Pentecost 19/Lectionary 27B, Mark 10:2-16
Today’s gospel reading does not give us any room to avoid saying something about marriage and divorce.
When asked by the religious leaders, the Pharisees, if it was lawful for a husband to divorce his wife, Mark reports that Jesus ultimately rooted his own teaching in what we heard in today’s first reading from the second creation story in the book of Genesis where it states that a man and a woman become one flesh in marriage.
Listen again to how Jesus puts it, paraphrasing Genesis, “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” Then Jesus in Mark adds this zinger by way of conclusion about divorce: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In short, don’t get divorced.
That teaching hits very close to home for me. I think most of you are aware that I am a divorced man. The dissolution of our marriage, which we undertook carefully, in conversation with spiritual and psychological counselors and with our respective bishops and families, was what we discerned was the best course of action for us. It was an amicable separation that continues to allow for effective teamwork in the parenting of our son.
However, that said, the reality of our divorce weighs heavily on me to this day. In fact, there is not a day that passes that I do not feel the burden of the decision that we made, especially as it pertains to the added complexities of my trying to be a faithful father to our child.
My own particular expressions of human brokenness and sin fall heavily on my shoulders.
But when it comes to Jesus’ challenging teachings, there is not one of us in this room, or in any Christian or mortal assembly anywhere, that can escape the full weight of the divine law and its claims on us.
For several weeks earlier this year our Monday evening Zoom Bible Study engaged the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus’ teachings are relentless and leave no one off the hook.
Just to give an example, listen to this one from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22) And it goes on and on like that for several chapters. The weight of the Law falls heavily on each one of us in our own ways according to our particular sins of commission and sins of omission.
Because of the difficult teachings of Jesus recorded in the gospels, I am so very glad that today’s gospel reading does not end with Jesus’ subsequent teaching that divorced people who remarry commit adultery!
Thanks be to God that the scholars who put together our lectionary readings included the verses about people bringing their children to Jesus so that Jesus might bless the children by laying his hands on them.
In the spirit of “children should be seen and not heard,” and assuming that children are at the bottom of the totem pole and the end of the line, the disciples spoke sternly to the people who were bringing their kids to Jesus.
The good news is that Jesus was indignant about the disciples’ seeking sternly to turn the people and kids away. I am heartened that Jesus’ indignation can ultimately be a source of good news for us, of gospel and not just law!
Here again is what Jesus had to say: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the dominion of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the dominion of God as a little child will not enter it.” Then Jesus took the little children “up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
At first glance, that only little children can receive the dominion of God seems like a proof text for our practice of infant baptism. But, of course, we cannot leave it at that.
For us adults, metaphorically speaking, what might it mean for us to receive and enter the dominion of God as little children? What might it mean for the dominion of God to belong to little children? What’s so significant about being a little child? Or being like a little child?
A couple of Sundays ago we first saw Jesus in Mark extol the virtues of a little child. Today we have an opportunity to go deeper.
Little children are:
- Largely helpless on their own. They are radically dependent and need the loving care of parental others.
- Immensely receptive, sponge-like in their capacities to learn loads of new information with innate curiosity. The German phrase that Luther uses in the Small Catechism, that is usually translated “what does this mean?” is was ist das? This German phrase is better understood as a child’s question, “what’s that?” – giving expression to the little child’s innate curiosity.
- Resilient and strong – I remember my amazement when I first held my son, Nathan, as a day-old infant and just how strong he was when he arched his back.
- Innocent, pure, uncomplicated, unburdened by decades of complexities and layers of things we adults add to situations, relationships, circumstances.
In short, when you add together all of their qualities, it seems to me that little children are quite capable of faith, of trust, in its most elemental and primal and visceral forms.
That is to say, Jesus teaches in Mark that to receive and enter into the dominion of God, faith, conceived as trust, is prerequisite, and little children are well poised for faith, to be trusting. It’s in their nature. And all of the qualities I listed about what it is to be child-like serve the ultimate end of faith, of trust.
Faith makes for the open door for our entry into God’s dominion, God’s reign. Or as we Lutherans are fond of saying, we are justified, made fit for entry into God’s dominion, by God’s grace as a gift, effective through faith. In short, it’s justification by faith.
Thus, adults are called upon to confess that when it comes to God and things divine, we never escape being little children. We are invited to acknowledge this reality in greater humility. We do well to allow the carefully constructed façades of adulthood be stripped away that we might become more child-like.
In fact, the process of growing older does a lot of that stripping away for us as we return more and more to child-like status. In my late father’s last years, when Alzheimer’s disease robbed him of vitality and capacities, he became more and more child-like, even to the point of enjoying the company of a stuffed animal whom he named “Buddy.” I saw this as charming, and not a cause for pathos, as dad was giving expression to the child-like qualities that make for receptivity to the dominion of God.
But even in years of health and vitality, Jesus, recorded in Mark, invites us to claim our status as little children in the eyes of God.
Again, I am much relieved that these grace-full verses about receiving the dominion of God in child-like faith follow immediately on the heels of the devastating-to-me- law-filled teaching about divorce. In acknowledging honestly my sin-stained frailty, I am freed by mercy to claim my radical dependence on God and God’s forgiveness and grace.
But there’s additional good news in today’s readings. The author of Hebrews, in our second reading, extols the virtues of Jesus Christ in language that sounds both like a hymn and a creed. “We do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2:9)
Then the author concludes: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” (Hebrews 2:10)
And here’s the wonderful, life-saving kicker: “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…” (Hebrews 2:11b) Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. Jesus is not ashamed to call us siblings.
Because Jesus is not ashamed of us – as divorcees, as sinners of all manner of other stripes – we are freed from being ashamed of ourselves, shamelessness being another quality of little children!
In Christ’s shamelessness for us we can claim without shame our own child-like dependencies and ultimately child-like faith in all humility, honesty, simplicity, and more.
What a healing gift for our shamed and shameful world, that we are able in Christ and by his Spirit, to engage each other in renewed child-like simplicity, receptivity, trust. Communities marked by such child-like qualities are leaven in the loaf of our wider society, inviting others also to rediscover their child-like qualities that soften the edges of our cruel, adult world. Maybe then we can finally learn how to play nicely together as all God’s children.
So, when you come forward to receive with thanks the Eucharistic gifts in bread and wine, Jesus’ very self, I invite you to imagine you’re being fed by our Mother Christ, as the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, would put it, appropriately, faithfully, offering female, matronly images for Christ. Claim the orality of receiving into yourself the sacred bread and wine as an adult version of the child at the mother’s breast to receive all the nourishment needed for growth and flourishing. Imagine yourself cradled in Christ’s loving arms with his hands laid on you in blessing.
And when you leave this room and pass the water-filled font, remember that this vessel with its water is the womb that gives us all birth as God’s children. And with that awareness go back into the world in renewed child-like faith to be leaven for the healing and thriving of all of God’s children. Amen.