Text Study for Mark 10:1-16 (Pt. 5); October 3, 2021

Talk is Cheap, Even for Preachers

This text has come around a dozen times in my preaching experience. After one of those times, some years ago, a no-nonsense parishioner (who had been divorced and was remarried) came to me and said, “That was all very nice, Pastor. I’m impressed with your theories. But the text is the text. Jesus says that if I get divorced and remarried, I’m guilty of adultery. Nothing you say changes that. Nothing you say makes me feel less ashamed in church. Nothing you say changes how church people have treated me over the years. So, thanks again, but not much has changed for me.”

No matter how we think about it, preaching is an exercise in pastoral care. We can embrace that reality or evade it. But it will be there. And it will be there with a vengeance as we preach on Mark 10.

There’s no arguing with that parishioner’s experience. No matter how much exegesis and analysis we do, the realities remain. How do we address this in our preaching? I’m not suggesting for a minute that somehow I’ve gotten this “right” over the years. I have not lived through a divorce, so I cannot speak from inside that experience. I do have some pretty close connections with people who have divorced and remarried, but it’s still an observational reality to me.

Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

I think it’s critical to identify that up front. If the preacher has lived through one or more divorces, it’s important to say that. If, like me, the preacher has not, it’s important to say that as well. And for me, it’s important to repeat several times that I speak as an observer, not a participant. My thoughts should be evaluated accordingly.

It is also important, I think, to regard divorce as an experience of loss and even death and to speak about it accordingly. I think that a divorce is the public funeral for a marriage that has already died. Relationships can die in a variety of ways. Relationships can be starved to death. Relationships can be beaten to death. Relationships can be bankrupted or rejected. Some relationships just die of natural causes as well. And then there are the relationships which were never born or died stillborn in the earliest stages.

In all these cases, it is wise and caring to treat the reality behind a divorce as the death of a relationship. Therefore, one of the basic dynamics of life after a divorce is grief. Whatever the grief experience might be, I would recommend the resources of Dr. Alan Wolfelt as part of the response. Dr. Wolfelt has brought his expertise and experience to life after divorce. In particular, his book, The Wilderness of Divorce: Finding Your Way, will be helpful (See the “References and Resources for a link).

In addition, Wolfelt has resources for journaling and reflection as part of the grief journey of life after divorce. I think it doesn’t hurt to have some samples of such resources available on your shelf when you preach on this text.

Where there is grief, there will be shame. Loss always feels at some point or another like a failure. That is certainly true of the loss experienced during and after a divorce. Divorced people wonder over and over again what they could have done differently. Being human, they are equipped with the capacity to regret and ruminate endlessly. All of us have a thousand things we might have done differently on any given day. Life after divorce leads a person to reflect on the wrong turns, the missed opportunities, the hidden signals that led up to the end.

Shame is a terrific burden for any of us. As preachers, we must do all we can not to add to that burden for any of our listeners. No one needs our help to feel more ashamed. Our success-oriented, officially optimistic culture reminds us every day in minute detail of our flaws and failures. It’s not our job to increase that load. Every divorced person in the crowd will be sure that the preacher is speaking directly to them and specifically about them.

It does no good to minimize the grief, the shame, and the sense of exposure our divorced listeners will experience during our sermons. Better, I think, to frankly acknowledge those realities. I have taken the opportunity during some messages to say that for a few moments I’m going to share with the congregation what I’ve heard from divorced people. I won’t speak as an expert but rather as a witness. Afterwards, I have been thanked by divorced people for that witness. It’s something we can do to be helpful.

It’s not a waste of time to describe the differences between first-century divorce and twenty-first century divorce. It’s important to equip people and give them permission to get some distance from the text and to begin to loosen its direct application to their lives. This text fits, as we have seen, into a larger framework and context. I don’t want people to think that I’m fiddling with the text in order to address an agenda. At the same time, I want people to have a more accurate appreciation of the realities of what we are hearing and reading.

So, a brief description of the differences between then and now is often useful and helpful. The same is true of the place of power in this text and Jesus’ critique of the systems of domination in the cultures both then and now. We don’t want to repeat the tactics of the Pharisees or the errors of the disciples. When we know better, we can do better.

