Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
Today’s Gospel reading is one of those most preachers would rather avoid because even with the best exegesis it is a difficult passage, especially with divorced members sure to be present in any congregation. The question of divorce was no less problematic in Jesus’s day, and it was for just this reason that the Pharisees wanted Jesus’s take: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
In asking this question the Pharisees were drawing Jesus into a major debate among the Pharisaical sects. On the one side was the Shammai school which believed that divorce was only permissible on moral grounds, primarily because of adultery by the woman. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, believed that a woman could be divorced for any reason, including poor cooking or if the man simply saw a woman who pleased him better. On either side, it was the woman who bore the fault and had little to no say in her own relationships. Men clearly had the power and women were left to fend for themselves.
Jesus’ answer is to avoid the schemes of either side, both of which were focused on license for male choice, power, and moral righteousness. Jesus turns them away from the realist provisions that assumed “hardness of heart” on the part of men, and instead turns their focus to the true purpose of marriage–a divinely ordained unity through which an individual joins in a wider circle of love and belonging. When it is okay to divorce or not is not the best starting place, in other words. What we should be concerned with is the purpose of marriage in the larger purpose of human life. With that purpose in view, Jesus helps continue the theme of his teachings on new relationships of power and reconciliation in the reign of God.
Where fault was placed solely on women, and power only in the hands of men, Jesus in his further teaching to his disciples creates a place for equal power and blame. But the purpose here is not simply the achievement of equality, but rather of renewed relationships within the reconciling realities of God’s kingdom.
It is no accident, then, that Mark moves next to an encounter with children who were certainly those of little to no account in the culture of first century Palestine. The reaction of the disciples seems to be automatic, reflecting their deep seated values. But Jesus responds swiftly to say that no one should hinder the children, adding that it is actually impossible to enter God’s kingdom unless we become like children.
Like the Gospel lessons that have led up to this, Jesus is teaching his disciples that God’s kingdom involves a revaluation through which the old standards and relationships must be refigured–the leader is the servant, the last is first, the “little ones” are not to be hindered, women are to be members in the unity of marriage rather than the property of men, children are to be welcomed and imitated by all those who want to become disciples.
One cannot read these lessons without thinking of the news, particularly the relationship of women to men in power. The patterns we see being played out in headlines are age-old, and Jesus’s answer to those realities still stands. What Jesus offers in answer to such hardness of heart and postures of power is humility–that is the virtue behind today’s Gospel and his teachings all along the journey he is now on toward Jerusalem. “Humility,” as Fr. Nivard Kinsella defines it, “is nothing more or less than the attitude of the creature in the presence of his Creator, and the way of acting which results from such an attitude” (Quoted in Jack Bernard, How to Become a Saint, p. 37).
There is much to explore from this link in the various possibilities for both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Epistle reading. Whether the preacher is working with Job, Genesis, or Hebrews–each speaks in various ways of creatures who derive their meaning, value, and purpose from a God we do not master. Humility, becoming like a child, is the path through which we come to live into the truth of who we are away from all of the fantasies of our mores, customs, and cultural values. Humility is the path through which we return to our truth as human beings and for Jesus it is the path toward the cross. This Sunday’s Gospel, then, represents an opportunity to depart from conversations around what the late Dallas Willard called, “sin management” to instead explore our true reality as human creatures who live our every breath as a gift of God.