Looking South East from Hilltop Farm, Gladstone South Australia

The Children and Divorce

Week of Sunday October 4 – 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. 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 location has changed, but the context has stayed the same: the context is the children.

The children are at the centre of the central teaching in Mark 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, and what it means to follow the Messiah and, therefore, what it means to be church. In Mark 8:22-26 and Mark 10:46-52 there are two healings from blindness. They are like the wrapping around the gift of seeing the kingdom clearly and what it means for our lives, and what it means to be church. The children are at the centre of this gift. The children are like a touchstone. They are the ones who show us whether we "see clearly," or whether we are still blind. (Mark 8:25)  

Jesus has taken the children in his arms and placed them at the centre. (Mark 9:36-7, 10:16)  The parents are bringing the children.  (Mark 10:13-16) The disciples are still rejecting the children. They have not yet seen.

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 are being challenged because he is outside the boundaries of the Promised Land. Robert Hammerton-Kelly said

The pericope about divorce (10:1-12) begins by locating Jesus in the same place where he was baptized by John and driven out into the wilderness by the spirit. He is in Judea beyond the Jordan and he is tempted again (peirazontes, 10:2; cf. 1:13; 8:11; 12:15), this time by the Pharisees.

David Lose says

…Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and his road takes him beyond the usual boundaries so that he may bring the gospel to all people. We also know that when Jesus gets to Jerusalem, he himself will be dismissed, put away, and taken beyond the boundaries of the city to be hung on a cross in the middle of a garbage heap. All this he endures in order to witness most fully and profoundly to God's abundant mercy, steadfast love, and amazing grace for all people, regardless of their condition.

D. Mark Davis says

Looking at how Mark uses the verb ἐπερωτάω, which could simply mean “to ask” [Mark 10:2] but also carries the connotation of a challenge, I have translated it as “interrogate.” Because it is Mark’s word for confrontational conversations – Jesus and demons, Pharisees and Scribe and Jesus, etc

We are located, in this central section of Mark, in a place of confrontation and a place of resetting of boundaries. We are being tested. Will we pass the test, or are we still blind to the questions?

•••

David Lose says

… a generation or two ago, we would have looked to this passage for instruction about whether or under what circumstances we can welcome persons who were divorced into our congregations, while today we seek counsel about what constitutes marriage itself.

This is a wise observation. Attitudes to marriage, in particular same gender marriage, have become the touchstone of the day for orthodoxy. Vehemence over abortion by Christian brothers and sisters in some sections of the church has faded from my social media feeds, as their fear and anger about "gay marriage" has risen. In Mark 10, marriage and divorce are being used by the Pharisees as a measure of Jesus' orthodoxy, and he is clearly located outside their boundaries of acceptability. Will we follow him?

At its best orthodoxy is our attempt to highlight the central graces of our faith. Orthodoxy gone wrong draws up boundary doctrines as a defence mechanism to protect our identity, and to ward off our fears. Orthodoxy's boundaries are not dead stone. They reflect the live issues of their time, and provide us with a map of our fears.

Disputes over "marriage"— what marriage is changes constantly— are almost tailor made for impassioned defences by orthodoxy gone bad, for the community which marriage should epitomise is at the centre of our humanity. This is reflected in Jesus' two quotations from the traditions of Genesis: "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.'" (Mark 10:6-8, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24) As Genesis says, "it is not good that the human should be alone." (Genesis 2:18)

Using these statements as defence rather than celebrating them as gifts of grace throws up the boundaries. Single folk so often report being made to feel less, or incomplete, compared to those who are married. Lose reports the "parishioner [who said] that hearing this passage read in church felt like having someone dump garbage all over her. It didn't matter if she'd cleaned up and put on her Sunday best for church that morning, because after hearing these words she felt like she couldn't get rid of the stink of her divorce."

Good marriage is but one kind of the deep community that can go a long way to completing us as human beings. What is central in this is not the legal fact of marriage, but the community of love, which does not require marriage, however much a marriage may enable it.

For those who are married the emotional threats of divorce— even of other couples' divorce— can be very high. Divorce arouses our fears. I adored the woman I married. Her costly discipleship inspired me. Her gentleness healed me. She was beautiful. But I had to learn that this person with whom I identified so closely, attracted me because she carried traits of character that I wished were mine. I looked for her to fulfil what I needed to do myself. I had to grow up, and find and grow into those things. I am still on that journey, and the issues of loss and disconnection, and of maintaining my identity if we were to part company, are intellectually and emotionally mind-boggling. I don't know how I would cope with that! When friends divorce, it always frightens me.

Yet I have friends, women and men, to whom I cannot imagine Jesus saying anything other than, "Welcome to freedom!" when they were finally able to leave a bad marriage.

•••

The test— the measure of our discipleship— is not divorce. Divorce was allowed. Moses' law clearly knew the experience of multiple divorces:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2and goes off to become another man’s wife. 3Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house… (Deuteronomy 24:1-3)

Mark 10:10 says, "Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter." The phrase "in the house" reflects the locus of the house church. It tells us that divorce was a live issue for the disciples of Marks' time. It was not ideal or desired— "what God has joined together, let no one separate— but it was happening.

The question is not divorce, but how we will respond, especially to our fear. The children of this week's reading are rejected. The disciples "sternly" clamped down on allowing the children to belong and be brought to Jesus.

Karoline Lewis says

… people bring children to Jesus, an act the disciples try desperately to curtail. To what extent is the question "to whom does the Kingdom of God belong" (10:14) at the heart of the test posed by the Pharisees? Is the issue at stake less about divorce and symptomatic of the larger subject of vulnerability?

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)

The test was not divorce but what the kingdom of God will be like. Will it be a place of insiders and outsiders? Will doctrine be about boundaries and walls and defence of our faith and being? Or will orthodoxy 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.

Bad orthodoxy thinks it needs to keep the faith safe—to save its life— and therefore we must have boundaries to exclude those who would corrupt us and destroy us. The doctrine of grace knows its task is to die to itself, to serve, to give, to receive the outsider, because "it is to such as these"—the children—"that the kingdom of God belongs." And if I will not be "as a little child," knowing that I have no more right to be the subject of God's love than every other person who necessarily falls short of what God hopes for our lives, I will not enter the kingdom. I will not know it. The same hardness of my heart that rejects you, will close me off from receiving the blessings of the kingdom. Jesus took the rejected ones "in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them."

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!

Kathy Donley 28-09-2015
Andrew, I'm preaching on the two children pericopes together this Sunday. I REALLY appreciate the idea that the location has changed but the context stayed the same. I need to re-read this several times, but I already know that it is rich. I'm not dealing with the divorce section of the text, but I also found what you said about that to be very helpful.

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