Today’s reading is Mark 10:1 – 12:
Getting up, he went from there to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan; crowds gathered around him again, and, according to his custom, he once more began to teach them. Some Pharisees came up to Jesus, testing him, and began to question him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. And he answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?”
They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one fresh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
In the house the disciples began questioning him about this again. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.”
A 2009 study published by the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found that 41% of all heterosexual spouses admit to infidelity, either physical or emotional. This finding has caused more than a few observers to wonder if monogamy is, in fact, a fit with human nature. Is it a holdover from earlier times when people died at a younger age? Is it a romantic ideal that has outlived its usefulness? A repressive idea that was never useful at all?
Jesus places marriage and sexuality into an unfolding story involving God’s original, good, intention for human beings and Jesus’ renewal of that vision. In Mark 10:1-12, the Pharisees ask about the legitimate grounds for divorce, but Jesus treats the subject of marriage more fully than that. Jesus quotes from both literary units Genesis 1:1-2:3 (in Mk 10:6) and Genesis 2:4-25 (in Mk 10:7-8) to affirm marriage in three aspects: monogamous (“two become one”), opposite gendered (“male and female”), and binding (“God has joined together, let no man separate”). This was God’s original intent.
Incidentally, Jesus did not have to refer to “male and female” (Genesis 1:27) to answer the Pharisees, but he did anyway. By defining God’s original intent for marriage more comprehensively than how the Pharisees asked for it, Jesus makes clear that “male and female” is not an optional inclusion. While each individual person is certainly in the image of God, a marriage of “male and female” is in the image of God because opposite-sex marriage alone can properly produce the “fruit” of more human life. In that context, in a loving and lifelong marriage, sexual union might give us a window of insight into God’s own enjoyment in making each individual human life, precious and beloved.
We today might want to interpret the “two shall become one flesh” statement about marriage to merely a cure for loneliness. But if someone feels lonely within a marriage, that is the logic that leads to adultery or easy divorce. In this text, however, Jesus links Genesis 2:24 inextricably to Genesis 1:27. Jesus insists that the original pairing of “male and female” and its potentiality for life-bearing (at least symbolically even in an older couple) is vital. He also insists that God’s original vision for lifelong covenanted love, which mirrors something deep within Himself, is essential.
But aren’t relationships merely social constructs? Since the Enlightenment, and perhaps Rousseau in particular, those of us raised in the West have tended to believe in a fundamental form of individualism: We are born as free “noble savages” who lived in a “state of nature” until we entered into the “state of civilization.” If this is true, then all relationships are constructed by us, and there is no normative type of relationship. But when was this individualistic picture of humanity ever true? Exactly when was a human being born into this kind of individualistic freedom Historically and scientifically, this individualistic picture is completely untrue. Every human being is born into some kind of family, already affected epigenetically by the physical and emotional health of her mother in her womb and at her breast, and also the health of her father through his sperm. She is given nurture and care (we hope), and obligations and responsibilities are called forth from her, too. Physical affection, emotional health, and good nutrition shape the formation of her brain and will even have epigenetic effects on any of her children. Her own personal choices will also affect her neurologically and epigenetically. So our very existence is physically drawn out from our parents before us, is substantially derived from them, and if we have children, influences them after us.
Nevertheless, Enlightenment individualism has become so much a part of Western cultural and political rhetoric that it is hard to suggest anything else. Socially and politically, we assert a supposed “right” to not be interfered with so we can maximize our individualistic freedom. We frame our “rights” negatively. But that is exactly why it is almost impossible to assert positive and tangible “responsibilities” we have towards one another, beyond non-interference, that is. Therefore, American conversations about responsibility, and the “shape” of particular relationships, are exceedingly shallow. And because of this Western cultural inheritance, we implicitly and explicitly have a very difficult time with the idea that God has a vision and pattern for human relationships into which He calls us and invites us to take our place. But just because we have a more difficult emotional time with that idea does not make it untrue. Indeed, while the biblical portrayal of human origins certainly requires an intellectual defense, and is capable of one, I believe it has much more academic respectability than the proposition offered to us by Enlightenment individualism, when political philosophy parted company from every other academic discipline exploring what it means to be human.
So if Jesus’ way of life is supposed to correspond with our true human nature, why is it often so challenging? Jesus also explains that: “hardness of heart” (Mk 10:5). Here, Jesus puts his finger on what’s gone wrong with human nature. In Mark’s Gospel, every category of people is revealed to have “hardness of heart”: the Pharisees who oppose Jesus (3:5); the disciples who run into their own internal roadblocks while following Jesus (6:52; 8:17); and now everyone, after the fall (10:5; cf.7:18-23). “Hardness of heart” is revealed in every person at some point or another. This literary and thematic development in Mark reveals the problem Jesus came to solve. He says even the laws of the Sinai covenant (which includes the law code for Israel narrated from Exodus 20 to Deuteronomy 29) did not solve “hardness of heart” and were a temporary accommodation to it. Consequently, Moses permitted divorce on fairly broad grounds (Dt 24:1 quoted in Mk 10:4), whereas Jesus at least tightens that up. We might rightly praise the Sinai Law for granting wives (and not just husbands) the right to initiate divorce, as Jesus in Mk 10:12 indicates that the divorce legislation of Dt 24:1 used the inclusive Hebrew male pronoun, not the exclusive male pronoun (since Hebrew, like Spanish, was a gendered language), but we still have to recognize that the Sinai Law was a temporary measure. God promised to heal the human heart on the other side of Israel’s exile (Dt 30:6). Jesus was substituting himself for Israel, living out the role of the true Israel, emerging through the ultimate exile of death and returning in the full restoration from exile in his resurrection. He was healing the human heart, first within himself, and then, by his Spirit, he would do so within his followers.
So Jesus’ comments explain why Christians do not immediately follow the commands within the Sinai Law (Ex 20-Dt29). God did something preliminary with Israel that was sandwiched between the original creation order and Jesus’ new creation. So while we cannot dismiss that portion of Scripture, neither can we immediately apply it. We are on the most solid ground when we discern God’s original creation order restored and taught by Jesus in his work of fresh, new creation.
Jesus’ comments also explain why Christians need to be very careful about legislating a definition of “marriage” through public policy. Only followers of Jesus can fully live out his definition of marriage. For only in them is “hardness of heart” healed by Jesus, and even so Christians at times struggle to live out Jesus’ vision for marriage. For others who do not believe in Jesus, “hardness of heart” is still the reality. At best, Christians can only use a sub-Christian ethic of some kind, and that deserves very careful consideration.
Because of Jesus’ statements in Mark 10:1-12 (cf. Matthew 19:1-12; and Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 6:9-7:40), any Christian reflection on marriage and sexual expression must start with Genesis, treating it as normative, not incidental. There is a straight line of continuity between Genesis 1 and 2 to Mark 10:1-12. Jesus even identifies God’s authorial intent in Scripture with respect to the issue of marriage and sexual expression. “He who created them male and female … said …” In other words, the Creator God of Genesis 1 said the words of Genesis 2:24. That’s a fairly high view of the inspiration of Scripture!
It’s also a high view of human nature, and of us. Yes, we struggle within ourselves to live within God’s vision for monogamy, and many other ideals, for that matter. But perhaps the good news is that despite our struggles, Jesus tells us that we were meant for more. And he brings us the healing and transformation from within himself to experience that vision as empowering and life-giving.
Mako Nagasawa is Director of the New Humanity Institute. He, his wife Ming, and their two children live in a Christian intentional community involved with urban ministry in Dorchester.