The Wedge of Patriarchal Practice


30 years in and Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (1988) is more relevant than ever. This week’s commentary homes in on Mark 10:2-16.

Jesus refuses to enlist in the legal debate over the divorce statute itself. Instead he questions the way in which Pharisaic casuistry simply legitimates the already established social practice of divorce. The problem, as Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza sees it, is that the legal issue is “totally adrocentric,” and “presupposes patriarchal marriage as a given.” Jesus argues:

Divorce is necessary because of the male’s hardness of heart, that is, because of men’s patriarchal mind-set and reality…However, Jesus insists, God did not intend patriarchy but created persons as male and female human beings. It is not woman who is given into the power of man in order to continue “his” house and family line, but it is man who shall sever connections with his own patriarchal family and “the two persons shall become one sarx“….The [Genesis] passage is best translated as “the two persons–man and woman–enter into a common human life and social relationship because they are created as equals.”

Jesus’ conclusion (10:9), then, is not meant as an absolute prohibition upon “divorce,” which would both overturn the Mosaic statute and return to a legalistic solution. Indeed, it drops the term for divorce (apoluse) in favor of a different term (to “separate,” chorizeto). Rather it protests the way in which patriarchal practice drives a wedge into the unity and equality originally articulated in the marriage covenant. Understood in the true sense, this famous phrase rightly belongs in the Christian marriage liturgy.

The principled critique of patriarchy having been stated “publicly,” the internal understanding of the community on this issue is once again given in a private explanation to the disciples in the safe narrative site of the home (10:10; 7:17f). Jesus here accepts the reality of divorce but prohibits remarriage–as does the similar catechetical tradition in I Corinthians 7:10 (though, there, “separation,” chorizo). The reciprocal formulation of the prohibition in 10:11f, however, reveals that the principle of equality has been maintained. The first clause–a man cannot divorce a woman and marry another without committing adultery against her–already went beyond Jewish law, “in which a man can commit adultery against another married man but not against his own wife” (Taylor, 1963). Bu the second clause, in which the rights of the female partner are expanded to include her right to divorce (or “leave”), directly contradicted Jewish law, which stipulated that only men could initiate and administer such proceedings (Kee, 1977).

This teaching recognizes the fact that divorce is a profound spiritual and social tragedy…The teaching also acknowledges, however, that divorce is a reality, within which the fundamental issue of justice must not be lost. Both parties must have the right to take initiative, and both must accept the responsibilities and limitations involved in the death of marriage.

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