The question on divorce and the visit of the little children, although often taken as separate stories, are carefully linked by Mark to again underline the truth of God's unlimited mercy. The kingdom of God is "received", not in obedience, but rather in the same way that Jesus was received by the young children who came to him all those years ago.
v1. Jesus continues his journey toward Jerusalem. Now again in Judea, he resumes his public ministry.
v2-4. The Pharisees "came and tested" (tried to entrap) Jesus over the issue of divorce. They were obviously trying to embroil Jesus in what was at the time a "hot issue". The Pharisees understood that the Mosaic provision on divorce rested on the ground of "something shameful", Deut.24:1. Shammai argued that the "shame" was a moral fault, eg. adultery. Hillel widened the "shame", eg. embarrassing a husband.
v5. Jesus adopts his usual stance with law-righteous legalists, he heads for the high moral ground. He tells them that there are no grounds for divorce. The Mosaic provision serves only as a rule of thumb for a people entrapped in sin, a rule which even then most are unable to keep because their hearts are hard, their conscience calloused by sin.
v6-8. Quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, Jesus defines God's ideal for marriage. A man and a woman bonded socially, physically and psychologically, are in a one-flesh union, the two have become one.
v9. As this union is God designed, it is inappropriate for it to be severed for any reason.
v10-12. The disciples now ask Jesus to explain what he has just told the Pharisees. Jesus explains how divorce makes a person guilty of adultery. Based on the "one flesh" theology, a husband commits adultery in divorce and remarriage, and is also technically responsible for his wife's adultery when/if she remarries. Matthew records the disciples' exclamation, "it is better not to marry." The ideal of a divorce-free marriage is an impossible one; who can guarantee that their marriage won't fail? Of course, the whole exercise aims at this conclusion. If law-obedience can't save us, what can?
v13. Children are brought to Jesus to secure a blessing for their future life. The disciples, acting outside their authority, seek to "forbid them."
v14. Jesus responds sharply with both a positive and negative command. The disciples need to understand that the children's coming to, and receiving of Jesus, fully expresses how a person enters the kingdom of God.
v15. The kingdom can only be entered by someone who rests on God's mercy in Jesus, and not on any claim to merit before God.
v16. By taking the children and blessing them, Jesus signifies that the blessings of the kingdom are freely given to those who seek.
The refusal of some churches to marry divorcees not only causes great offence, but demonstrates a misunderstanding of Jesus' ethical teaching.
In the gospels, Jesus' uses ethical ideals to expose sin rather than establish laws to be obeyed. That is, Jesus uses ideals to "fulfill the law" as an instrument of judgement upon sin. Having exposed the human condition, and the worthlessness of law-righteousness as a means of divine approval, he is then able to point to the way of grace through faith.
Jesus exposes the feeble law-righteousness of the Pharisees when he shows that divorce has no place in the ideal of the one-flesh union of marriage. The breakdown of so many marriages should remind us that righteousness is a blessing given freely by God to those who seek it, rather than those who do it; it is for little "children".
When it comes to marriage and divorce, we must aim at God's ideal intentions for our one-flesh union. When we find our marriage under stress, we should work at reconciliation. Yet, relationships do break down, and in the end we are sometimes forced to live with some sort of compromise, we may even have to divorce. As outlined in the Mosaic law (Deut.24:1-4), we need to do this justly, with care and consideration for the other party. Of course, divorce falls short of God's ideals, but then we all fall short, every day of our life. Faced with our failings, we daily find ourselves at the foot of the cross uttering the words "forgives us our sins."
So, divorce will remind us of our imperfection, but does not affect our eternal standing before God, and so it should not affect our standing in the fellowship of believers.
1. Why is divorce, on any ground, against God's ideal intention for marriage?
2. How does Jesus use the issue of divorce to teach grace?
3. How has church legislation on divorce undermined grace and promoted legalism?