Today, we have first a confrontation between some Pharisees and Jesus over the question of divorce. Mark tells us that “they were testing him”.
Divorce was common in the Jewish world of the time, and there were different schools of thought as to the reason why a man – and it would be a man – could divorce his wife. For once, Jesus sides with the stricter interpretation of the Law and describes the concession in the teaching of Deuteronomy as due to “hardness of heart”, closing one’s understanding and emotions to the truth. He bases his view on the divine plan set out in Genesis as the ideal for marriage, one flesh in a permanent union.
The second section of the reading is one of the very few examples from the Bible or the wider literature of the time which concentrate on children: young people, from infants to the age of twelve, were not regarded as persons in their own right. Jesus, on the other hand, takes a positive interest in them, becoming “indignant” when the disciples, for reasons we are not given, try to prevent them being brought to him. Once again, Mark shows the disciples in a negative light, not understanding that the kingdom is a gift, or who can receive it.
The question of divorce – or more accurately, of the remarriage of divorced persons – is one of the most vexing problems in the Church today. But it is nothing new: Jesus said, according to Mark, that divorce is not possible; however, Paul and Matthew give exceptions to this blanket prohibition. Jesus puts forward the ideal of marriage as a permanent union which the husband (“no man”) is not entitled to break. It is only fair to say that the concerns we may have today about a person’s suitability to enter into marriage from a psychological point of view have only emerged in recent years. Whereas marriage was spoken of in the past in terms of a legal contract, it is now presented in the biblical language of a covenant, the sacred relationship between God and Israel, between Christ and the Church: a high ideal indeed, one which requires commitment and sacrifice by the partners involved. How to deal with people whose marriages have failed is an urgent pastoral problem, but as we can see from the New Testament scriptures, one which the disciples of Jesus have had to wrestle with from the beginning. It is for the community to find the answer.
The second section of the Gospel reading presents Jesus paying attention to figures who have no legal standing at all, who are totally dependent on others and receive everything as a gift, as they have no rights. Jesus is angry with his obtuse disciples who try to prevent the children reaching him: when they do, he hugs them, transfers power to them by laying on his hands and calling down God’s blessing upon them. Might not divorced and remarried persons today be represented by those children?
- There was no one official interpretation of the Jewish Law: there was a wide range of opinions.
- At the time of Jesus, the two most influential rabbis were Shammai ( strict) and Hillel ( milder).
- Jesus’ approach is generally similar to that of Hillel, except for his teaching on divorce, which is nearer to that of Shammai.
When you go forward to receive Holy Communion, remember that it is a gift, not a reward.