Jesus on divorce … is he harsher than the OT Law? (Mark 10:1-10)

“The Old Testament God is all about Laws and rules. He’s harsh.  The New Testament God is loving and kind, he is easier to follow because of grace.”

How often have you heard something like that said?  Does Mark 10:1-10 support or go against that assumption?  Jesus is confronted by some of the Pharisees and they have a question for him.  They want to know where Jesus stands on divorce.  There was a long running argument between two schools of thought at the time, the disciples of two rabbis, Hillel and Shimmei.  It revolved around how to interpret Deuteronomy 24:1 which reads:

““Suppose a man marries a woman but she does not please him. Having discovered something wrong with her, he writes a document of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.”

One side read the instruction liberally. A husband could divorce for pretty much any reason if they took a dislike to their wife. The other side read it very strictly. They knew that God hated divorce and so, they interpreted the text restrictively. They saw it as giving a very limited permission in the case adultery. It seems from Matthew’s account that the Pharisees were trying to draw Jesus into this debate.

Jesus’ response however focuses less on the technicalities of interpretation and more on the purpose of the command. He says:

““He (Moses) wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts.”

Then Jesus goes on to say that marriage was intended by God to be permanent. Divorce was not meant to happen.  Now, in Matthew’s Gospel, we do see that Jesus does continue to provide a possible exception. For that reason, I personally do believe that there are circumstances when a Christian may get divorced and if so they are free to remarry.  I cover that in more detail here and if you’ve specific questions about divorce and remarriage I’d encourage you to take a read. 

But I don’t think that the primary purpose of Mark 10:1-12 is to teach us about the specific issues around divorce and remarriage. Rather, we are meant to spot two related things here. First of all, contra the original statement, it seems to me that Jesus is offering something that looks stricter than the law of Moses, not more liberal.  Why is this? Well, it is because we know that sin makes it impossible for us to fully and completely obey God’s Law.  That’s why there needed to be allowances and permissions within it.  However, through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are now justified through faith so that we are no longer under the penalty of the Law. Furthermore, we have received the Holy Spirit so that our hard hearts have been removed. We are a new creation with soft hearts that love God.  The presence of the Holy Spirit means that we can learn to obey God even when it is hard.

Secondly, this little section on Divorce is set in the context of a sequence of events and teaching about the different obstacles and stumbling blocks that we can put in the way of people coming to Christ. It seems to me, that the man who divorces his wife and relies on God’s Law to treat her as nothing but a chattel is placing an obstacle, a stumbling block in front of her and in that culture, it would have meant that he was abusing and causing to stumble someone who had little power and few rights, a vulnerable person.  They were causing a little one to stumble.

Furthermore, their own hard heart, their own stubborn resistance, their own failure to love their neighbour as themselves and therefore to show whole hearted love for God meant that they were creating a stumbling block, an obstacle to their own relationship with God.

So, Jesus sets out here to clear away the stumbling blocks and obstacles to people knowing him. This was one of those obstacles.

  • What obstacles/stumbling blocks have you placed in front of others?
  • What stumbling blocks/obstacles have you placed in front of yourself?
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