The role of the child

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.

The role of the child
A certain 6 year old used to worry his parents with his lack of interest in reading. He could read well, but read only for utilitarian purposes such as  assessing the prices on chocolate. Then he discovered the Old Testament, especially the ten plagues of Egypt, garishly Illustrated in an old children's bible, and we began to worry at his incessant re-reading— poring— over those stories. One night I was subjected to an extended grilling about the facticity of these stories which would have done a teenaged atheist proud. I turned out his light wondering what the future held.

We must have talked longer than I realised, because I had to nudge him awake the next morning. He opened his eyes and announced, first breath, that "all that Moses stuff is obviously untrue and just a story. I don't believe it." Which rather undercuts the all too common idea that to accept the kingdom like a little child means to be unquestioning and naive. Children have to be silenced rather than taught to question.

We have been looking at welcoming children, (Mark 9:33-50) and not causing them to stumble. Now, though, the text changes to children doing the welcoming. (The receiving of Mark 10:15) What on earth does that have to do with divorce!? I ask this because the common feature across these pericopes is children. And when it comes to the question of possessions, in Mark 10, Jesus refers to his listeners as... children. So my suspicion is that children, whose vulnerability and lack of power illustrated something about what constitutes greatness, are also meant to illustrate and highlight something to do with divorce.

And why, here, divorce? What has divorce to do with learning to follow the Messiah to Jerusalem? (Mark 8:31ff, 9:30ff, 10:32ff)

In his excellent article "Communities of the Broken and Blessed" David Lose navigates to the heart of the teaching on divorce: Everyone knew divorce was legal. (cf Deuteronomy 24:1-4 andcommentary by Vitalis Hoffman.) This was a test, not even a test about divorce, but about the law. It was a test to find out where Jesus stood on the law, and would give information on how to oppose him, if not trap him.

Jesus simply refused to play the game: His reply, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you,"  takes the whole issue out of the realm of law. This is about the heart, not the law. As Lose says

This whole passage is about community. But it's not the kind of community we've been trained to seek. [Not the kind of community which we have learnt to desire.] It's not ... a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent. [Or even the successful.] Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It's a community ... of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learnt that by being in an honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place. This is what the church was originally about..."

It is only by embracing the weak and the broken—including ourselves— that we enter the kingdom, tasting its first fruits. Not to do this embracing of the week and broken— including ourselves— is to hang a millstone around our necks. (Mark 9:42) I said in my sermon last week

Horror and horror that we should harm the little ones, but do you see that he is saying, "You will not snatch this child from my arms? He's saying that in the long arc of the universe, "You will never remove this child from my love," and he is also saying, "But you can walk away from me and not even notice. You can live with the worms and think that this is how life is meant to be, and as good as it gets!

I reckon most of what I've read on Jesus' teaching about divorce has been forensic. It has been about legalities; what can be justified, and what is allowed. It has failed to see the protection of women implicit in Jesus' words.

Divorce is simply a symptom of human failure that is contrary to God’s intentions in creation, so, Jesus says, “What God joined together, let no human separate.” Is this a blanket prohibition against divorce? What about the abusive or destructive relationships of which we are painfully aware? Should a corollary to Jesus’ pronouncement be just as true: What humans wrongly joined together, let God rightly separate?

As we should expect, God’s commands are not arbitrary but have a principle that motivates them. In a patriarchal Jewish society where only husbands had the prerogative of divorcing their wives, a prohibition of divorce provided a safeguard for women who could be left seriously disadvantaged after a divorce. Further, as Jesus spells out to the disciples in 10:10-12, in situations where either party could initiate a divorce, it’s the faithful partner that is harmed when his or her spouse divorces in order to marry someone else. Committing adultery is not an abstract, moral sin. It is a real, hurtful action against one’s God-joined partner. Mark G Vitalis Hoffman

Although this may be mentioned, few go on to say this would mean, in our culture,  that Jesus would encourage many women to leave situations of abuse. Reading  his words with legalities as the interpretive principle is incapable of seeing that, having healed the woman, he would then sit with the abuser and beg them to look again, and see the damage their abuse is doing to themselves.

Legalities are not interested in a relationship; they think they define it rather than understand they are meant to protect those relating when things go wrong. A forensic approach to the words on divorce reduces the foundational blessing of relationship— God made them male and female—  to something conditional rather than the basis of our human being. It makes life forming and nurturing relationality into a thing of permissions, rivalry, and dispute in the courts. Jesus' words degenerate into arguments over who is allowed to have life giving relationship.

Obviously this is salient in discussions about same gender marriage, but it also applies to refusal to marry people who are divorced, and it applies to basic existence and survival. In my childhood, for example, I learned there were men and women. A few of these men were called bachelors; they had a certain mystique about them, but the spinsters and widows, were lesser beings. Widowers were less common, and did not stay so for long. Then there were divorcees. The word had an edge to it, more than a hint of blame, and bad moral connotations. I can recall no divorced men! In the time of my childhood, being a divorcee had severe economic consequences for women, and still does.

As young ministers, my wife and I discovered that being married had status which was used to exclude others or, at the least, assign them to a lesser status. It was blatant and common enough that we seriously considered becoming un-married. The extremes of this attitude can be seen in Muriel's Wedding. At the end, Sophie Lee's character screams, "You can't say that about me—  I'm beautiful. I'm married."

