Text Study for Mark 10:1-16 (Pt. 6); October 3, 2021

The Best Interests of the Child

The legislative basis for parenting plan mediation and practice in Nebraska is found in Chapter 43 of the Nebraska Laws. The Nebraska Legislature holds that “it is in the best interests of a child that a parenting plan be developed in any proceeding under Chapter 42 involving custody, parenting time, visitation, or other access with a child and that the parenting plan establish specific individual responsibility for performing such parenting functions as are necessary and appropriate for the care and healthy development of each child affected by the parenting plan.”

This language created a boom in parenting plan work for attorneys and mediators in the state. The work has a clear legislative standard for evaluation. “The best interests of each child shall be paramount and consideration shall be given to the desires and wishes of the child if of an age of comprehension regardless of chronological age, when such desires and wishes are based on sound reasoning.” Reference to the “best interests” of a child or the child are found seven times in these four paragraphs.

Photo by Rebecca Zaal on Pexels.com

It is hard to overestimate, in my experience, the power of this phrase and concept. When parents could stay focused on this standard in their negotiations regarding the details of a parenting plan, the results were uniformly good, and the process proceeded as smoothly as one could hope. When parents were distracted by their own interests, by their desires for revenge and punishment, by their own fears and frustrations, then the children suffered, and the plan was not all it could have been.

“The best interests of the child” is the guiding star and gold standard in such conversations. When that was the goal, everyone benefitted. When that was not the goal, everyone suffered.

It would seem that Jesus proposes something like this in the Markan composition. “Permit the children to come to me; don’t stop them, for of such as these is the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14, my translation). If it’s good for the children, Jesus says, it’s good for all of us. If a system or a perspective damages or rejects the children, then it’s not good for any of us. “Truly I say to you, whoever does not welcome the Kingdom of God as one would welcome a child, that one will certainly not enter it” (Mark 10:15, my translation).

Contemporary culture idealizes and even idolizes the image of the Child. People make lots of money feeding, clothing, entertaining, managing, educating, and medicating children. At least that’s true of the children of privilege in our culture. There is simply no conceivable limit to the number and quality of resources lavished on the “golden children” in America, most of whom happen to be White. Our culture seeks the “best interests” of those children, often at the expense of any and all others.

The discrepancy in childhood experiences and expectations varies, of course, with our zip codes. The differences in school funding between White suburbia and other neighborhoods is stunning. The access to quality education, decent and affordable health care, reliable transportation, quality and available housing, clean drinking water, fresh fruit and vegetables, full-service grocery stores, enrichment activities, entertainment opportunities, broadband internet service, and a host of other goods is strictly determined by the geography of color.

The best interests of some children matter. The best interests of other children do not.

How we have treated children of immigrants and children as immigrants is another sign that we do not hew to the standard of the best interests of the children. Stories of squalid detention centers, family separation, sexual and physical abuse, forced foster care, and other nightmares are regular parts of the current immigration story. Brown children clearly matter less to us than White children, no matter what we might protest to the contrary.

We continue to read reports of the horrific discovery of Indigenous children’s remains on the grounds of former Native schools in Canada. It is virtually certain that similar stories will be part of the reports being compiled on such schools in the United States as well. When those schools were in their heyday, the standard that defined the “best interests of the children” was to “kill the Indian in order to save the man.” Too often, that standard stopped at the first half of the sentence – killing the Indian.

The recent abduction and murder of Gabby Petito has raised concerns about the differential responses to missing White people and missing Indigenous people. Children of color who go missing simply do not receive the media attention or public resources that are poured into the location and potential rescue of missing White children. This is not alarmism. This differential has been documented repeatedly, both in the United States and Canada. Again, the best interests of some children are served, but not all.

We should not forget the high number of Black boys, under the age of sixteen, who have been murdered during police proceedings. Part of the White bias is to see these boys as older than they are and as much greater threats than would be perceived if they were White. When these murders happen, the White system closes ranks and ensures that the blame, if at all possible, falls on the child who is now dead rather than on White officers and a system that killed them.

The ways in which we welcome many children in our contemporary culture cannot be a model for how we should welcome the Kin(g)dom of God among us. That means that Christians should find themselves in a position of critiquing and resisting that systemic lack of welcome and care. Instead, the Church has been egregiously involved in the racism of valuing White children above all others. The Church ran most of the Indigenous schools now under investigation. Parts of the Church support the horrific treatment of immigrant children at our southern borders.