Before we move on to that larger framework, I think it’s important to affirm marriages that happen after a divorce. While we can point to the text’s concern about serial divorce for the sake of personal preference, that’s not an accurate description of many marriages after divorce.

Instead, I like to talk about the fact that we are Resurrection people. If divorce is the public funeral for a relationship that has died, then there is the possibility of new life after that death. I have seen Jesus bless far too many later marriages with life and love, with joy and happiness, with grace and growth, to believe that they are not of God. This does not make our words about divorce any easier. But we can acknowledge what we see and thank God for the new life.

This may also be the opportunity to affirm and acknowledge that married life is hard. Our culture still wants us to believe that there are people out there somewhere who have blissful lives together with no problems now or on the horizon. I’ve not met any such people. Being married is a demanding kind of intimacy. We can help people by admitting that out loud as the norm for our human communities. And we can think together about how our faith communities can be supportive of all sorts of intimate and committed connections.

I’m also glad to be able to say now that marriage is not only an issue for heterosexuals. People are just people, and marriage is just as hard. Marriage is also not the normative standard for relationships. Friendship is hard. Being someone’s child or parent is hard. Being a sibling is hard. The standards Jesus describes for healthy marriage apply equally, but with different dynamics, to any human relationship we can mention.

That’s important because this text, which is in the section of Mark most about inclusion, can so easily exclude. The marriage between a man and a woman, as described in Genesis, is an example of human relationship – not the goal or the ideal. I have preached sermons that focused so much on marriage that the single people in the crowd felt like they should have stayed home. That was a homiletical error that I hope I’m not repeating now.

At some point, I hope we get to the good news in the text. It’s really the same good news as we had the first time we had a “little children” story in Mark. Let’s assume that we haven’t been successful in dealing with the grief, the shame, the exclusion, the arrogance, the injustice, the anger, and the pain in this text (that’s a fair assumption). The end of it is Jesus assertively embracing and blessing children brought to him.

Remember, children are not regarded as particularly valuable in this culture. They are, if anything, liabilities. Even if I come to Jesus grieving, ashamed, rejected, wronged, enraged, and suffering, I can expect him to hold me and bless with unconditional love and acceptance. Even if I don’t believe one word of that preacher who’s trying to make it all better, that won’t change my place in the Kin(g)dom of God one whit.

If that’s true for Jesus, then it must be true for the Church. There’s the challenge, of course. Is our congregation a hospital for sinners or a museum for saints? Do we welcome the broken with blessing, or do we expect people to check their struggles at the door?

This is the real challenge of this text and this section of the Markan composition.

References and Resources

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. 4); October 3, 2021

Who Benefits?

I worked part-time for several years as a mediator in Nebraska. Most of my work in those years was assisting divorcing parents in developing parenting plans to which both they and the court could agree. I entered the work with a lot of idealism about how creative and flexible, how careful and compassionate, how specific and, well, human, these plans could be. In our training we saw examples of such sprightly and serious plans – where novel solutions to difficult problems produced real results.

It didn’t take long before Reality set in. As far as the court system was concerned, my job was to help parents produce a plan that was as simple as was practical and that hewed to the court-produced template as closely as possible. Deviations from that template were carefully scrutinized and often rejected with little comment. Creativity was a liability in this work, not an asset.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Please understand that I am not describing the attitudes of particular people in that system. I met and worked with many folks who wanted precisely what I did from the system – a human and humane response to a difficult situation that was unlike any of the thousands of other difficult situations that came through the system in a given year. But the demands of the law, the limits of human endurance and patience, and the layers of administration worked against all of our best instincts and intentions.

In my experience, human parents and children were made for the system. The system was not made for human parents and children. It’s not that every parenting plan was the same cookie-cutter result based on the pre-determined pattern. But it was the case that if the requirements of the system and the needs of the humans conflicted, the system always won.

In addition, no system built by humans is either objective or innocent. At the very least, the family plan system in our state was, at least in those years, built by attorneys for attorneys. I am not an attorney (although it would be fun to play one on TV), and I was not going to be part of that system. I was often regarded as an amateur who was taking money away from real professionals who needed every penny they could scrounge in a highly competitive business.

