In this week’s reading Jesus talks about marriage and divorce. His words are controversial. I was in a group of seminary colleagues a few years ago, working on a lectionary commentary for the Human Rights Campaign, and this was one of the passages we discussed. Here’s what we said, somewhat expanded (and here’s the original):
Some readers claim that Jesus is defining marriage exclusively as a relationship between a man and a woman. But actually, Jesus is answering a specific question about how a husband should treat his wife (Mark 10:2). Nobody was asking him about the status of same-sex relationships or about gender identity.
(It’s important to realize here that, even before Mark’s Gospel had been written, St. Paul had already challenged the absolute status of gender binaries and gender identity in Galatians 3:28—“there is no longer male and female.” And of course, if there is no longer male and female, there is no longer a clear division between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. No, I’m not saying that Paul would have agreed with this. I don’t think he realized the implications of what he said. But the implications are there anyway.)
Jesus emphasizes that when two people become one flesh, God is in that union. Because of that holy union, neither is free to treat the other as disposable property (Mark 10:9-12). This is actually a subversive idea, because in the Mediterranean culture of Jesus’ time, whether Jewish, Greek or Roman, marriage was mostly thought of in terms of the property rights a man had over a woman. Jesus, like some other rabbis, is rejecting the very idea of marriage as a matter of real estate.
What happens today, when married couples find it necessary to divorce, is very different from that sort of real estate transaction. There are still disputes over property, but neither spouse is considered another’s property. So what Jesus says in answer to that question doesn’t apply directly. But Jesus’ principle still applies: even when a marriage must end, nobody deserves to be treated as disposable property.
Children, as well, are not disposable property, because God’s reign belongs first to the most vulnerable among us (Mark 9:14-15).
And here’s one more subversive idea: Jesus makes it clear that even this Gospel lesson is not the last word on relationships. Jesus won’t let us use Scripture as a trump card. Jesus says that Moses’ ideas about marriage and divorce were just that—Moses’ ideas, not God’s ideas. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you” (Mark 10:5). Jesus is recognizing that God’s Word comes to us in our flesh and on our limited terms. God works among us through our limited ways. In other words, Jesus is implying that no Scripture passage is the last word. He deeply respected the laws attributed to Moses. When he criticized the law on divorce, he appealed to a deeper truth found in other writings attributed to Moses. But he was still rejecting the simplistic mindset of “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.”
We have to search Scripture for signs of the open community to which God is drawing us. And we have to let that underlying vision critique passages that seem to fall short of that vision. Moses knew that. Jesus knew that, and so did other rabbis. But many of today’s Christians have forgotten it.
None of us is disposable property—not spouses, not significant others, not children. The terms of our relationships may change. What must not change is the dignity each of us has as God’s beloved offspring, not anybody’s disposable property.