By the Reverend William Whitla
Genesis 2:18-24 Psalm 8 Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 Mark 10: 2-16
+In the name of God, Creator, Word and Spirit, Amen This is agony day for preachers everywhere that the revised common lectionary is used. I know you love me, but why give me this difficult lesson on Divorce. I bet a dollar to a doughnut that most preachers skip the bit about divorce and focus on receiving the Kingdom like a little child. Who could blame them. But one of the best principles about preaching is that you have to take on the tough bits of scripture –and why? Because those are the ones that people worry about, so the preacher should do so too.
So let’s take a closer look at Mark here. You will remember that when we were reading a week or two ago about the apostles’ arguing about who would be first in the kingdom, they were really arguing about what they thought the kingdom was about–social power and prestige, and place and privilege. Jesus was teaching the opposite—the first are to be the last, and the least in the community are to be the first. And here in this reading for today there are two instances of it.
First of all, Mark sets up the stories about marriage and divorce and children entering the kingdom as part of a confrontation with the Pharisees about how to understand and interpret the book of Genesis and Deuteronomy about marriage and divorce. This, of course, was the specialty of the Pharisees. They knew that God said, through the first book of the Bible, that the man and the woman would become one flesh. But also in the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, that Jesus and the Pharisees held to be also written by Moses, is this passage Deut. 24:1: “When a man has taken a wife and married her, and it comes about that she finds no favour in his eyes, because he has found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it to her and send her out of his house. 2. And when she is departed from his house, she may go and become another man’s wife”
By eliciting this response to the Deuteronomy allowance for divorce, Jesus is having the apostles to something remarkable—he is having them use scripture to contradict scripture—one flesh in Genesis, allowing divorce in Deuteronomy. Then a hard saying —when Jesus refers to the Pharisees’ “hardness of heart” it is really the Pharisees’ fixed mind-set in the patriarchal reality of the social world they all lived in that he is condemning. Instead Jesus quotes Genesis back to them. Marriage brought a man honour; divorce brought a man dishonour. Therefore allow it for the man and blame the woman. The Pharisees’ hardness of heart, if we look at it closely, is because they are appealing to a completely patriarchal reason for divorce—it is the man who has the power, and the woman is dismissed as both the cause of the divorce and the one banished from the household. So what is being attacked is the inequality of the husband and wife, whereas in Genesis that Jesus refers to, they are absolutely equal —one flesh. As Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza says, “Jesus insists [that] God did not intend patriarchy but created persons as male and female human beings. It is not woman who is given into the power of man in order to continue ‘his’ house and family line, but it is man who shall sever connections with his own patriarchal family and ‘the two persons shall become one flesh . . . into a common human life and social relationship because they are created as equals” (In Memory of Her, 1985, 145).
It is that that Jesus explains to the Disciples when they are alone again. He is still teaching them that they are not to be rivals about who shall be first, and dismiss those who are supposedly the last. So in terms of the family, one pattern is the community that he has been calling “the kingdom” —a community of equals. It is precisely this that the Apostles are struggling with when they become rivals about who should be the first at the kingdom and sit in the best seats at the messianic banquet. Instead, Jesus is here favouring the woman, bringing the woman into the family community, making her the equal to the man, and using the idea of challenging scripture with scripture —and the lesson of Genesis is that in the family or the community, all are equal. So the divorcing of a wife by the man is the conferring of less than equality on her. Jesus’ repetition of the Genesis assertion that the union of the man and the woman becomes one flesh, then, is part of an argument with the Pharisees and the Disciples about equality between men and woman, and it is a distortion to assert that it is a an absolute prohibition about the divorce. Instead Mark is showing how Jesus is arguing that the debate with the Pharisees and their use of patriarchy to allow for a man to divorce a woman drives a wedge between the unity and equality and reciprocity that should characterize all relationships in the community, and especially in marriage. I hope that we can see that here.
And just in case the readers of Mark didn’t get it, Mark describes Jesus moving to another group of outsider besides women —and that is children. Most preachers settling on this lesson, as Ched Myers remarks, avoid the divorce / equality debate passing with relief to the blessing of children: Such preachers make “passing tributes to the happy innocence of childhood, or appeals to the ‘child within,’ or ‘Jesus’ love for little children’” (Binding the Strong Man, 267). This second story in our reading is also about the first and the last, about people bringing little children to him that he might touch them. This is almost unthinkable in Jesus’ world in Palestine. The Disciples again fall into the conventional social attitudes—speaking sternly to the people—telling them not to bring their children —why? Because children do not count. Children were just not seen but not heard either. They were in fact, “non-persons.” And, indeed, in this story they are on the outside —they are on the periphery, they are on the margins, they are the marginalized people, but, as Mark says at the end of chapter 9 (9:36), Jesus took a child and set it “in the midst” that is, in the centre.
What could be clearer? From the margins to the centre. And even more—Not only is the child taken from the margins to the centre, but here Mark says that Jesus picked the children up in his arms, (it’s a rather rare use in the New Testament—but it’s used by Luke when Mary is presenting the baby Jesus in the Temple, and the aged Simeon takes him up in his arms and blesses God –Lord, now let you servant depart in peace) —but here, instead of blessing God, Jesus blesses the children themselves—and the verb (εὐλογέω: eulogeo) means to hallow or consecrate (the source of the English word Eulogy) —but not just once, it is a kind of progressive verb—Jesus is blessing and keeps on blessing and blessing them.
Now we have just had the first of the national days for Truth and Reconciliation. And if ever there is an occasion for bringing the child—especially the child and, indeed, all of the many, many children from the Residential Schools from the margins to the centre, from abuse into our arms, from no names and burial in unmarked graves into hearts and homes of descendants, from lost language and culture into blessing, now is the time. If ever there is a lesson from that conflict with the Pharisees about forgetting the dominancy of patriarchy in favour of equality, in moving from our settler mentality to reconciliation, it is now. If ever there is a movement from hatred of the Jews or the Samaritans to the neighbourliness and friendship and community-building and the kingdom of peace and love, it is a movement to join now with our brothers and sisters of every race and colour and religion.
This message has been long with us, and here we share it, in the commonest of gifts of bread and wine, elements of life to bring the gifts of life to each other. Here is this little kingdom of equality and love and peace, into which we are invited, and with hesitant steps, and faltering hands, but burning hearts, we reach out for the gifts for our journey. Amen.