You can tell a lot about a person from what makes them angry.
Aquinas, for instance, says that it’s the mark of a good person to be angered by injustice. So, it’s significant that when Mark describes Jesus’ reaction to the disciples’ rebuking parents for bringing their children to him, he deliberately uses one of Greek’s strongest words for anger, a word that might translate colloquially as “he hit the roof”.
The other evangelists in their account of this episode omit any reference to Jesus being angry. But Mark isn’t afraid to report Jesus’ emotions: not just anger but pity, sadness, sympathy, frustration, and humour are all emotions attributed to Jesus by Mark. The background to this episode with the children, as in a previous gospel, is that, in his time, children had no status or standing in society whatever. They were a necessary investment, either for future security or dynastic advantage.
So, the parents who sought a blessing from Jesus were not being pious or sentimental but hard-headed and practical: what they had in mind first and foremost was the safe arrival of their children at adulthood, so that they could contribute through their labour and through marriage to the family’s survival. But, here, as usual, Jesus turns conventional attitudes on their head: far from treating children as nonentities, he makes them the very model of what it takes, and even what it means, to enter the kingdom of heaven.
By implication, he’s suggesting that there’s more to learn about what’s ultimately important from the powerlessness and innocence of children than from the sophistication of Scribes and Pharisees. He certainly knew how to make himself unpopular. But the passage at the beginning of this gospel dealing with the thorny problem, then as now, of divorce and remarriage, also has for its background a situation of disadvantage and disregard, this time concerning women.
Their position and vulnerability in ancient society was only marginally better than that of children and on this question, too, Jesus drives a coach and horses through conventional attitudes. His teaching about marriage not only seeks to restore the binding nature of the institution itself but also to re-establish the standing of women within it. Again, to appreciate the radical nature of his teaching you need only remember that in this rigidly, patriarchal society, marriages were arranged between men, specifically between fathers; indeed, a marriage was a legal agreement not between a bride and groom but between their respective fathers.
And, then as now, divorce was far from uncommon. In fact, even polygamy was still allowed, though by this time it was unfashionable, except among the élite, such as Herod and his clan.
The debate that held people’s attention at the time, however, and which forms the immediate backcloth to this devious discussion initiated by the Pharisees, wasn’t whether divorce was permitted or not, but when and in what circumstances.
Everybody accepted the ruling of Deuteronomy that a man could divorce his wife if he found “something seriously objectionable” about her. But there was wide and rather terrifying disagreement about what constituted “something objectionable”. I say “terrifying” because there was one rabbinic school, the school of Hillel, who held that it could be for something as trivial as “spoiling a dish for your husband”.
It doesn’t offer anything more specific so, presumably, it could be for something as trivial as burning his toast, or the first century Palestinian equivalent. Another school, the school of Aqiba, thought that it was sufficient grounds for divorcing your wife if you found another woman more beautiful than her.
You might be thinking that we haven’t moved on very far.
With this kind of rampant chauvinism in the ascendancy, no woman was safe or secure in the home.
Given this background, Jesus’ teaching was a return to a long-lost ideal that respected the standing of both the man and the woman in marriage and which recognised marriage to be a creation of God, rooted in our nature, rather than a merely legal agreement. That too is surely relevant to contemporary debates on the meaning of marriage.
Nevertheless, any attempt to transpose this passage easily into modern terms runs the risk of over-simplification in what is always a painfully difficult and delicate matter. Divorce and remarriage remain complex issues on all levels and Jesus’ teaching was as radical in the first century as it would be in the 21st. Indeed, adhering to it caused difficulty for the early Church, as well as for his contemporaries and, of course, ours.
But the underlying point that Jesus is making, here and elsewhere in the gospels, extends beyond marriage. He’s asserting the intrinsic dignity of every individual person, without exception. People, in other words, are ends in themselves, never means to any end; and, whether we’re married or unmarried, young or old, in the womb or a hospital bed, fit or unwell, we’re all called to a fullness and flourishing of life that goes beyond any notion of usefulness or merely instrumental value, economic or otherwise.
And that, too, is certainly relevant to many of contemporary debates. Jesus drives his point home both by correcting an unbalanced situation that left women at life-destroying disadvantage and by holding up children as the unwitting teachers of what’s needed to enter the Kingdom. And, of course, as always with the Pharisees, he’s attacking hypocrisy, the scourge of public life, then as now.
So, again, we see Jesus here peeling back the layers of self-protective rationalisation that we so cunningly contrive to conceal our less than noble motives and goals, but which end up concealing instead the truth and goodness of God’s creation. And as for grounds for divorce, there’s a very practical point here for husbands. If you think that the School of Hillel was on to something about reasons for divorce – “spoiling his dinner”: remember, if your wife burns the toast, it’s probably a new toaster you need, not a new wife