Text Study for Luke 10:1-20 (Part One)

The lectionary committee has done violence to our text by omitting Luke 10:12-15. Richard Swanson writes that, in omitting these verses, the lection “omits the allusion that clarifies this scene. Woes are pronounced on cities that have not offered a welcome to Jesus and his movement,” Swanson continues, “but before those woes comes a reference to Sodom, the city that exemplifies the refusal of the duty of hospitality” (page 159).

I suspect that the lectionary folks desired to make the reading a little less “PG-13” in its content by excising the reference to Sodom. In addition, the lectionary folks demonstrate a consistent distaste for verses which show Jesus as angry, vengeful, and pronouncing judgment on others. This editorial concern reinforces the notion that the “God of the Old Testament” is one of vengeance while Jesus’ “God of the New Testament” is one of love and grace and mercy.

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That simple dichotomy is inaccurate, uncomplicated, and does not respect the authority and integrity of the text. Levine and Witherington suggest that verses such as Luke 10:12-15 “should serve as a corrective” for such simplistic and self-serving (from a Christian perspective) interpretations. In a footnote, they observe that “Jesus has more to say about the reality of Hell (which he calls Gehenna) than Paul, or any other NT writer, save John of Patmos in Revelation” (page 281).

These observations make the universalist hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. However, the textual point cannot be disputed. And it should not be minimized by the fiat of lectionary excisions. It’s in the text, and we should deal with it. That’s especially true when the excised text is necessary for an accurate and fulsome interpretation and reading of the text.

That being said, we can take the opportunity to review the nature of “the sin of Sodom” (whether that actually makes it into the message or not). I will quote Levine and Witherington on the matter. “Regarding the sin of Sodom, which prompted the destruction, the prophet Ezekiel makes clear that the Sodomites were destroyed because of a lack of hospitality, an allusion already prompted by the rejection of Jesus in Samaria (9:54), when James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven. Since,” they continue, “Jesus’ statement appears in the context of households either accepting or rejecting the disciples, the concern for Sodom’s hospitality is here also invoked” (page 280).

Swanson offers these comments. In the ancient Mediterranean world, “wanderers are to be treated as family, welcomed and fed.” This is the principle which is violated if and when any of the seventy are refused hospitality. “thus it was that when the citizens of Sodom sought to abuse and humiliate guests in Lot’s house,” Swanson continues, “he offered them his daughters instead. This is inconceivable in any social system,” he concludes, “except one that places the responsibility for hospitality even above one’s responsibility for immediate family” (page 160).

This connection to the destruction of Sodom puts the the members of the “Seventy Sent” in the role of the messengers to Sodom in Genesis 19. Two messengers came to Sodom, and Lot offered them hospitality. Remember that the Seventy Sent are to travel two by two on their mission. That mission, in Genesis 19, is to offer rescue to those will accept the news of Sodom’s impending destruction. We can see that mission of rescue described in Genesis 19:12. The messengers urgently inquire about the extent of Lot’s family and community. They should get out while the getting is good.

Of course, the two messengers will also bring destruction to Sodom, but not before those who want the rescue have been saved. Swanson’s contention that the omitted verses are critical to our interpretation bear fruit now. The Seventy Sent bear a message of eschatological urgency. The time for “harvest” has drawn near. The message of rescue from destruction is carried by the missionaries and enacted in their healing and preaching. There is still time to respond before the end.

Messengers from Jesus need our welcome. When we include the excised verses in our reading and reflection, I think we get a much more interesting and applicable text for preaching and teaching. If and when someone needs our welcome, we settled folks should pay special attention to what they need and what they say. Of course, that reverses our expectation, especially in our time. We church folks expect to be consumers, not involuntary workers in the hospitality industry. We expect those who bring Jesus’ message to give us something of value before we compensate them with anything approaching hospitality.

Who are those who long for welcome and hospitality in our Christian communities? The mention of Sodom in our text will certainly bring to mind for some in our pews their continuing anxieties and hostilities regarding the welcome, inclusion, and leadership of LGBTQIA+ people in our communities. It should be clear that we cisgender, heterosexual, non-queer people have gotten this all backwards. Those who seek hospitality at our eucharistic table and in our pulpits bring the message from Jesus. If we refuse that hospitality, we find ourselves in the role of Sodom (and all the other villages listed).

