In his arms!
Reflections on the Gospel: Mark 10:2-16
I laughed when my minister asked how we would manage our relationship with our parents once we were married. "Mate! Not an issue. We live 1200km away." I soon found our parents were living right there with us. It took a while longer, but I discovered some of my grandparents' issues pushing their way into our relationship. When we arrived at the first congregation I served, my wife was held responsible for the faults, real or imagined, of previous clergy wives. Society loads us with its hopes, fears, and assumptions, when we marry. And then there are the folk who, without realising, seem to pin their hopes on us for some kind of validation in their own lives. They react with anger and condemnation that makes life even harder, if we don't make a success of our marriage; somehow our imperfection assaults them.
I adored the woman I married. But I had to learn that this person with whom I identified so closely, attracted me partly because she carried traits of character that I wished were mine. I looked for her to fulfil what I needed to be. I had to grow up, and find and grow into those things, instead of depending on her to complete my life. But mixed with those discoveries is the very real sense in which she does complete my life. We are friends and life companions; marriage is about these things.
I am still on the journey of discovering things I should be doing for myself. The issues of loss and disconnection, and of maintaining my identity if we were to part company, are intellectually and emotionally mind-boggling if I consider them. I don't know how I would cope with that! When friends divorce, it always frightens me.
When folk are divorced or remarried we often project such fears onto them. Sometimes those who feel unable to leave a relationship pour irrational anger upon those who have been able to leave. Or deeply grieving folk can be devastated by the relief of friends at their leaving a bad marriage. No one gets married with the intention of a divorce.
All this happens because if we are married it goes to the centre of who we are. In the creation stories there are sayings like: "it's not good for the human one to be alone," and "from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.'" (Genesis 2:18, Mark 10:6-8, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24). Such sayings reflect our ancient wisdom that being in relationship with others humanises us. It is not healthy to be cut off from others.
We who are married should remember that such humanising relationships don't require marriage, much less a piece of paper issued by the state. The married often act as though single folk are lesser beings. And act as though relationships that don't fit their norms are somehow inferior, or even wrong.
So what are we to make of the scripture in Mark 10 where Jesus talks about divorce?
Firstly, it was allowed. People knew things didn't work out. Deuteronomy 24 even presents us with a case of multiple divorce and remarriage! Divorce is not God's ideal, but it is how life sometimes turns out. I once said of a parishioner who was criticised for leaving a marriage that "when a woman is able to escape a marriage like that, Jesus says, 'Sister, welcome to freedom!'" I've met men to whom he has said the same.
Yet is clear Jesus did not like divorce, and especially did not approve of remarriage. He was stricter than the Old Testament in the latter.
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’ (Mark 10:11-12)
I've quoted this to highlight the amazing thing Mark does with the Jesus tradition when he is writing 30 to 40 years after Jesus' death. He does not hold us to this.
If we read the text closely, Jesus is not teaching about divorce. Why does divorce pop up here in the text? It's out of place, almost as if someone dropped a stack of index cards and put one back in the wrong order. If we read carefully, we will see they have slid it into the middle of conversation where Jesus is teaching about children!
• Mark 9:36-37 has Jesus take a child in his arms
• Mark 9:42 to the end of the chapter talks about care of "the little ones"— it's the same conversation
• And then in Mark 10:13-15 he is talking again about the children and, again, "takes them in his arms"
In the rhetorical style of Mark's time the repetition of taking them in his arms links 9:36 and 10:16 together. It is the way the author tells the listener or reader that the stuff in between is part of the one package to be read as a whole.
So why divorce? Am I wrong to claim there is one extended conversation about children? After all, in the middle of it, "he left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan." Yes, the geography changes, but it's still inside the conversation about children. This is the text saying to the reader, "The geography here is telling you something about this conversation about children!"
Let's start with the children as we continue to seek why a teaching about marriage and divorce was placed here.
The children are at the centre of Mark's key teaching based around the three predictions of Jesus' death. "These are the three signal teachings about the Messiah in the centre of Mark": they teach us what it means to be Messiah, what it means to follow the Messiah and, therefore, what it means to be church. If we don't understand these teachings, we don't understand Jesus very much at all.
