Looking South East from Hilltop Farm, Gladstone South Australia

Little Children and Hard Hearts

Week of Sunday October 7 - Pentecost 19
Gospel: Mark 10 2:16

He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

You can listen to this post here.

I have been married for 35 years. It has truly been a means of grace for me. If not for the grace of God, and the perhaps greater grace of my wife, this may not have happened. (This point may not seem theologically correct, but I am prepared to argue it!)

I am hard of heart. It means I lack compassion; I am human. The relationship which has knocked the rough edges off me, and taught me so much about myself, has always been at risk from my desire to be first, and my need to preserve myself and my dignity.

Jesus, Paul, (1 Cor 6) and now Mark, have a high view of marriage and what it may become. It is becoming one flesh. It has been so since the beginning of creation. The love of one person for another that is present in a marriage completes us, both in what we give and in what we are given.

If the marriage is successful we will have, in some measure, learned that to be great is to be servant. We will have learned to accept weakness and unloveliness. Our weakness and unloveliness will have been, in some measure, accepted.

But this is not a text about marriage. It is a text about divorce. Brian Stoffregen alerts us to an insightful quotation from James Edwards’ The Gospel according to Mark.

[He] writes the following about looking at a text about divorce to try and understand marriage:

You do not learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions for making a crash landing; you will not be successful in war if you train by the rules for beating a retreat. The same is true of marriage and divorce. The exceptional measures necessary when a marriage fails are of no help in discovering the meaning and intention of marriage. Jesus endeavors to recover God's will for marriage, not to argue about possible exceptions to it. (p. 301)

I often think the persistence of my marriage has had a lot to do with good luck, and much less to do with my good management! There has been a lot in me, and in the general muck of life which has militated against the survival of our relationship. I can only agree with Stoffregen’s further comment.

Divorce is not God's intentions for marriage; but, because of human sinfulness it happens, and we need divorce laws for protection. (Divorce is probably better than murder <g>). Divorced (and remarried) people are sinners, but so are all of us. Jesus refused to condemn and punish the one who had been caught in adultery. I believe that that same grace and mercy is extended to all of us sinners -- even those who have been through divorce and remarriage. How much more does someone whose life has publicly been torn apart need the comfort and love and acceptance from a community?

Although I smile with Brian and his little joke above, I have also had congregational members who lived in constant fear of discovery by violent partners. When you have known someone living under an assumed name in another state, always looking over their shoulder, it is difficult not to conclude that sometimes divorce, also, is a means of grace. Clergy who tell wives to go home and submit to their husbands are the greater sinners. 

It would also be wise to consider what is meant by “marriage” and by “divorce” in our society as opposed to the time of Jesus. Each of these things is a social construct girt around with laws that reflect many other concerns that have nothing to do with the gospel. There was a priest in my state who would not allow couples to sign the marriage registry in the church, as he reckoned the laws of the state had nothing to do with the Covenant of Marriage. His sense of compassion and theatre may have been lacking, but theologically he was correct. Whatever we discern God is revealing to us about the Covenant of Marriage has no necessary connection with the Commonwealth Marriage Act, much less our rose tinted memories and hopes.

Mark is clear that the Pharisees came to test Jesus. One of the leaders here at the church has found a comment suggesting it was to force Jesus to choose between particular groups within Judaism; a good suggestion. That thinking is based in the fact that the one group was more restrictive about divorce than the other. The school (or House) of  Hillel ruled that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, whereas the school of  Shammai argued divorce was allowable only for reasons of unchastity; aka adultery. 

Another suggestion about the genesis of the saying could be that a group of Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to implicitly criticise Herod in the way that John the Baptist had criticised him over his divorce and remarriage. It would be one way of getting Jesus removed! (6:14ff)

In any event, they are not wishing him well, and Mark uses the story to show Jesus’ greater authority.

What has interested me is why the pericope should be placed here.  In the flow of the drama about seeing who the Messiah really is, it seemed to stick out uncomfortably, almost “pasted in.”

Let me explain what I mean.