That is still shocking to some so-called mainline Christians and many, many Evangelical Christians. It is our refusal of hospitality that is the sin of Sodom. This is old news for many who have been in this struggle for a lifetime and more. But it will continue to be new and shocking information for too many in the pews I have faced over the last forty years.

This can be dangerous work for the messengers, as we can see from the text. It will be worth reading this text as if we are the Seventy Sent, but let’s not jump to that perspective too quickly. Let’s focus on our place, most of the time, as the “home team” rather than the “away team.” What do the messengers bring? They bring first of all the palpable gift of God’s peace to the household. They cure the sick and proclaim the presence of the Reign of God. That presence arrives whether it is welcomed or not (see the end of verse 11).

This could be an opportunity to think about our default assumptions when we deal with newcomers to our worshiping communities. We focus primarily on two things: what we have to “offer” to the newcomers (treating them as church-shopping consumers), and how we can assimilate them into the ways things already are (treating them as potential threats to our status quo — threats that must be neutralized to sustain the stability of the current community). Since these are our default responses and assumptions, it’s no wonder that in many of our communities, newcomers pass through our midst with hardly a notice or ripple.

What if, instead, we would regard newcomers as some of the latest recruits to the Seventy Sent? Those who need our welcome are the ones Jesus sends with important messages. Perhaps that message is information about the needs of the community beyond our walls. Perhaps that message is a challenge to be more responsive to that community and the larger world. Perhaps that message is a new perspective, a new way of doing or seeing things, a new connection to the wider world. Newcomers need our hospitality and bring us news.

I learned in parish ministry to regard newcomers as such messengers. “I wonder,” I often thought to myself, “what new thing the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish among us by sending this new person?” Sometimes that new thing was a creative new opportunity. Sometimes that new thing was a challenge to rethink and revise how we did or viewed something. After all, one of the benefits of being a newcomer is that you don’t know that it can’t be done that way.

Jesus equips the Seventy Sent with power and authority to do just what he commissions them to do. And, as we read in the last part of the text, it works! If we can get ourselves out of the way, newcomers can indeed bring new life and mission into our midst. That will produce change, discomfort, challenge, displacement, and disagreement. That’s a necessary part of the process. But the outcome is another victory in the battle against sin, death, and the devil.

“Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he invites us to walk with him,” Marilyn Salmon writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “His words here speak to every generation of Christian disciples and inspire a sense of urgency about bringing God’s realm near. As we begin,” Salmon concludes, “we are called to examine customs we create to protect our comfort and ease, beginning with the practice of hospitality.”

Well, that’s a start for the week anyway.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Six)

Can a person change? The Lukan author certainly thinks so. Change happens in the Lukan account when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. Repentance – personal change of mind and heart – is the result of encounters with Jesus. Such change is not the precondition for such life-altering interactions. Jesus goes looking for tax collectors and sinners in order to invite them into a new way of living.

John Kilgallen argues that the Pharisees – at least in the Lukan account – shared Jesus’ intention that sinners should repent and find new life. The disagreement was about the most effective and appropriate method. He suggests that the Pharisees, as portrayed in the Gospel accounts, went to great lengths to make sure that the Law was fulfilled – such as washing to the elbows in order to make sure one’s hands were clean. More to our point, they tended to avoid contact with “sinners” in order to impress upon the community the importance of repentance.

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The assumption of the Pharisees, as described in the Gospel accounts, is that sin could infect the righteous. Thus, the company of sinners should be avoided when possible. “Not only should one not suggest an indifference to the lives of sinners,” Kilgallen writes of the Pharisees, “but one should avoid them lest one fall into their sinfulness. Finally,” he continues, “how best to influence a change in behavior of sinners, if not to avoid them and so make them ever conscious of their sinfulness?” (page 591).

Jesus adopts the opposite strategy. He welcomes tax collectors and sinners and eats with them. Kilgallen notes that this is a narrative concern and focus at least four times in the Lukan account. The concern begins in Luke 5:27-32 with the call of Levi, the tax-collector. Jesus takes the initiative with Levi and calls him to be a follower. Levi gets up, leaves everything, and follows Jesus. In Lukan terms, Levi becomes an ideal disciple.

