married and married to their spouses. As I have mentioned to you in the past, almost everyone of the Christian couples whose weddings I have officiated through the years are still married to one another. And a sizable percentage of that number would say that they are very much in love with their husband or wife or are at least in love with him or her and expect to be all their lives.
But, I also know that it is not universally so. There are marriages here that are marked by deep disappointment and regret, by anger and tension, or simply by quiet indifference. A far cry from the “faint with love” we read of in the Song of Songs. These husbands and wives hear Hooker and Anne Bradstreet and their glowing words are like a knife in the heart. And there are many such marriages spread across the believing church. I do not hesitate to say – no matter what you might sometimes hear to the contrary – that there are fewer such marriages in the believing Christian church than in the world, many fewer, but that there are unhappy marriages in the church is an undeniable fact and has been acknowledged to be so from the beginning, indeed, even in Holy Scripture itself.
When I talk to spouses, both in and outside of this congregation – and I speak to more people who are not part of this church concerning their marriages than in regard to any other subject – I often ask them: “Can you remember a happy time in your marriage or was it always disappointing, or angry, or dull, or frustrating?” Some will say “yes, it was much better at the beginning” and some, “no.” Either way it is hard to bear: to know the happiness of a good marriage and to have lost it; or never to have known it at all. There are good folk in this congregation who often lie awake at night thinking about their unhappy marriage. And in the first century there were believing people who did the same thing. God having organized life as he did, it is hard to be happy about one’s life, hard to be content, hard to concentrate on other things if one’s marriage is a source of deep disappointment, sadness, and pain.
In the western world we tend to think of the blessings of Christian faith in terms of what it brings us in this life. We hear the Gospel as a message about being all that we can be and having all that we long to have. In other parts of the world it is not so. Heaven is more important when life is short and hard and often cruel and when death – your own death or that of your loved ones – is never far away. But in almost any situation in this world a Christian wants and expects to have a happy marriage and an unhappy marriage is a deep and lasting disappointment. It is for the poor as it is for the rich.
And it is precisely this reality that makes the Lord’s responses to these questions about marriage and divorce so important and so immediately relevant.
Jesus is as much as saying that those who wish to follow him must do so in loyalty to his will and in obedience to his commandments even if that loyalty and that obedience are punishingly difficult. That is precisely what is going on here. That is precisely what the Lord means to say here. That is precisely what Mark is intending to teach us by including this conversation here as he does. Everyone reads this passage the same way. Everyone thinks about the same things when he or she reads it. They did in Jesus’ day and they do in ours.
What about the person who is married to a jerk? There are, alas, many women in this world married to jerks. What about the man who is married to a shrew? There are plenty of men married to shrews. Sometimes there is a jerk and shrew in the same marriage and the two spouses simply deepen the sinful tendencies in one another. What about the poor woman who does not and cannot respect her husband? What about the man who has lost all interest in his wife? What about the unkind, critical, sharp-tongued, angry husband? What is the poor woman to do? And on and on it goes. We are all well aware of this. We hear about it and think about it all the time. And in some marriages these are the very real existential questions that a husband or wife is living with every day and every night.
And so reading a passage like this we pour our energies into the casuistry of marriage and divorce. Just when is divorce an option for a Christian? For what crimes against the marriage covenant can a Christian sue for divorce? And, if divorced, which spouse, if any, can remarry? I do not say that these questions do not have to be answered. Of course they do. I served on a study committee appointed some years ago by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America to study precisely such questions and, in particular, whether persistent physical abuse could be construed as a ground for divorce. At some point such questions must be asked and answered.
But that is not Jesus’ interest here. What he wants his disciples to do is not to think through the possibilities of divorce but to embrace the divine intention for marriage and especially to accept that loyalty to him may very well come at a price. As we learn in Matthew’s parallel account the disciples were not entirely ready to hear what Jesus said on this point. They still wanted to know that they had an out if the marriage turned out to be a disappointment. But Jesus wasn’t interested in talking about the failure of a marriage. He wanted his disciples to make a commitment to the divine purpose of marriage and to demonstrate that commitment in their lives as husbands and wives. That is what it would mean to follow him. And the fact that he spoke this way when asked specifically about divorce indicates that he intended them to realize that a bad marriage in most cases would have to be borne. That is precisely the cost of discipleship in certain Christian lives. That is precisely what loyalty to Jesus will mean for some of his followers. He is precisely not saying that it is of first importance to him that all his followers be happy and that, therefore, a way should be found for them to dump a disappointing spouse and find a better match.
Christians in unhappy marriages are accustomed to look at believers in very happy marriages and complain that it isn’t fair that they should be unhappy while others are happy. They don’t usually put it that way, of course. What they usually say is that these other Christians don’t really understand what they are suffering, how hard it is, and so on. That is what they say; but what they mean is that they shouldn’t have to be stuck in an unhappy marriage when other Christians are blissfully happy in theirs.
But that isn’t a viewpoint any serious Christian can very long entertain. There are some Christians who suffer the loss of children in their infancy or youth but most do not. There are some faithful followers of Christ who die young but most do not. There are some ardent Christians who live in intense poverty and want but most do not. There are some who are sick most of their lives but only a comparatively few. There are some who wish to marry and are never able to – there is a growing number of such people in our time – but still most Christians marry. There are some whose spouses betray them and blight the otherwise happy situation they might have enjoyed in life. But, thankfully, that is not the lot of most believers in the Lord Jesus. And there are those who face danger every day because they are Christians; but most Christians live in safety. What the Lord summons any one of his followers to suffer for his sake is no other Christian’s business, but that our loyalty to Jesus will be tested in one way or another and that in our following Jesus we will find that we have come to some cross that must be carried, that Jesus makes very clear.
The great interest of this text is not to forbid divorce. It is not to discuss the question of what constitutes a ground for divorce. It is to summon believers in Jesus to live for him and demonstrate their loyalty to him in every aspect of their lives, even when the particular aspect in question is a source of deep disappointment and sadness in his or her life.
The brute fact and the challenge of this text is found precisely here: loyalty that does not demonstrate itself in a willingness to suffer for its sake is not loyalty no matter the protestations to the contrary. Fidelity to Jesus is proved, it has always been proved and it is proved today, by what people are willing to suffer for its sake, what they are willing to endure, what they are willing to strive to improve and perfect however seemingly unlikely the improvement or impossibly distant the perfection.
A marriage that for its unhappiness some Christian might be tempted to end with a divorce is the example used to make the point. A hundred other examples might be used to make the same point. Jesus never said it would be easy. What he said was that those who were his faithful followers would go to heaven; those who turned aside from him because the going got to be difficult would not. People who worry less about adultery than their own personal peace and fulfillment are in a fair way of going to hell. That is the moral equation Jesus has written out for us here. Follow him, come wind, come weather. That is what Christians do.