The great theme in these chapters is the healing of our blindness so we may see who the Messiah is. We begin at 8:22-26 with the healing of a blind man, and notice that at first, he cannot see clearly. Peter then sees Jesus is the Messiah.  And all the way through to 10:46-52 where Bartimaeus is healed of his blindness, and follows him on the way, we see Peter and the disciples need a healing of blindness so that they may see clearly.

They cannot see who Jesus really is, and what it really means to be Messiah. They do not understand the necessity of his death; indeed, Peter will not hear of it. (8:32) He and the others argue about who is the greatest. They need to have the example of a little child, the least of the least, the ones without power, put before them. And in our reading today they still have not seen; they reject the children. And they will still argue again about greatness. (10:35ff)

They want to reject those who are different, and stop them healing in Jesus name; the same word for stopping as Mark uses about their rejection of the children.

These are the big themes to do with welcoming and serving in Jesus’ name. The transfiguration fits into this scheme: This is The Messiah, it shouts! Elijah has come. The failed exorcism (9:18) by disciples who did not pray enough contrasts with the successful exorcist whom the disciples wanted to forbid. He was working in Jesus name. (9:38)

But why divorce?

Clearly divorce must have been an issue for the community, or it would not be mentioned. It has been a less than traditional community; unusually, women have instituted divorce. (10:12)

In the culture of the time, divorce is not just a couple splitting up; or more accurately, doing the paperwork to formally end a relationship that has already failed. Stoffregen’s survey suggests that divorce brings enormous shame and dishonour upon the families concerned.

Under normal circumstances in the world of Jesus, individuals really did not get married. Families did. One family offered a male, the other a female. Their wedding stood for the wedding of the larger extended families and symbolized the fusion of the honor of both families involved. It would be undertaken with a view to political and/or economic concerns -- even when it might be confined to fellow ethnics, as it was in first-century Israel. Divorce, then, would entail the dissolution of these extended family ties. Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels pp 240)

He suggests, if I read him correctly, that remarriage, which Mark’s Jesus forbids, (10:10-12) would make this whole situation worse still. It would be a slight against the family of the bride.

Given the reference to women divorcing their husbands, (10:12) I wonder if a few of the women of Mark were beginning to ask some hard questions about greatness and serving, and looking after the least. This would place the teaching right in context.

I noticed that it follows immediately after these verses from last week.

...47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

These verses strongly focus on purifying community life. Mark recognises divorce will happen; we are hard of heart. But he also sees that through it we may lose our saltiness. It harms the community. In the spirit of Jesus, he allows divorce. He balks at remarriage because of the trouble it causes.

But most of all, his placement right after his urgent exhortations about purifying community life, show us how much we lose when we break apart the means of grace. And what it costs the whole community.

One last quotation from Brian Stoffregen, whom I have found most helpful this week. He turns to Pheme Perkins’ Mark.

Verse 15 turns toward the disciples. Once again, Jesus is warning the disciples that they must give up the normal human calculations of greatness if they are to participate in the rule of God. Jesus  [says] that one who does not "receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."

Perkins makes an important observation here. “Modern ideas about the innocence of children cannot be carried back to the first century.” The saying has nothing to do with innocence.

 In the philosophical context of the teacher and student, "babes" are those who are still without any real understanding of serious teaching (see 1 Cor 3:1-4). Therefore, it is not likely that the image referred to the disciples as recipients of Jesus' teaching. The child in antiquity was radically dependent upon the pater familias. The father decided whether the child would even be accepted into the family. Children belonged to their father and remained subject to his authority even as adults. The saying "to receive the kingdom like a child," which most scholars treat as originally independent of the scene about accepting children, must, therefore, refer to the radical dependence of the child on the father for any status, inheritance, or, in families where children might be abandoned, for life itself. It warns the disciples that they are radically dependent upon God's grace -- they cannot set the conditions for entering the kingdom. [p. 647]

Nor can they set the conditions for anyone else!

We do not enter the kingdom based on the success of our marriage; or its failure. We do not enter the kingdom of the basis of our greatness or success at anything. God brings us in. We cannot make it happen otherwise. And if we try, we will damage the Community of Jesus.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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