Often Mark’s Gospel offers little clues to help us interpret one passage in the light of another. For example, in today’s reading Jesus is sharply questioned by the Pharisees whether it’s lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. (Mark 8,1-12) Mark says the questioning took place as Jesus “came into the district of Judea and across the Jordan,” on his way up to Jerusalem where he will meet his death.
That was where John the Baptist was put to death for questioning the validity of Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who divorced Herod’s brother Philip so that she could marry him. Mark tells the gruesome story of that powerful man and ambitious woman a few chapters before in great detail. (Mark 6, 14-29)
Questioning Jesus in their stronghold, the Pharisees thought, might have two outcomes. Either it might incite Herodias and Herod to do to Jesus what they did to John, or if Jesus didn’t answer the delicate question about divorce, the crowds gathered around him might see him less brave than the Baptist.
Jesus’ answer is brave, and it’s not an abstract one. Marriage is not to satisfy human ambition, like Herodias’ ambition. From the beginning it was God’s will that man and woman be one flesh. The final lines of our gospel, spoken at this time and place, seem to be a strong judgment on the man and woman who engineered John’s death:
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
In Rome these days questions of marriage are being raised again, at a different time and place. We pray those engaged in the deliberations of our church will be brave and wise and merciful, and walk in the footsteps of Christ.