In response to this gracious call, Levi hosts a large dinner party at his house, apparently with Jesus as the guest of honor. The table was occupied by a large crowd of tax-collectors as well as other people. The Pharisees and their scribes observed this party (from some distance, we can assume) and were complaining to Jesus’ disciples. They asked, “On what basis do you all eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30, my translation). The grammar of the question makes it clear that they want to hear some justification for the unusual strategy.

Jesus tells the Pharisees and their scribes that avoidance is the wrong treatment. A physician wouldn’t do much good for a patient by avoiding contact with that patient. Physicians stay away from those who have no need of treatment. But the tax collectors and sinners need this gracious, personal, direct, and sustained contact with Jesus. “I haven’t come to call the righteous ones,” Jesus concludes, “but rather sinners into repentance” (Luke 5:32, my translation).

In this account, Kilgallen argues, we now have the reason for Jesus’ unusual strategy. We don’t yet have a description of why this mode of “treatment” will work. The next reference in the Lukan account to tax collectors and sinners moves the conversation forward. We find that mention in Luke 7:31-35. On the one hand, Jesus’ opponents have criticized John the Baptist for being too austere. On the other hand, they criticize Jesus for having too much to eat and drink and for being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

Jesus drops a cryptic quip in response. “Wisdom is justified on the basis of all her children” (Luke 7:35, my translation). In other words, the wise person looks at the results, not just at the theory. The quip serves as the lead-in to the forgiveness of the “sinful woman” at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus’ strategy results in repentance and reconciliation on the part of the woman. Simon the Pharisee is left as he is, forgiven little and loving less.

“What Jesus offers now in chap. 7,” Kilgallen writes, “is a proof that his method is justified, for…he points to a number of people who have done what God and Wisdom have asked: they have repented” (page 595-596). So far then, we have the reason for Jesus’ strategy and some general demonstrations of its effectiveness. This takes us to the next mention of tax collectors and sinners – in Luke 15.

The same complaint appears. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds, in the Lukan account, with the three parables. Kilgallen notes two points in the first two parables. “They show that it is unremitting searching that finds what was lost,” he writes, “not disinterest in or distance from sheep or coin…Moreover,” Kilgallen continues, “finding what was lost leads surely to great joy and celebration. The latter aspect, that of rejoicing over finding what was lost, confirms the value of searching, achieving happiness for going after what was lost till it is found. Indeed,” Kilgallen observes, “one cannot imagine how else the sheep and the coin will be found except by continued searching” (page 596).

The third parable shows the life and death stakes of the seeking and finding. The parable of the Prodigal Son “means only to reinforce what the first two parables had made clear: whatever can produce joy in heaven is worth doing. One cannot prefer not searching after sinners, if one is convinced that such searching is the way,” he argues, “the best and necessary way to produce joy, and life.” Luke 15, then, gives the reason for Jesus’ strategy of welcoming sinners and eating with them. If God is rejoicing, it must be a good thing.

The final installment of the tax collectors and sinners throughline is, of course, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. This time it is an anonymous voice from the crowd that grumbles loudly. “He went along with a sinful man to be a guest!” It’s not just eating and drinking this time. Jesus is staying at the house, taking up lodging for a brief stretch. Jesus has raised the stakes of the interaction even higher.

“For our purposes,” Kilgallen suggests, “the most striking feature we find in this story is the fact that we have been given a clear example of the result that comes from Jesus’ fraternizing with sinners” (page 598). The results of Jesus’ strategy are individual repentance and promises of repair consistent with Old Testament regulations in Exodus 21, Leviticus 6, and Numbers 5. Welcoming (and being welcomed) by tax collectors and sinners and eating with them is what it takes to seek and to save the “lost.”

The criticism from the crowd comes as a reminder that Jesus’ strategy is not the accepted way of dealing with tax collectors and sinners. The result meets this criticism head on. In addition, Zacchaeus didn’t come predisposed or prepared to repent, Kilgallen argues. Instead, he begins with “benevolent curiosity” rather than some expressed desire for repentance. “No,” Kilgallen concludes, “it is only the actual time spent with Jesus that accounts for repentance” (page 598).

