Jesus and family

November 1, 2010

Jesus gives us the next significant change in the sanctions governing marriage. Roughly five hundred years have passed since Ezra made it illegal to marry non-Jews. For close to two thousand years, since the matriarchs and patriarchs, a man could divorce his wife, though no provision was made for a woman divorcing her husband. Now Jesus changes that—but how? The two accounts, in Mark 10 and Matthew 19, differ in some important details, though the underlying arguments are the same. Jesus tells some questioning Pharisees that God had allowed divorce under Moses’ law …

“because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.  (Mark 10:5-12)

In Matthew’s account, Jesus is less rigorous: he allows divorce in the case of unfaithfulness (Mt 19:9). But even this stand is more rigorous than was the custom at the time, in which a man could sue for divorce for many more reasons than infidelity. Also, mysteriously, in Mark Jesus explicitly accepts the case of a woman divorcing her husband, for which Jewish law made no provision. Nevertheless, Mark’s Jesus still prohibits it.

Finally, in Matthew, Jesus seems to go even further and imply that it would be better not to marry at all, when the disciples say, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry”:

Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.  (Matthew 19:10-12)

Usually, “made themselves eunuchs” is not interpreted literally, but as a euphemism for celibacy.

This is similar to the argument used by the Essenes to discourage marriage: marriage (that is, sex) inevitably left you ritually unclean for periods of time, and, should the time of God’s judgment begin while you were in such a state, you would be disbarred from entering heaven. Jesus consistently and vehemently rejects this kind of discrimination based on uncleanness, so it’s not clear to me why he says this. Nor is it clear why the disciples jump to the conclusion that strict divorce law would make it not worth it to get married, in the first place, as though they expected to get divorced.

They may have been thinking of their own situation as itinerants who had given up everything, including family, to join Jesus’ inner circle. We know that Peter was married because Jesus healed his mother in law (Mark 1:30-31), but we never hear anything about his wife and presumably, Peter abandoned her to follow Jesus. In fact, Peter brings this up at one point:

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.  (Mark 10:28-31)

Significantly, Jesus does not mention wives or husbands. Or fathers. Why?

His relationship with his own family is rather ‘complicated’, if not actually dysfunctional. Joseph begrudgingly goes through with his marriage to Mary because the child is not his only after an angel tells him to and then Jesus formally denies that Joseph is his father in the temple anyway. Rumors that he was illegitimate are so persistent that Matthew fills his genealogy with women whose relations with their husbands, like Mary’s, were all irregular in some way. His family thinks he’s nuts, perhaps possessed and he publicly renounces his family and declares his followers to be his family instead. He won’t even let a follower bury his father (Matthew 8:22).

There is an awful lot going on here under the surface. Jesus’ radical actions toward his own family seem to conflict with his strict conservatism regarding divorce law and with the central role—I would say fundamental role—that family played, not just in Torah but in the very fabric of Jewish society, in its social, economic and religious life.

I suggest that Joseph may have divorced Mary after all, once it became clear that this son who was no son, apparently, was also a nut-job, a deep embarrassment, a dishonor to his family and Joseph’s standing in the community. This meant instant impoverishment for Mary, and the only person in a position to help her out was a son who was a beggar himself, an itinerant prophet surrounded by men who had abandoned their families and women with questionable backgrounds. Even when she went to plead with him to come home along with her other children, he rejected her. The evangelist John patches things up by placing Mary at the crucifixion (none of the other gospels do) and having Jesus say to her, “Woman, here is your son” and to ‘the disciple whom he loved’, “Here is your mother.” And Jesus is much closer to his mother throughout the gospel of John.

That Joseph divorced Mary is, of course, pure conjecture. But mysteries abound here, and the disconnect between Jesus’ actions regarding his own family and his strict application of the law in the case of divorce is, to my mind, one of the least important. At virtually every turn, Jesus seems to have a very difficult and hard to understand relationship to family. All this puts conservative Christian focus on ‘family values’ in a very weird light.

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