Finally, despite what some groups might assert, the system continued to lean in favor of the fathers. There were efforts to address that imbalance, but they were only modestly successful. There were and are cases where, in fact, the father is poorly and unfairly treated. That should not happen either. But in general, it was and is a system designed by males, run by males, and evaluated by males – at least at the levels of policy and administration.

Again, I am not suggesting that individuals in the system in general had such male-centric perspectives and priorities. I worked with people of all types who wanted the system to be as compassionate and humane as possible. Many people recognized the liabilities and abuses inherent in the system and did what they could to correct for such issues. It was the system itself that was designed in this way and functioned this way pretty much on its own.

Why have I taken this trip down my avocational memory lane? The Pharisees who come to Jesus with their question about divorce law remind me of representatives of the marriage and family legal system. Perhaps they regard Jesus as a rank amateur when it comes to the interpretation of the Law in the Hebrew scriptures, and they want to sort him out on that score. The “test” may have been designed to put the upstart, extra-normal rabbi in his place. I experienced such treatment from the “real” professionals on any number of occasions.

More than that, the question they ask is about a case, not about any real human beings. There is no mention of the possible abuse the woman received at the hands of her husband prior to being discarded. There is no thought given to the fact that the woman would likely be cast into destitution (and perhaps prostitution) when the process was executed.

There are no children mentioned at all – perhaps because infertility was often a cause of such divorces. Men wanted male heirs to inherit their power, position, privilege, and property. The ancients had little idea about male infertility. It was always the woman’s “fault.” And as mentioned in a previous post, there was no acknowledgment that the textual basis for the position on divorce was a flimsy platform at best.

It was a system designed by males, for males, and solely under male administration. The system regarded the sexual functioning of women – female bodies – as the property of a male. If a woman’s body was not the property of her father, then it should be the property of her husband. If the husband renounced that property right, the woman’s body did not become her own. It became the “common” property of any man who might take advantage of the situation.

It might seem that Jesus not only subscribes to the system in the end but raises the stakes regarding divorce and remarriage to the highest possible level. The Markan composer continues their practice of portraying Jesus’ public position to the crowds and then offering an insider’s view of the instructions Jesus gives to the disciples. Jesus takes the disciples “into the house again,” and this is where the action really happens.

Here the disciples inquire of him concerning the public position. Jesus says to them, “Whoever might divorce [release? Abandon?] his wife and might marry another commits adultery against her, and if she divorcing her husband marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:10-12, my translation).

Matt Skinner makes some helpful observations about these verses in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “When Jesus talks with his disciples in 10:10-12,” Skinner writes, “he says nothing about the rejected partner in a divorce and his or her remarriage. He seems to be speaking specifically against those who leave their partners for others. His point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery,” Skinner argues. “That is, his strongest words are against those who initiate divorce as a means to get something else,” he concludes, “sacrificing a spouse to satisfy one’s desires or ambitions.”

It continues to be important to situate this text in conjunction with Jesus’ three Passion teachings. In Mark 8 Jesus tells the crowd along with the disciples that Jesus’ followers are cross-carriers. Those who pursue the ethic of individual advantage (“those who want to save their life”) will fail in the end. Those who pursue the ethic of self-giving service (“those who lose their life”) will find the Real Life that comes in the Kin(g)dom of God.

The other end of the conversation then happens in Mark 10. The “greater than” game comes to a real head. Jesus declares that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life, a ransom for many. The self-serving, self-interested, self-absorbed power game of the world shall not be the “system” among the Jesus followers. That’s the game we disciples must simply refuse to play.

In the midst of this rhetorical stretch, we get our passage. Serial marriage was a normal reality, especially among the elites, in Greco-Roman culture. Divorce was not going to be one more tool in the self-interested tool bag of those who had the power – men. Nor was it to be, interestingly enough, a tool available to women who had the standing, the resources, and the nerve to pursue such a strategy.

Skinner points out that in his words in the house to the disciples, Jesus elevates women to places of greater equality. The Markan composer assumes that women can initiate a divorce. In addition, “by speaking of a man committing adultery against a woman (and not against her father or her past or present husband), Jesus implies that adultery involves more than violating the property rights of another man. It concerns,” he continues, “accountability to a partner, just as marriage does.”

