Scots Church Adelaide
The powerless 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.

Jesus discussion on divorce begins because the Pharisees bring a topic of dissension to try and trap him. Teaching on divorce was what lead to John the Baptist's death, so the topic had potential to be very dangerous. (HT John Petty. ) John points out that the story is set in Herod's territory.

Jesus deflects the trap by talking about marriage and sexuality, instead of divorce as such. In other words, he says the real issue is marriage and sexuality, not divorce, and essentially defeats the trap. Divorce is always a failure of the ideal; in biblical language, hardness of heart is a damning criticism. It is no accident that Jesus asked the Pharisees what Moses had taught them. As Petty points out, the sentence laid upon the Pharaoh from whom Moses escaped was hardness of heart.

Since last week's conversation also concerns power and sexuality, we may see the continuation of a theme. Becoming married and becoming one flesh is given by God, and so a blessing by definition. Jesus alludes to the Genesis creation story, where God saw all (he) had done, and it was good.

I've preached about Jesus words on divorce as a protection of women, for whom divorce often meant poverty in Jesus day. I have concentrated on the power aspect of divorce. You can see one such sermon at One Man's Web.

In that sermon, in a situation where I knew some people were unhappy about some relationship break downs "close to the congregation," I said

By Jesus standard, many marriages, are really only legal contracts under the law of the land, which fall far short of the covenant relationship of marriage. In some relationships there may never have been a marriage by Jesus' standards. And to the woman who at last escapes, while we sometimes condemn her, he may be saying, "My sister, welcome to freedom." and "God bless you for leading your children out of slavery."

In this understanding, Jesus limits the arbitrary power of men to divorce their wives into poverty. A good summary exegesis of Mark can be found by John Petty this week.

 

I read John's commentary each week, and that of Bill Loader, as a kind of touchstone and check to my own thinking. Bill says this week

 

It is common to soften the blow which these texts have in modern times by painting Jesus as concerned here with the abuse of women and the plight into which they would be forced by divorce. This may be so, but it may also be reading in something which is not the primary concern. In our passage women's plight is not given as the rationale, but rather a belief about sexual union. If women's plight were really the focus then it is hard to understand why remarriage of (at least ‘non guilty') divorced women (or men) is forbidden. The most we can say is that Jesus' positive regard for all people, especially the oppressed, could easily have led him to attack cheap divorce, but this is not the focus of what we have.

If you read Bill's article, you will see that after the quote above he then still notes the reality of divorce, even in the New Testament (allowed in Matthew 5:31; 19:5 and by Paul 1 Cor 7:10-16). We could say he recognises the emphasis that "Jesus invokes God's intention in creation which is that relationships be equal and unbroken," as John puts it, before dealing with the issue of divorce.

By contrast, John, I tend to arrive at the "intention in creation;" ie, "one flesh" after recognising the reality of divorce. (My apologies to John and Bill if I misrepresent them.)

The direction from which we come to the text will teach us something about what we are likely to ignore, and what we are likely to emphasise, as we think about its meaning. We should become aware of our own bias.

We do not live in an age that takes the notion that sexual relations make us one flesh as seriously as previous generations. It is tempting to relate the sexual stuff to ‘old fashioned morality,' and perhaps underestimate how much of the pain in relationship break ups might relate to 'tearing apart' the one flesh. We will likely find large differences in understaning between the generations in our congregations on this point.

It is surely important to hear Jesus say "and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." It is just as important to consider "the order of marriage was made for people, not people for the order of marriage." (Quoting Loader, op. cit.)

Jesus affection for children seems unremarkable to us. We consequently trivialise it. A comment by David Taylor highlights just how remarkable his attitude was.

The only point Jesus seems to be making... is that children are loveable just for themselves... it is hard to think of anyone else in antiquity, whether Christian or pagan, who is on record as having felt the same way. Our own view is no older than the 18th century... (Mark's Gospel as Literature and History pp243)

How we Westerners miss the impact of this! It is almost unthinkable that we would give up a child to a childless aunt; families did it only a generation or two ago. It is an effort, now, not to condemn the man I knew as a child, who placed his children in an orphanage after the death of his wife. It was the sensible thing to do only fifty years ago, and although the situation was sad, it was unremarkable to us.

When we put the way we treat children in church, and in society, against Jesus words, we often fall far short. ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

However, although Jesus is undeniably presented as liking children, I think Taylor misses something. Jesus deliberately chooses children, who were least of the least, lowest in the pecking order- indeed outside the pecking order- to make a very clear point about following him, and being part of the kingdom.

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.' 10:15

This is not about being childish. It is not about being childlike and uncritical in our faith.

Balz and Schneider say

...in a paradoxical provocation... Jesus makes use of the "requirements for entry' of the Judaism of his day. In which certain rewards were granted for ertain acts. ... Where the mention of a law fulfilling act was mentioned, [to allow entrance to the Kingdom,] Jesus names instead a child, a person who was not able to fulfil the law. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, vol 3 p4, Ed Balz and Schneider, (Eerdmans).

We can only enter the kingdom, says Jesus, like a child. We can only enter the kingdom by being without privilege, without status, and with no claim to any rank.

This saying connects this pericope about children to that of Mark 9:33-37. (Commentary here.) The surface text is uncompromisingly Markan-Jesus in its condemnation of the misuse of power. It removes hierarchy from any place in the church.

There is also a sub-text about sexual abuse through this section of Mark.

As I wrote to a friend today

...the whole issue of child sex abuse is quite live here in Oz where we are in a panic- and fearful- about touching children. (One state government just passed legislation to allow them to force a convicted (and now released) pedophile to shift house.)

In my congregation it is an interesting issue, as we have Sudanese families where the children who grew up in refugee camps, freely hug adult friends in the congregation. They would be hurt by refusal of these hugs. These same adults work in situations where physical contact with children is actively discouraged. You can see where my interest comes from!

We Aussies tend to take an issue and make it the place to put all our sins and guilt. 20 years ago we all dumped on Lindy Chamberlain, now it is child abusers we blame for all that it wrong in the world. (There has been plenty of abuse in the church, too.) We have so demonised pedophiles and other child abusers in this country (I do not excuse this behaviour in any way) that we are now hugely afraid of being seen as abusive. Some teachers faced with with hurt and crying children withhold basic compassion, out of fear.

The readings about children in Mark 9 and 10 stand for us as a kind of foil to all this. On the one hand in chapter 9 there is a serious serious condemnation of abuse. Yet in 10 we see compassion despite the reigning fear of being close to children.

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.

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