Can a person change? The Lukan author certainly thinks so. Change happens in the Lukan account when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. I am reminded of a congregational ministry to, with, and for incarcerated people who are preparing to return to life “in the world.” The ministry revolves around Sunday worship, a communal meal, fellowship, and Bible study. Interested participants are interviewed to orient them to the nature and operation of the ministry. But the one real qualification for attending is whether or not one likes to eat.

I was often struck, when I was involved in that ministry, by the suspicion that such a gracious invitation evoked. The suspicion was understandable. Our guests were coming from a world in which no one ever did anything “for free.” For the first six to eight weeks that the typical guest attended, that guest would ask at least three or four times, “What do you want?” Nothing of value in this world is free, the questioner reasoned. Therefore, we must want something. The trick, they thought, was to figure out what “the catch” was.

There was no “catch.” A few of our guests never caught on to that fact. They tended not to stick with the ministry. But most of the guests had a personal epiphany during that initial time period. These people really don’t want anything from me. “Free” really means free. Grace really is grace. While these people don’t want anything from me, they certainly something for me. What they want for me is a life of wholeness and joy. And that’s it.

Honestly, we didn’t go into this ministry thinking about any of this. We were just trying to help some folks who weren’t getting much help. But, over and over, we got to witness the transforming power of real Grace. Personal change happens when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. In the life of the Church, Jesus uses disciples to seek out people and spend that table time with them.

This is why eucharistic hospitality is really the measure of health and faithfulness in a congregation. Who we welcome to the table and under what “conditions” says everything you need to know about the life of a congregation. That welcome includes our willingness to put that table on legs and wheels and to meet people where they are, at their tables and in their lives. Going out to eat, as Jesus did, removes the last “condition” that might impede our eucharistic welcome.

Grace changes people. That’ll preach.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Five)

“But it was necessary to be glad and rejoice, because this one, your brother, was dead and lives, and was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32, my translation). Perhaps a good sermon title might be “Some Celebration Required.” N. T. Wright suggests, “The point of the parables is then clear. This is why there’s a party going on: all heaven is having a party, the angels are joining in, and if we don’t have one as well, we’ll be out of tune with God’s reality” (page 184).

I wonder, however, what is the point of the party? In the first two parables, the joy seems to be over the one sinner who repents. We take that, in our individualistic cultural mindset, to be the end of the story. “I once was lost but now and found,” we sing, often with a tear in our eye and a catch in our throat. Popular American Christianity is captivated by the Evangelical assumption that it’s all about the individual sinner who is saved. But I don’t think that’s faithful to the text or helpful to our theology.

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Perhaps we can allow the end of this series of parables to inform the beginning. The lost son is found. He was dead and is now alive. There’s a wild party going on to celebrate the event. But there is still a son outside. There is still a son unreconciled. One son has perhaps returned, but the family is still not whole. The story cannot come to a happy ending as long as the community remains fractured.

Of course, there is rejoicing over the one found lamb, the one found coin, and the one found son. But what has really happened is that the coin collection is once again complete. The flock is full. Will the family be whole? Or will we on the inside settle for being found ourselves and giving little thought to those who still are lost? That’s a good reason for the third parable to be inconclusive and unsettled. The question is still in the air. The family is still on shaky ground.

I wish the NRSV had not over-determined the translation of Luke 15:32. The Greek text is much less specific than the translation. “But it was necessary to be glad and rejoice…” Necessary for whom? The text doesn’t say. It was necessary, perhaps, for the family to be whole again, but that can’t happen until the older brother is once again able to claim his connection to the younger brother. It was necessary because “this one – your brother – was dead and lives and was lost and is found.”

Celebration wasn’t required because the younger son had come to his senses and repented. Celebration was required because now the broken family could be made whole once again – if the older brother was willing to be part of the celebration. There was no question about the older son’s place in the household. “Son,” the father reminds him, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, my translation). Of course, now part of the father’s “all” is the younger son.

God will not settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed at home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the woman should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced. If we are thinking practically, we know that the younger son made his own bed and should be required to lie on it.

But we meet a God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. God wants all of us, and God wants us all.