Jesus’ description assumes that the control of a woman’s sexual functioning is not the “property” of a father or a husband. It is the “property” of the woman. That’s a revolutionary perspective in the first century and still, in some quarters, in the twenty-first century. No human relationship is to be for the advantage of one party in the relationship. No human relationship is to be a casual convenience for the powerful. No human capacity is to be the “property” of another human being.

David Lose puts it well in his 2015 comments. “In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically for the man who sought a divorce – and pushes his interlocutors to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable….The law is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting,” he continues, “and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.”

If Jesus is saying what I think he is saying, then human systems should be biased. Human systems should be biased in favor of the vulnerable and as a protection against exploitation. This will mean that systems should be biased against the powerful. After all, they don’t need any help. They are already powerful. Enlightenment notions of procedural “fairness” will not create such systems. In fact, such notions of “fairness” are mostly camouflage for the features of systems designed by and for the powerful.

The Church is many things. Of course, the Church is – among those things – a human system. We have a long way to go before we are the kind of system that is biased in favor of the vulnerable.

References and Resources

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.

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

Giving, Getting, and Being

I read the text of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as case law enacted to protect a woman from serial exploitation, especially exploitation by the first husband mentioned in the case. This emphasis is lost in the history of interpretation upon which the Pharisees depend in the discussion reported in Mark 10:1-16. The history of interpretation has extracted a set of permissions from this case law – permissions that were assumed in the case rather than somehow granted in God’s commandments.

Jesus identifies, I believe, this error in assumption and interpretation. Instead of choosing a side in the ongoing interpretive tug of war, he cuts through the debate to the deeper issues. Jesus points to the Creator’s intention that relationships within the Creation are covenants rather than contracts.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Pexels.com

While in modern legal vocabulary, these terms are essentially synonyms, I don’t think that’s the case in the Hebrew scriptures. Contracts are transactions conducted between self-interested individuals, each seeking to further that self-interest. Covenants are agreements about the ongoing nature of human community and the gifts and obligations of each partner in those ongoing agreements. Covenants are not transactions of self-interest but rather transformational relationships that build community.

Relationships within Creation, therefore, are not transactions designed to facilitate what I can get. Instead, relationships within Creation are rooted in covenants designed to enhance who we can be together. While, for example, I don’t see marriage as a “sacrament” in the way that the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions might see marriage, I certainly believe that all Christians should see marriage as “sacramental.” People, relationships, and communities are transformed when marriages happen.

I don’t want us to pretend that first-century Mediterranean marriages are the same as twenty-first century American marriages. That’s just silly. Most American marriages don’t involve the merger of the honor and status of two families or the cementing of political alliances (although some high-profile marriages still do exactly that). First-century Mediterranean marriages weren’t subject to the demands of a capitalist economic system and several centuries of Romantic mythology about love, home, family, and self.

If we move directly from the first century to the twenty-first century with no considerations of the intervening centuries, then we will do precisely what the Pharisees did. We will extract some sort of principle to guide decisions. And it will likely be a principle that undergirds power structures and enhances the exploitation of the vulnerable.

Of course, that is precisely what has happened. Regardless of the mythology around love and marriage, we have gotten a primarily contractual and transactional understanding of marriage. That contractual and transactional understanding is really just one example of the larger way that we understand relationships in our framework of neoliberal late capitalism. Everyone and everything is a resource to satisfy my desires. When that resource is found lacking, the market says we should move on to something better.

It’s not that selfish desire has no place in our story about marriage. In fact, if it weren’t for such desire at the beginning of a relationship, there would likely be very few marriages at all. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we usually get into relationships for what we can get. The “getting” may not be material or financial. It may be psychological, social, physical, and even spiritual. I would argue that such desire is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s what gets us together in the first place.

The problem arises when that initial desire is treated as the finish line rather than the starting line. If I never move beyond this desire to get satisfaction from others (human or nonhuman), then relationships must by definition be transactions. An authentic relationship grows from getting into giving. That’s when, for example, a marriage takes a turn toward the long run – when the partners begin to take joy from what they can give to one another rather than only taking pleasure in what they can get from one another.

