Often Mark’s Gospel offers little clues to help us interpret one passage in the light of another. For example, Jesus is sharply questioned by the Pharisees whether it’s lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. The questioning takes 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.
Mark’s not altogether accurate in his geography but “Judea across the Jordan” 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 to marry him. Mark tells that gruesome story a few chapters before in great detail. (Mark 6, 14-29) The site of John’s death, east of the Dead Sea in what is now the country of Jordan, was lost for more than a thousand years after it was destroyed by the Romans at the end of the First Jewish Revolt in 71/72 A.D. It was definitively identified in 1968, when a German scholar discovered the remains of a Roman siege wall. Since then, the Hungarian architect and archaeologist Dr Győző Vörös has been excavating the site.
Perhaps the Pharisees thought that questioning Jesus here 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 God willed that man and woman be one flesh. The final lines of our gospel, spoken at this time and place, is also 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.”