...  marriage has an 'iconic' status in the church.  To be married is almost by definition to be virtuous. And then, as a life-long christian, to find oneself suddenly outside that circle of virtue is a very, very interesting experience.  I discovered that many other people live in the space beyond that circle of virtue.  And it can be very difficult for a church, especially a church preoccupied with defending tradition, either to notice them or to minister them. (Peter Draper)

To argue about when divorce is permissible, or if, is to miss all this. It does not see the child sitting on Jesus knee. It does not see that the relationality that lets us be human has been reduced to the commerce of status, to rivalry, and exclusion which means, inevitably, to violence. A woman a week is killed by her partner in Australia. Many of these are married, not divorced. To argue about the permissibility divorce is to miss the point;  it is an indicator of how far the protagonists have stepped away from the vision of the Kingdom. Some of the argument against same gender marriage in Australia sounded much like, "Why should they... be allowed to have this thing of... ours?" It left me wondering what those people objecting have actually found in marriage and faith.  Why would you, a Christian— of all people— refuse the blessings of God to someone?

What is the child's place in this? What does she show us?

I met a little girl in the supermarket last week. She carried her baby doll carefully, and with pride. Not for one moment, I suspect, did she think the doll was alive, but as we did that dance where you meet aisle by aisle across the 30 rows of the supermarket, she carried the doll with all the gravity and love a mother shows to a newborn. She would look at me each time we met: "See, I'm giving myself entirely—   without reservation—   to being who I am."  There was nothing calculating about this. Nothing half-hearted. She had received the promise—   the role—   of being mother to her doll, and given herself utterly. I have seen little children and the same with Jesus. (I found this thought in work by James Alison quoted here: " It is not of course that children are ‘innocent’ in any way at all: it is just that they are less complicated and calculating about knowing what they want, running for it, and insisting on getting it. It is just such a pattern of desire that is able to receive the kingdom of God." The Joy of Being Wrong pp228)

We adults don't do this. We calculate. We weigh the costs. We are afraid—   who would not be afraid in this life!?  —  but we let the fear win, and so settle for a second best life, holding on to what we can see.

In the Lectionary, we are moving toward the possessions we can see: "You lack one thing, go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me." And by the end of the chapter, blind Bartimaeus can see. 

During my IT years, I was sent to assist a client with his home server, and arrived in a mansion built into a steep hillside. "Just go up the stairs," said the client as he locked the front door. The marble staircase was designed so you had to ask whether to take the left or right marble staircase from the first landing. I was introduced to a security system better than that belonging to any bank, which also involved being shown the carefully lit room where his wife kept her jewellery on display; a space easily twice the size of my study, and well filled.

I was also invited to the evening meal, as it was obvious our task would take some hours. I found myself liking this family in their surprisingly simple kitchen;  kind, respectful, loving each other. I was regaled with stories of the girls' recent run-in with the rather prudish rules at their church school. They were very rich, and it had nothing to do with the money. It strikes me that without all the bother of staying safe— all those locks and alarms, and the buying of jewellery, they would have been far richer. It would have served me well if I had paid more attention to their undoubted riches and had been less scandalised by their wealth.

Possessions are the root of our problem. We exchange things for the glory of the kingdom, We trust things rather than the healed and being renewed and humanized relationships which make us whole and are treasure in heaven. We trust what we hold rather than what we are called to imagine.

By the dog food aisle, the little girl was tired. Dolly was still carefully carried, but the cost of motherhood was becoming clear—  the sheer constancy of it. I visited someone a couple of weeks ago after a desperate confused phone call, unsure if I would find them alive or dead. I came home two hours later, exhausted, distressed, damaged, and quite unable to see the treasures of heaven. How do we desire these treasures? How do we imagine them instead of substituting them with the pale limitations of the heresy of prosperity theology, which exchanges the truth of God for a lie and worships and serves the thing which has been created? (cf Romans 1:25)

The problem is our imagination. For a long time we Christians have imagined too little, as though an eternity of what we live now, and the possessions we hold now, or desire to possess as we imagine they give meaning to the lives of those we envy— as though this is all something to desire. The atheists are right: boring, not to mention an eternity of injustice. How, though does one imagine what one has not seen, something far deeper and richer than this life, and desire that? What would it even be? How will it not prove to be just one more piece of shining jewellery in a display case... which turns out to be in the dog food aisle, and worth less— a story not worth believing, like so much else that we have given our hearts for?

The trouble in all this is that we can all imagine too well what we take to be the alternative to shiny things. It is to die. Even without the experience of standing before an irrevocably stopped and empty corpse, every cell in our body desires to live. Which brings us to the other fact of the central part of Mark's gospel which we are traversing in these few weeks: Three times he says he is deliberately going to the place where he will be handed over and killed. Might it just be that he had the imagination that death was not the end of life?  Could it be that these texts are not post crucifixion rationalisations by the gospel writer—   which would, by the way, make his whole book into a lie— could it be that these texts are the church's recollection of what Jesus said?

We are being challenged to trust no small thing, if this is what Jesus actually said and meant. This offer of the kingdom is much more weighty than a child's doll, but in the supermarket of life's ideas and idols, the choice is the same. We give ourselves to the promise and the role of being a disciple, or we don't.

Perhaps we will carry this promise very gingerly and carefully, and with a great deal of calculation. But what else can we do? When I apply that childlike obsessiveness my son inherits from me to the old testaments of life, all I can say is:  I don't believe them. And as I struggle not to divorce myself from relationships—   it would be so easy—   I catch glimpses of life in the sudden smiles of beating down people, and for a moment the New Testament works. So I will plod on past the dog food aisle to the end, always watching for the joy of small children, and wondering what this kingdom will be.

Andrew Prior (2018)

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!

Also on One Man's Web
Mark 10:2-16 –  In His Arms (2015)
Mark 10:2-16 – The Children and Divorce (2015)
Mark 10:2-16 – Keeping ourselves together (2012)
Mark 10:2-16 - Little Children and Hard Hearts (2012)
Mark 10:2-16 - The Powerless Child (2009)
Divorce (1992)




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