Thus Sunday’s Gospel is a passage that probably causes anyone involved in pastoral ministry at least a twinge of anxiety. Every congregation – Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox – has people in it show has suffered through a divorce, often due to no fault of their own. Jesus’s stringent and seemingly uncompromising teaching on divorce seems sure to offend at least someone present, and they are much more likely to take out their anger or hurt on the preacher than on Jesus himself.
Some of the offense might be mitigated by a bit of historical context. Jewish law allowed a man to divorce his wife by giving her a writ testifying to the fact. Particularly in the patriarchal culture of the first century, a woman thus abandoned by her husband was left with no protector and at considerable risk. So Jesus’ teaching, which strikes us today as harsh, might be seen in its context as seeking to mitigate an unjust situation by forbidding men from abandoning their wives.
But Jesus’s citation of the book of Genesis in support of his teaching indicates that there are deeper theological issues at stake. Jesus appeals to the original, prelapsarian unity of husband and wife, implying that he has come to restore this paradisal state, to make possible the form of human relatedness that obtained in Eden. The significance of the appeal to Genesis is underscored by the lectionary’s choice of Genesis 2:18-24 for the first reading. While it may be true that by his teaching on divorce Jesus was seeking justice for women abandoned by their husbands, what is more important for Mark is the call of Jesus to his disciples to live as if the world had been redeemed and restored, as if the time of hear-heartedness had come to an end. Even more, Mark presents Jesus as the one who makes such a thing possible for his followers.
In other words, the Gospel passage is as much about Jesus’ power to restore creation as it is about divorce. It is Mark’s way of affirming the truth that the Letter to the Hebrews affirms in the second reading: Jesus is the one through whom all things exist and is therefore he is the one who can bring many children to glory. The letter to the Hebrews makes another important point, however. Jesus brings us to glory not simply by giving us a new law, but by suffering, by tasting death for everyone. If this is borne in mind then these readings need not be a cause of anger or hurt on the part of those who have suffered through a divorce; they can be a proclamation of the good news that Jesus has come to share their suffering and by doing so to heal and restore creation.