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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mark 10: Divorce and Personal Responsibility in Human Relationships

People get married for all sorts of reasons in the twenty-first century. Considerable research has gone into the views of marriage and women in the first century, and to some extent this research has helped to make some sense of words written centuries ago. In Mark 10, some specific and absolute instructions regarding divorce are expressed through words attributed to Jesus, and it is worth considering the spirit of those words in addition to how those instructions may be of use to us.

First, it is worth noting that the author of Mark is, to a certain extent, promoting greater justice for women. Jewish society and law favored men. Since wives were largely seen as the property of husbands, married women could be stoned to death for adultery, while married men were not necessarily subject to such severe punishment. A divorced woman also had fewer options in society, since the primary role of women at the time was that of wife and mother. With priority placed on virginity, it was challenging for a divorced woman to remarry; divorced men did not face such difficulties. In fact, it was legal at the time for a man to have multiple wives, but a woman could not have multiple husbands. While some interpretations of Jewish law allowed for a husband to divorce a wife for any reason, limiting the circumstances under which divorce was acceptable meant greater security for women.

Second, rather than inventing something that could be considered heresy, Jesus is portrayed as quoting from accepted scriptures. The Pharisees, according to the story, intended to test Jesus, perhaps expecting that he would side with either Hillel or Shammai, two competing houses of rabbinic thought. Hillel taught that a man was justified in divorcing a wife if he became in any way displeased with her, even over trivial matters. Shammai taught that divorce was only permissible for serious offenses. Jesus perplexed his inquisitors by quoting from the Torah and deriving an even stricter position on divorce than the strictest school of Jewish thought. When the author of Matthew copies the story from the gospel of Mark, he adds a point of clarification, however. According to the gospel of Matthew, not only does Jesus allow for divorce on the grounds of unchastity (adultery or other sexual immorality), but he also encourages men who are willing to do so to forgo marriage altogether.

The version of this teaching in the gospel of Matthew brings up that it is preferable to become a eunuch, and the most direct definition of this word suggests that Jesus advocated willing castration. There were different sorts of eunuchs in the ancient world, however, and only certain roles required eunuchs to be castrated, primarily working in a harem. Some people in the ancient world who lived as men were not born with male genitalia. These men were also called eunuchs; they are probably included in the group Jesus refers to as eunuchs from birth. We have more precise language now than what was available in the ancient world. There were also men who abstained from sexual relations with women (even though they were physically capable) for reasons of religious conviction. This is probably what the author of Matthew is actually endorsing. There were also men who had no interest in sexual relations with women, although they were physically capable and not prohibited from doing so by any sense of religious purity. These men could also be labeled eunuchs, or natural eunuchs (to differentiate them from mutilated eunuchs); natural eunuchs may round out Jesus' category of eunuchs from birth. This was common enough in society that Josephus suggested that some people with masculine physical bodies had feminine souls. All of this suggests that we can't always know what the biblical authors were really intending by their words. It's obvious that the author of Matthew expresses through Jesus a preferred alternative to traditional heterosexual marriage relationships, and that this is very different from what the author of Mark conveys.

What is the point of going through all of this? Just to demonstrate that we can't superimpose biblical morality verbatim over twenty-first century culture. Even the Bible itself doesn't agree on how this teaching on divorce should be interpreted. Humanity has not necessarily matured all that much from two thousand years ago, though. There are places in the world in which women are still treated as property; still stoned, burned, or shot for issues of familial honor; still subjected to the whimsical abuses of the men around them. Religion has not matured with technology and knowledge and economy. Religion has, in many ways, reinforced primitive behavior. In part, this is because our religions do not necessarily challenge us to interpret truth from ancient texts, but rather allow us to project our preferences onto whatever scriptures we revere. If we look closely at the implications of Mark 10, we might find that it is a call toward greater emotional maturity in our relationships.

