The disciples were surprised at Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question about divorce, which is why they waited until they were alone with him in the house before they asked him about it. But Jesus made it clear to them what he was saying, namely that divorce was not permissible because it is not God’s plan.
The Protestant churches allow for divorce and remarriage, as did the Jewish community of Jesus’ time, but the Catholic Church, as is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2384 – 2385, remains faithful to the teaching of Jesus in today’s gospel. This is a difficult teaching for today since divorce is so common in society today for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But that does not change what Jesus says in Mark’s gospel as he speaks of God’s plan at creation as told in the book of Genesis, which is today’s first reading.
At the time of Jesus, there were different views on divorce among leading Jewish rabbis and their followers. Rabbi Shammi’s position was that a wife had to be guilty of some kind of sexual infidelity in order for a husband to divorce her. Rabbi Himmel held that if a wife did something as relatively unimportant as overcooking dinner, her husband could divorce her or put her away. With such differing views, it is no wonder that the Pharisees wanted to know where Jesus stood on the question.
When Jesus asked the Pharisees what Moses had to say, they referred to the Law in Deuteronomy that allowed a husband to write a bill of divorce to dismiss his wife. But Jesus then responds with a quote from another Book of the Torah, namely Genesis, saying that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of hearts. God, having created man and woman, joined them together, and what God has joined together, “no human being must separate.”
When the disciples later question Jesus on it privately, Jesus does not back down at all, but rather adds that if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. Scholars believe that Mark’s gospel has Jesus also mention women divorcing their husbands, because, unlike Matthew’s gospel, which only speaks of men, Mark’s gospel was written in Rome and addresses Gentile Christians as well as Jewish Christians. Unlike Jewish society, where only men could initiate divorce, in the Greco-Roman world, women could initiate divorce as well.
It is clear that Jesus took his disciples by surprise with the seriousness of his teaching and we are challenged today by Jesus’ teaching on the permanence of marriage and the prohibition of divorce and then remarriage after divorce, since it is so common.
The teaching of the Church has a pastoral approach to all of this in paragraph 2386:
It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his (or her) own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.
There is tremendous need for pastoral sensitivity when a marriage ends in divorce. The Church allows a couple to separate and divorce civilly. People may still receive Communion in that situation. It is remarriage that complicates matters and it is then those affected by divorce ought to turn to the Church to learn about annulments. Divorce and remarriage are emotional and very sensitive issues and it is hoped the Church can help to bring healing and a peaceful resolution. What is important, however, is not to deny or water down what Jesus taught as it continues to be the teaching of his Church today.