It is fair to say that the Church has also been at the forefront of efforts to work for the best interests of all children, especially in some of our social service and relief agencies. We ELCA folks can feel good about our efforts to serve children of all origins, our work on immigration and migration issues, our advocacy efforts on behalf of the vulnerable, our massive efforts to serve with and on behalf of the developmentally disabled. It is certainly not all bad news by any means.

But we tend to be a bit over-literal in how we apply this standard of care. Jesus embraces children for the sake of the children. But it should be clear from the text that he intends this embrace to symbolize his embrace of all the vulnerable members of Creation. “Using the child as a metaphor,” Zoro Dube writes, “Jesus challenged the hegemonic social boundaries and established a new system based on love, hospitality, and care for the marginalized” (page 2). Dube argues that the child in both Mark 9 and Mark 10 “can arguably be understood as representing the homeless and landless” in first century Palestine (page 5).

It may be that the economic pressures of Roman expropriation of land in Galilee caused families to break apart and marriages to disintegrate. Divorce, in that context, “shattered kinship ties and made people, especially children, vulnerable” (page 5). The Markan composer may be using Jesus’ words to address the difficult situations of the listeners. “The Markan story might refer to families that had suffered land dispossession,” Dube writes, “in addition to being rejected by their own families due to following Jesus” (page 6).

Children, in this perspective, are both actual sufferers in this system of oppression and symbols of the suffering happening in whole households and communities at the time. Dube offers this conclusion. “Jesus formed communities that responded to the economic challenges faced by homeless and landless peasants. Jesus’ gesture of welcoming a child inside the house captures the moral ethos of the nascent Jesus movement,” he continues, “that of hospitality and close fictive kinship. Such moral virtues,” he argues, “can be understood as a direct response to external social and political pressures confronted by the community” (page 6).

I think our life together would look much different if we embraced the standard of the Nebraska statute – which is a dim reflection of Jesus’ standard of care in our communities. What if we asked of every public policy effort, “What’s in the best interests of ALL the children?” Grappling with that question would force us, for example, to radically re-examine the property tax formula by which our local schools are funded. Currently, such formulas simply re-inscribe and reinforce the patterns of discrimination set down during the Jim Crow era and through real estate redlining.

What’s in the best interests of ALL the children? That’s a question that should have informed our responses to climate change over the last forty years. But my generation has failed in that regard. Now we know that everyone currently under forty years of age will deal with heat waves, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, food and water shortages, population shifts, and social disruptions on a scale not seen in human history. It appears that we cannot change this scenario. But we can work to mitigate the effects – if we care.

What’s in the best interests of ALL the children? There are no better investments in social capital than excellent prenatal care for all and free early childhood education for all. Economists can demonstrate the real cash dividends, the social “profits” from such efforts. Just as parents discovered in crafting and drafting parenting plans, when the focus is on the best interests of the child, everyone benefits – the child, the parents, the household, the community, and the society.

Why can’t we get that? Because serving the best interests of ALL the children will mean a reduction in the massive privileges extended to SOME of the children. Equality always feels like loss to the privileged. Will the Church be a voice to move people to accept that loss for the sake of ALL the children?

References and Resources

Nebraska Revised Statute 43-2921. https://nebraskalegislature.gov/laws/statutes.php?statute=43-2921.

Dube, Z., 2014, ‘Welcoming outsiders: The nascent Jesus community as a locus of hospitality and equality (Mk 9:33–42; 10:2–16)’, In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi 48(1), Art. #1379, 7 pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ids.v48i1.1379.

Lewis, Karoline (1). https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16.

Lewis, Karoline (2). https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/dependence-needs.

Lose, David. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-19-b-communities-of-the-broken-and-blessed/.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-5.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-2.

Vitalis-Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-3.

Wolfelt, Alan. The Wilderness of Divorce: Finding Your Way. https://www.centerforloss.com/bookstore/the-wilderness-of-divorce-finding-your-way/#:~:text=Wolfelt%20describes%20ten%20Touchstones%20that,%E2%80%93%20a%20vast%2C%20mountainous%20forest.

Text Study for Mark 10:1-16 (Pt. 1); October 3, 2021

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.

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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

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16.

Vitalis-Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-3.