Through Jesus, the author conveys an absolute message that divorce is simply not justified. We know that this is not true. People get married without recognizing the long-term consequences of their decision. Sometimes people get married to people whose character turns out to be very different than what was portrayed during a courtship. Some spouses are abusive or dangerous, and it isn't reasonable to expect a person to adhere to a commitment without regard for personal safety. Breaking a vow is sometimes necessary for our own well-being. We run the risk of treating that flippantly, however, interpreting our well-being the way Hillel might -- considering the slightest offense as grounds for throwing in the towel. There are relatively few relationships that are actually restrictive, abusive, or dangerous enough to require for matters of personal safety that we break a commitment. So, what we are usually talking about is divorce as a personal preference.

There is no longer much of a societal stigma against divorce in most of the Western world. Even people who self-identify as Christians (but who are not particularly active in a faith community) are as likely as non-believers to end a marriage. "Nominal Conservative Protestants" are actually more likely to divorce than the religiously disinterested. So, even among people who worship Jesus, his words on divorce are not necessarily taken very seriously. According to the gospel of Mark, divorce was only permitted in the first place because people are hard-hearted. If we aren't going to take the strong words about the severity of divorce seriously, perhaps we can at least recognize the condition of our own hearts.

What the author of Mark calls hard-heartedness, we might call a lot of other things: selfishness, stubbornness, emotional immaturity. In all of our relationships, marriage and otherwise, we often dig our heels in and demand that the other person change if the relationship is to continue. If we aren't happy, we look for someone to blame, and we either try to fix that person or we require that they fix themselves. When that doesn't work, we might feel justified in moving on, and we might feel a strange mixture of superiority and victimhood when we do. The truth is that we have a lot to do with the quality of our relationships. The people with whom we're in relationship have a part to play, of course, but it's dishonest to suggest that someone else is responsible for our own happiness. When we allow ourselves to make demands of everyone but ourselves and to write off relationships that don't meet our standards, we limit our own growth and development as human beings. We stunt ourselves emotionally. This is the actual problem Mark 10 addresses.

If we think we can dismiss a spouse for any miniscule slight, it creates a power dynamic that requires nothing from us and dooms the other person to failure. If we create relationships characterized by equality, respect, and genuine love, those relationships stand a much better chance of being satisfying. That kind of relationship requires something of us. We have to take responsibility for our own role in creating that kind of dynamic with another person. If our relationships are to be mature and deeply satisfying, we have to be emotionally mature ourselves. We have to learn what we want and learn how to communicate that clearly to another human being. We have to learn how to listen and how to allow our guiding principles to be lived out in the messiness of human relationships. We have to be intentional about our words and actions. We have to keep growing.

The end result of an honest, loving, authentic relationship may not look like what any other two people would create. The goal is not to create a marriage or friendship or partnership that matches up with an arbitrary list of characteristics or a mold that society has created out of majority practice. Acting out what a spouse or partner or friend is "supposed to" be or do is not the goal. Sincerity, vulnerability, personal integrity, and bold authenticity are the key characteristics worth evoking. The goal might be better framed as a relationship in which you are willing and able to be completely yourself and in which the other party is able to be completely authentic as well, with no expectation that one individual is worth more than the other. Chances are that the result of such an intentional goal will look nothing like what first century Jewish marriages looked like, and that's probably a good thing. The point is that the quality of our relationships is our responsibility.

Sometimes, we will find that other people are not willing to participate in sincere, trusting, authentic relationships. Some people are not yet capable of living with intentionality and integrity. Some people aren't sure what their guiding principles are, and they aren't even sure how to figure it out. If we find ourselves in relationships with such people, we have choices. It isn't a matter of what is permissible under the law; it's a matter of what's permissible to our own deep sense of well-being. We can hopefully approach such circumstances with a deeper sense of self than just our personal preferences; we can hopefully get beyond our shallow stubbornness, selfishness, and immaturity.

Relationships are systems, though, and individuals cannot carry systems by themselves. When we have done all that there is to do -- when we have dismantled our irrational fears; deepened our sense of who we want to be in the world; confronted our lies about ourselves, other people, and relationships in general -- and we still find a relationship wanting, we can choose appropriate endings. There is no shame in doing our best, even if the end result winds up being less than we had hoped. If the time should come, we are capable of ending relationships with integrity and authenticity, too.

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