Along with Paul’s words, telling women to submit themselves to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22), the words in today’s Gospel, Mark 10:2-16, have been used by far too many clergy to convince women to stay in a domestic violence situation, whether that violence be physical, emotional, or sexual.
Those clergy read the words, but don’t refer to the culture and customs of the time, well-knowing that today’s Western world is far different than the world and customs of the Biblical lands. John L Pilch, in his series: THE CULTURAL WORLD OF JESUS, has done research and his work always sheds light on the scriptures. He tells us about the meaning of marriage, divorce, and adultery during those times, which helps us understand the message of today’s reading.
Unlike those of us in today’ Western world, the people in Jesus’ time weren’t so individual. They were much more connected to their families than even the most connected families are in our world. There was no dating in Jesus’ world, no down-on-one-knee proposals, and little choice about marriage. Families took care of all of this. There was a wedding, but it was not only a joining together of the bride and groom, but rather of the two families. Because of this, a divorce at that time wouldn’t have involved two people, but rather two families.
Under Mosaic law, only men could divorce, and Jesus’s teachings were directed at the Jewish people. Some say it is likely that the comment about women was added because Mark’s message was not only for the Jewish people but for followers of The Way in Rome, and, unlike the Jewish women, Roman women were able to divorce.
Jewish men could divorce for any reason. So, a Jewish wife could be booted out for anything – being a bad cook, being barren at an early age, or going through menopause, with similar results. However, just as marriage was between families rather than only two people, divorce was as well. Divorce caused by adultery shamed the husband, and the families.
Shamed the husband? Yes. Remember it was a different time. Men were citizens. Women, children, and slaves were belongings. If a man coveted another man’s wife (Exodus 20:17), or went beyond coveting, he was insulting the husband. This insult, like the resultant shame, was against the husband and his family. And, of course, because everything involved the full family, both men’s families would become involved in a feud, which would likely disrupt the community.
Today’s reading, which, as said, is too often used to prevent freedom from domestic violent and other unhappiness, or to shame those who are divorced, was really about maintaining peace within a society of a particular people during very unstable times. Today’s reading reminds us that there is always the rest of the story, the historical and cultural meanings, rather than only the words we read on the page.