Again with the Children!
The “divorce text” in the Markan composition can drive sensitive preachers in directions we would rather not go. This text sometimes made me glad for the annual fall “Stewardship Emphasis” in the congregation because I could have an excuse for selecting an alternate text for the day. While I never minded preaching on money, it was not my favorite thing. But it was a topic far preferable to tackling the first third of Mark 10.
Yet here it is. I agree with Karoline Lewis, among others, that if we read Mark 10:1-16 in worship, we must preach on it. If we’re not going to preach on the text, then we shouldn’t read it. The text has far too much pain and pathos, too much shame and shuddering, too much rage and regret to allow it to hang in the air without comment. This is one of those Markan texts that will occupy the attention of the hearers, whether I choose to preach on it or not.
I will get to the compelling issues of the text itself this week. But first, it’s important to set it in the proper context. We can use the text as a platform for our favorite riffs on relationships, scriptural interpretation, and cultural realities. That will all be important. But I need to allow the text to be itself first, before I try to bend it to fit my proclivities and priorities.
The lectionary committee takes the text beyond the divorce debate and into the second child encounter in the Markan composition (Mark 10:13-16). As I have noted before, the Composer uses doublings and even triplings of themes in order to frame conversations and to emphasize specific points. The fact that we have a second encounter between Jesus and children in a short time is something that should command our attention as interpreters.
All the commentaries on the text in this week’s edition of the workingpreacher.org site are excellent and deserve concentrated study. Mark Vitalis-Hoffman notes a grammatical issue in our text that is worth some time.
He points out that the word for “child” in Mark 10:15 can be rendered either as a subject or an object. That is, we can translate Jesus’ words as receiving the Kin(g)dom of God as would a child. Or we can translate Jesus’ words as receiving the Kin(g)dom of God as we would receive a child.
The NRSV translation simply has “like a child.” That’s accurate and can be read in either way. It is certainly possible that this ambiguous construction is precisely what the Markan composer intends. But I don’t think that’s the case. Many of us interpret this phrase with the child as a subject. That makes it about receiving the in-breaking Reign of God as would a child. Given the earlier context (Mark 9:33-37), that doesn’t seem right either.
We should interpret the phrase as an object – welcome the in-breaking Reign of God as we would welcome a child. I refer you to my posts on loving “for nothing” in this regard. Vitalis-Hoffman notes that this reading “fits the immediate context better, and it serves as a clear reiteration of what Jesus said in 9:37.”
The NRSV translation of Mark 10:14b might seem to cut against this interpretation – “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” That’s a defensible translation, but all translation is interpretation, especially when the Greek is not particularly clear. The literal wording is something like, “for of such as these is the kingdom of God.” The text can, I think, be just as easily be translated to read, “for of such as these does the kingdom of God consist.”
Again, the text reflects the twin reading in Mark 9. The Kin(g)dom of God is not a utility for our convenience or a resource for our use. God creates for the sheer love of Creation, not for what God can get. God is the Giver, never the Taker. All of us are “children” in that Creation. God loves us “for nothing.” And we are most fully like God when we love others in the same selfless, unconditional way.
I don’t know if one needs to include all this technical detail in a sermon. I suspect not. But as preachers we need to be aware of how the composition actually works and why. At the very least, I hope you have alert listeners (as I have been blessed to have) who read the text closely and discern that what they thought they knew is not what they are hearing from the pulpit. When that happens, it’s good to be ready with the goods.
Why does this matter? This means that the “divorce text” is framed by this concern for those who are vulnerable and un-valued, those who are subject to the power and whims of others, those who are regarded as barely human and of the same honor status as slaves. Remember that the Greek word paidios can be translated as either “child” or “slave.” Children were valued only when they could provide some utility and not before.
When we read and interpret the divorce text, this is where we ought to begin. Human beings are not created in order to serve as objects of convenience for one another. That is the case whatever the age, gender, class, status, power, color, or orientation. In the beginning, human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. Thus, every person is intrinsically valuable regardless of the perceived utility that person can produce.
I would argue, for example, that the “hardness of heart” Jesus identifies in Mark 10:5 can be described precisely along these lines. God’s desire is for all human beings to be regarded as the Divine image and likeness. Sin warps that desire in us so that we regard others (both human and non-human, by the way) as means to our ends. Therefore, the law is necessary to curb and critique such treatment.
The connections between Mark 10:13-16 and Mark 9 continue. In Mark 10:14, Jesus tells the disciples not to “stop” the children from coming to him. This is the same verb as we find in Mark 9:38-39. The disciples confront the unnamed exorcist and try to “stop” him. Jesus tells them, using the same words, not to “stop” him. The benefit of the doubt goes to the outsider, the child, the vulnerable, the powerless – not to those who seek to control Reality rather than to welcome it.
The disciples have it all backwards. As parents bring their children to Jesus for a blessing, the disciples “rebuke” them. This is the word that describes how Jesus treats demons before casting them out. It is also the word that describes the interchange between Peter and Jesus in Mark 8. It is also the verb people use in trying to keep Bartimaeus quiet in Mark 10:48.
“Get those little devils away from Jesus,” the disciples say. This really pisses Jesus off (I think that would be an acceptable translation of the Markan composition at this point). Throughout this section of the composition, the tug of war is between those who want to be greater and those who are vulnerable.
Jesus hugs the vulnerable, blesses them, draws them close. He is outraged by those who put power ahead of people. He critiques a system that makes the “lesser” objects of convenience for the “greater.” That system is not something that needs to be tweaked around the edges. This is what the Pharisees seek to do with the divorce law. That system is a sign of the power of sin, put in place to restrain the worst human tendencies – not to enhance what God desires.
What comes after our lectionary reading, therefore, matters as well. We have one of the “greater ones” who is beginning to see that so-called “greatness” is not so great. The rich man comes to Jesus with a question about the meaning and nature of his life. Jesus loves him for the question, as we will see next week. But relinquishing the basis of his “greatness” is a bridge too far for the man. He cannot receive the Kin(g)dom of God and goes away distressed.
Then the disciples return to the “greater than” game. They still don’t get it. Jesus instructs them once more. Then the Markan composer gives us the living parable named Bartimaeus. Those around him want to “stop” him, but Jesus isn’t having it. The blind can now see, and the seeing are now blind. That’s the status of both the disciples and the religious leaders as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
It is clear to me that the Markan composer wants us to read the divorce text in this framework. “As we should expect,” writes Vitalis-Hoffman, “God’s commands are not arbitrary but have a principle that motivates them. In a patriarchal Jewish society where only husbands had the prerogative of divorcing their wives,” he continues, “a prohibition of divorce provided a safeguard for women who could be left seriously disadvantaged after a divorce.”
This framing of the text does not make preaching on the text any easier. But at least we might be more accurate in our interpretation. And there is some chance that this Gospel reading contains some good news – at least for those without the power in a relationship.
References and Resources