And these three teachings are surrounded by (in Mark 8:22-26 and Mark 10:46-52) two stories of healing from blindness. The healings are the wrapping around the gift of seeing the kingdom clearly (Mark 8:25) and seeing what the kingdom means for our lives, and seeing what it means to be church. The children are at the centre of this gift. They are like a touchstone. They are the ones who show us whether we "see clearly," or whether we are still blind. (Mark 8:25)
What happens with the children?
• Jesus has twice taken the children in his arms and placed them at the centre of the community. (Mark 9:36-7, 10:16)
• The parents are bringing the children. (Mark 10:13-16)
• But the disciples are still rejecting the children. (Mark 10:13) They have not yet seen clearly. And the disciples are us
The change of location, while the children remain at the centre, is deliberate. Jesus is going outside the boundaries: he "went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan." (Mark 10:1) Judea signifies a speaking to the people of God, but the boundaries of who the people of God are, are being challenged, because by being beyond the Jordan, he is outside the boundaries of the Promised Land.
The Messiah has stepped outside the boundaries and alliances by which his people define themselves. The message is this: the Kingdom of God, which he has come proclaiming, has no boundaries, no walls.
Here's how it all comes together.
Jesus does not raise the issue of divorce, the Pharisees do. Maybe the Pharisees of Mark's time were saying Mark's church was too soft on people who were divorced. In any event, Mark's Jesus uses their complaint to highlight his concerns about the children.
The real issue is not divorce, but how we will respond to divorce, especially to the fears the divorce of others may raise in our own lives. And more importantly, the issue is how we respond to the children. The children of this week's reading are rejected by the disciples; ie, by the church. Do you see that, in the text, the children who are rejected are "next to divorce?"
Who are the children?
We can interpret the children of the central section of Mark like this:
The "little ones" are literally children, but also symbolise all the small and weak who have come into the church; the people who are not like us are the "little ones," too. Serving them means to listen to them, and to give them a voice. It means to make them an equal, which we who are strong can do only by being last of all and servant of all. If we do things John's way, and censure the folk who are using Jesus' name, who are loving like Jesus, healing like Jesus, and following Jesus, but not in the way John has approved— well, maybe we are putting a stumbling block in the way of God's little ones. It may be us who trips them up on their journey with God. (Andrew Prior, Pilgrim Church Newsletter 27-9-2015)
And then from the newsletter this week:
Jesus says we can only enter the kingdom of heaven as a little child. We talk (correctly) about childlike trust. But in the context of this reading, children are also the ones the disciples keep away from Jesus; that is, the ones who have failed, who are divorced, who don't meet some artificial criterion. Jesus says we can only enter the kingdom with the humility of these folk who have failed and fallen short. (Andrew Prior, Pilgrim Church Newsletter 4-10-2015)
What will the kingdom of God be like? Will it be a place of insiders and outsiders? Will the church be about boundaries and walls and defence of our faith and being? Or will the church be about highlighting the central graces of the faith, and shining a light on God's love?
The children, the little ones outside the boundaries, are the touchstone in all this. If our light shows there are people outside, people we are rejecting, then we have the wrong light. We are not the light shining on a hill but something less than that.
I say in the newsletter that
If we close our hearts to some people, if we restrict access to God to those who meet our legal requirements, if we build walls to exclude, if we form alliances against, if we pretend to be superior— all this closing and hardening of hearts will prevent us from being opened to the words and the love which would save us! And on the other side of the walls we have built, will be the ones we excluded, where Jesus will take them up in his arms, lay his hands on them, and bless them. But if we follow Jesus outside the boundaries and alliances by which our less than best selves so often exclude others, the blessing is also ours.
There is something wonderful here. Jesus elevates marriage even above the expectations of the Old Testament law. But then elevates the love of God for us even above that! As church we are forbidden— it would be better if a millstone were hung around our necks and we were thrown into the sea— we are forbidden to reject people, because Jesus did not reject them. He took the failed children of God and held them in his arms and blessed them. He holds us.