Proper 22 · Mark 10:2-12 · October 4, 2009

By Victor Raj

“Bending the Rules”

The question of divorce is what first meets the eye as one reads this text. To be sure, the OT reading for this day, Genesis 2:18-25, attests to it. The epistle lesson, Hebrews 2:13, however, adds a new perspective to our text. There it clearly states that disobedience of God’s law has consequences, and no violator shall escape its just punishment (v.2). It also announces our salvation perfected through Christ’s suffering, as by his obedient death on the cross he paid the price for our sinful imperfection (v. 10).

Jesus had, by teaching and performing mighty works, demonstrated to those who crowed around him that in him the kingdom of God had indeed drawn closer to human beings. In our text, Jesus gradually left his ministry in Galilee and entered Judea, specifically the territory of Herod Antipas.

The Pharisees have habitually been looking for opportunities to put Jesus to the test and trap him in his own words (πειραζοντες, see also Mt 22:15). Neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians seem to grasp the actual purpose of Jesus’ mission on earth (8:31-32; 9:31:32). Instead, they see him simply as a threat to their own survival as teachers of the law and as those who influenced the Roman government for political gain. For any and every reason, they enlisted the help of their political enemies to create a front against Jesus, whom they assumed might have an unsettling influence on the people, contrary to their own interests.

The Pharisees had in fact built a ‘fence around the law’ in order to establish and preserve their own manmade traditions (Mark 7:9). These stringent ‘tradition of the elders’ imposed strict regulations on the pious and religious, leaving many curious loopholes for the shrewd and meticulous interpreters of the law. Like the heretics of Colossae, these legalists were taking people captive through hollow and deceptive human tradition and the elemental spirits of this world (Col 2:8).

In our text, a question about divorce and the Mosaic provisions for it emerged out of the blue, as the Pharisees tested (πειραζοντες) Jesus. These teachers of the law prided themselves on their association with the great lawgiver Moses and invoked his stipulations in their defense (10:4). Jesus cut across the catalog of the Jewish legal tradition with a direct appeal to the law (cf. 7: 1-23; 10: 17-20), pointing out to their callous, cold-heartedness the law’s divine intention. Beyond Moses, Jesus points to the higher law of creation, the divine constitution of marriage as a lifetime union of one man and one woman. Neither man nor woman has a mandate for divorce, and marriage shall remain indissoluble (w. 5-9). If Moses permitted divorce at all (Dt 24:1-4), it was because he was ‘bending the rules’ as the people were hardening their hearts (σκληροκαρδία).

Moses may have tolerated divorce, but he had not authorized it. Even the Mosaic provisions, if read carefully, would point an accusing finger at those searching for a justifying cause of divorce. Divorce was permitted in accordance with the provisions of Deuteronomy 24:1. It was a protective provision for the woman who had been repudiated by her husband.

The Jewish tradition has since built its own fence around the law. The school of Shammai argued that ‘something shameful’ was sufficient cause for divorce. Hillel and his followers watered that down to the extent that anything that caused annoyance or embarrassment to a husband was a legitimate ground for writing a certificate of divorce from his wife. Experts in law can be experts in the art of bending the rules. Nevertheless, the question on divorce the Pharisees posed to Jesus in this context was mere trickery and hostile in its intention (William Lane, The Gospel of Mark, NICNT Eerdmans, 1974).

Hardheartedness is a deliberate determination not to abide by the will of God.

As in divorce, human selfishness threatens our proper relationship to God and fellow human beings. In this case we have not outgrown the moral and ethical stature of those who gave gone before us. Sin therefore is crouching at our door as well.

Jesus is greater than Moses, wiser than Solomon, and greater than the temple. He is the greater interpreter of the great Moses. In him all the law and the prophets find their proper meaning and fulfillment. Jesus Christ has come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. His coming into our world under the law, and becoming sin before God in our place is evidence that he accepts us as his own. On his merits we enter God’s presence with boldness, and have no need to bend the rules for our convenience.

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