It’s not that the getting stops and the giving begins. That’s not how we’re wired. Instead, the giving grows out of and builds upon the getting. Most modern marriages find their way into this new, more transformational chapter about seven to ten years into the marriage. Those marriages that don’t make this turn tend not to last much longer.

I’m not saying that all the ongoing self-focused marriages end in divorce. That’s hardly the case. Instead, I have observed that some marriages solidify into relatively comfortable arrangements of two single people sharing a home and family together, but little else. Some people find this situation to be more than enough, and I’m glad for them. I know I wouldn’t find such a situation sustainable, but perhaps that’s just me.

For those people who continue to focus on marriage as a transaction for getting one’s needs met, there usually comes a point where the marriage fails more and more in that regard. As the marriage fails in that way, the need arises for a story to justify one’s dissatisfaction with the relationship. John Gottman describes this story as the “Four Horsemen of the Marital Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

For a brief summary of these destructive invaders, I’d recommend going to this site: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/.

When we move from getting to giving, we relax into our dependence on one another. That dependence is a deep relational reality. It is a dimension of the intimacy for which the Creator makes us. I really appreciate Karoline Lewis’ 2015 reflections on dependence on the workingpreacher.org site. Lewis notes that our relationships provide someone(s) whom we can expect to be dependable and someone(s) on whom we can and do depend. I would add that our relationships also provide someone(s) who depends on me – and I find that to be a deeply meaningful part of any relationship.

“Putting the Mark texts (divorce and children) and the Genesis text side by side,” Lewis (2) writes, “reveals how essential dependence really is.” She notes that one reason for modern divorce is when such dependance has been disappointed and trust has been lost. This reality may be a result of the work of Gottman’s four horsemen, I would add, or it may be facilitated by the work of the four horsemen. In any event, it is central to human relating that we need others, and we need to be needed by others. The essence of our relationships is mutual dependence.

Lewis (2) observes that such a description contradicts our culture’s assertion that independence (aka autonomy) is the hallmark of individuality and the highest good. In our culture there is no worse statement than “I have lost my independence.” Lewis notes that our cultural model of independence is really a “selective dependence.” No one in our culture is truly independent. Just turn off your water and electrical connections for twenty-four hours and see how that works out.

“We convince ourselves of the need for dependency,” Lewis (2) argues, “but only if absolutely necessary, and if we can pick and choose the situations in which it really matters.” Mutual dependence is essential to human flourishing according to the Creator’s design, but such dependence is a necessary evil and a last resort in our cultural understanding. It’s no wonder that following Jesus makes so little sense to so many modern people.

I think that dependence is not, however, the finish line for marriage or any other human relationship. In my experience, we grow from getting to giving to growing together. Social scientists have noted that the longer people are married (or in long-term friendships or have been close colleagues for decades), the more the people in question begin to look alike, sound alike, act alike. It can make for some charming and amusing photo opportunities, but it is certainly true.

For years, I have talked to people about marriage as a process of “growing together.” On the one hand, married people have the opportunity to facilitate and support personal growth in the other person. Being part of that process is a great gift to each person and a source of joy in any healthy relationship. On the other hand, people who have been together for a long time grow “toward” one another as well. The similarities that I mentioned in the previous paragraph are signs of that kind of “growing together.”

After decades, a long-term relationship becomes a project of “being.” The getting and the giving don’t stop. But they become subservient to the building together of a life – a project of meaning and purpose, of joy and hope, of shared suffering and loss. Our relationships are meant to leave the world a better place than we found it and to do that together.

Lewis (2) points out that our relationships are to be mirrors of our relationship with the Creator. And those relationships, when healthy, will lead us into a deeper relationship with the Creator. “Why?” Lewis (2) asks, “So that you might know that dependence on another is but only a foretaste of the promise of the dependence you can entrust to God. God asks you to be dependent, needs you to be dependent, on God. Why?” Lewis concludes, “So that you can be you and so that God can be God.”

Rules about permissible ways for men to exercise power in ending marriages are hardly the priority, Jesus says. Let’s focus on what God intends for our relationships and then try to act accordingly. Stop legislating, he says, and get on with the business of loving the Other for the sake of the Other.

That’s the definition of human community, by the way. More on that in the next post.

References and Resources

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.

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

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

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.

Photo by burak kostak on Pexels.com

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.