In many Christian circles this passage (and its parallels in Matthew 19 and Luke 16) is the guiding passage for marriage. The institution of Marriage a topic of great interest in our culture, as its definitions have been (thankfully) challenged and expanded. So as we look to the scriptures for guidance, we have to pay attention to this passage. But another reason we have to is that quite honestly the Bible simply does not talk specifically about marriage very much. And when it does, it is highly contextual. So the challenge for us today is trying to get to the heart of such passages, not the letter.
The way marriage (and divorce) worked in 1st Century Israel was so radically different than it does here today, that to stick to these teachings to the letter is like trying to use traffic “laws” from the horse and buggy days here and now. That is not so say that we are (or are not) “more evolved” today, but simply to say that we are dealing with a whole different “machine”. That being said, the important question to ask with a teaching like this is “what is the heart of what Jesus is getting at here?” And while he does refer back to “God made them male and female” and “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” (Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 respectively), Jesus isn’t talking about gender in marriage here (for more on my thoughts on how this passage has wrongly been twisted and perverted to work against sam sex marriage, go here). The heart of Jesus’ teaching here is the oneness in marriage. He is talking about the beautiful union that happens when two people join together.
This passage is not about who can get married and who can’t, and it is not about when it’s okay to get divorced and when it’s not. This passage is about what much of the Gospel of Mark has already been about, and about which Jesus has been talking very clearly for the last the two chapters: Dying to yourself. I believe the heart of Jesus’ teaching here is “forget about the nuances of when you’re allowed to get divorced and the repercussions therein, and remember what marriage is all about in the first place- becoming one”. In our culture today we like to boldly claim our individuality. It’s a good thing. But I think the hard message in this passage here for our world today is that when it comes to marriage, you must die to your individuality and become one flesh with the person with whom you’re joining, and begin a journey of becoming new creations together. This does not mean that we lose our identity as a person. It means that our identity changes. And I think one of the big problems we have in marriage in our culture today is an unwillingness to die to the self and let a knew person arise out of this most intimate of bonds to another person.
I am still me and have an identity as a individual person and so does my wife. But I also believe that much of who we both are today is a result of a journey of dying to who we were 22+ years ago and entering a lifelong journey of becoming one flesh. “One flesh” is hard work, but it’s beautiful work. It requires laying who we are down into the hands of the Spirit and into the life of the other. Much of the Gospel of Mark is about laying one’s self down and being willing to die to yourself, and this marriage talk of “one flesh” is no exception. That, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at here in Mark 10. He’s saying “stop worrying about what is lawful, because the reality is that if that’s what you’re looking at, then you’re missing the point of what marriage is all about”.
That being said, let me clear: There does come a times when separation is the best or even only option. From the more obvious times where abuse in any and all forms is present, to the less obvious where the relationship has simply cracked beyond repair, separation can be necessary. We need to get honest and real about those times and cast no shame or guilt upon others or ourselves in them. It’s hard, it’s sad, and in many cases it is also the right thing to do. There are no formulas here. This is hard stuff, which needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. The ideas we glean from the Biblical narratives must never become more important than the narrative immediately before us. By that I mean, if the letter of Jesus’ words here in Mark 10 become more important that the reality of the struggling couple in my office, then I think I’m missing something crucial. These words did not come, and do not work, outside of a specific context, and therefore must be understood and used out of and within specific contexts. Marriage is deeply intimate, deeply personal, and has at its core the highest of stakes. May we all deal with it and one another gently, carefully, gracefully and compassionately.