If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, then neither will we Jesus followers be satisfied while lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children are still “out there.” I’m not suggesting that we should retain a colonial mindset, where we Christians have something to offer that everyone else should want. No, I think our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we blithely settle for flocks made up of people like us.

I was part of a congregation that wrestled long and hard with what it means to be a “welcoming” community. The congregation reflected honestly on this question. When we say, “all are welcome,” is it really a question: “Are all welcome?” Framing the issue in this way sparked some deep introspection and honest confession. We welcomed those who looked and sounded like us, who brought something that we wanted, who came and stayed on our terms and didn’t kick up a fuss.

We weren’t looking for people who might make our community more whole and our lives fuller through their unique gifts and perspectives. Instead, we were like the Borg in the Star Trek franchises. As a long-time Trekkie, I remember the moment when I made the connection. “We are the Borg,” the mechanical voice from the Borg cube threatens. “Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”

We were happy to welcome people who were willing to be assimilated to our congregational culture, habits, assumptions, preferences, practices, and traditions. Until we could engage in a welcome that moved beyond assimilation, we would continue to be content with incompleteness. I’m happy to report that the congregation made some real progress in moving from assimilation to open engagement. But it was not an easy process.

Would the older brother be open to new possibilities, to a change in the family system? Or was his condition for reconciliation really assimilation – the application of punitive power to the younger son to make sure the system was not threatened like this again? We don’t know how it went for the older son. Do we know how that goes for us?

The parable makes me wonder to what degree we are happy with a limited, familiar, comfortable community that leaves us as the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied. Jesus’ critics advocated that the tax collectors and sinners should be segregated away from decent people. Those who crossed these boundaries were in danger of being contaminated by the outsiders and thus becoming one of them.

American cities remain just as segregated, if not more so, as before the days of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. “Segregation is a costly self-imposed error,” writes Heather Abraham. “It is not a natural phenomenon. It is government-subsidized and government-reinforced,” she continues. “Some of the documented ways segregation infiltrates our society include how it drives the racial wealth gap, undermines metropolitan GDP, drastically diminishes life opportunities like quality education and healthcare, and ultimately results in highly unequal health outcomes like shorter life expectancy and higher homicide rates for communities of color” (page 2).

We who live well because of White Supremacy and systemic racism can easily document those costs to communities of color and the individuals in those communities. But how often do we think about the cost to those of us who not only benefit from but continue to impose such segregating systems on other human beings? As part of the perpetrating system, we make ourselves less than fully human.

More than that, we have persuaded ourselves that we are complete by ourselves. We who live completely White lives state by our way of living that people of color and their communities have nothing we want or need. We have made Whiteness the be all and end all of existence and notice no deficit created by limiting ourselves to one skin tone and one cultural reality. If there are things from other communities and cultures that we desire, we do a Borg assimilation and simply appropriate them and make them ours.

If I apply a Christian biblical lens to this reality, I see that our White life does not reflect the character of God. God, as Jesus portrays God in these parables, is not content with a part of the flock or the piggy bank or the family. A part won’t do. God wants us all and wants all of us – and wants us all together.

I think this takes us once again to both the first and second lessons for this Sunday. It’s not often that all of the texts work together in such an effective way, so let’s be sure to take advantage of the intersection. We think about community as insiders vs. outsiders. That’s not how God thinks about or sees things. We are the ones who need to change our vision (that’s repentance, by the way).

Reconciliation doesn’t come immediately after repentance. It takes repair of the relationships and the community impacted by the brokenness. White Christians have always wanted to go straight to reconciliation and to skip the repentance and repair stages. Even if we make some efforts at confession and repentance, we’re still not willing to do the hard work of making reparations. Until we do that work, reconciliation is really just a word to make White people feel better about themselves.

We don’t get beyond some initial repenting in the third parable. Perhaps the Lukan author is challenging us to imagine what repairs had to be made in that family system before real reconciliation could happen. And perhaps the Lukan author is challenging us to imagine what repairs we need to make in order for all of us to act like God’s family.

In the meantime, whenever sinners are welcomed, some celebration is required. I look forward to celebrating a bit once again this week, even as I wrestle with who does not yet have a seat at the table.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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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.

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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.