The Word This Weekend – October 7, 2018
“An Ugly Business”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)
This Sunday’s Gospel text continues a series of teaching by Jesus that can make the modern church really uncomfortable. Just prior to the verses I’ve quoted above, a group of Pharisees challenges him on the issue of divorce. His uncompromising response – “male and female from the start, one flesh inviolate, and anything less adultery under the will of God the Creator” – is startling enough that it causes the disciples to call a meeting to address the issue with him privately. And, joined to this difficult exchange, the well-known “suffer the little children to come to me, and forbid them not, for God’s Reign belongs to such as these.”
Marriage and family. It’s a battleground out there in the culture, and has been for a long, long time. Current societal debates about marriage equality, arguments surrounding church teachings around gender and marriage – these engagements enflame passions as few other issues can. And Jesus’ quoting from Genesis here in Mark’s Gospel is one of those texts often employed in the debates.
It’s important, I think, to root our consideration of these paragraphs in their original context, lest we retreat to our corners and stack up our proof texts like so many arrows in a deadly quiver of division and deafness. And the original context here is the permanency of the marriage contract.
“Divorce – legal or not?” That’s the presenting question, and it is what brings the Pharisees into the Jesus story at this moment in Mark’s narrative. “Is it legal?” is the question, and Jesus knows that his interlocutors already know the answer – “it is.” Just as in our own modern setting, a marriage can be dissolved, as a matter of law. And for Jesus’ Jewish hearers -- who would hear our “civil vs. ecclesial” debates with a sort of quizzical, “What’s the difference?” response —Jesus’ appeal not to legality but to the heart and intent of our Creator may have been as strange to them as it can seem for many of us today.
But remember the ramifications of a severed marriage for that place and time, and for our own as well. For them, marriage was often a property arrangement, a binding together of families and fortunes, with the dowry that “sealed the deal” in the form of a young woman as the commodity that made the contract solid. The nativity narrative in Matthew is a potent reminder of this tradition – Joseph of Nazareth betrothed to young Miriam, and the apparent sullying of her virtue through an unexpected pregnancy as a literal and disgraceful “deal breaker.” Such was the world of marriage and family in the times and environs of Jesus, himself though to be a child of questionable origin – a union so corrupted that the Law would declare it invalidated, and the woman to be shunned or even executed. By Law.
“Those who live by the Law will die by the Law” – in spades! In those days a woman who was “sent away” would have precious few resources with which to go on in life. And her children would be irrevocably tarred with the same legal brush. Poverty, destitution and disgrace would be the social outcomes for being divorced. No community property, no mutuality or equality -- just a cast off piece of marital property, no longer useful as a dowry or virtuous enough for anyone else’s use as a contractual commodity.
And don’t kid yourself. Adultery wasn’t the only cause for such dissolutions. A man who found his female no longer useful for intimate use could put her away, but also a man who got a better familial deal for land or status or fortune could send her away as well. Such is the fate of human beings being commodified, turned from a valued member of the creation into a piece of contractual inventory, then and now. An ugly business, in every sense of the word.
“They are one flesh.” Jesus’ quoting of Genesis takes this joining of man and woman from the contractual to the mystical, even as the early Church would describe the mystical union of Christ and the believer as a joining beyond contract. Something more, something holy. Something as irrevocable as identities entwined, as souls made one.
No matter how creative we humans can be at dissolving and dividing in this world of sin and separation, the divine will is not intended for the orderly and legal managing of our brokenness. Marriages end, to be sure – breached by every form of dissonance and self-centeredness we can devise. And sometimes our ecclesial stubbornness to grant these separations have consigned some of the partners to continued abuse, violence, dehumanization and hopelessness. That shouldn’t be, and I don’t believe that Christ’s appeal to God’s loving intent for marriage should be used as a wedge to drive victims back into the cruel arms of those whose violence or neglect have already brought that union to an end. Such ugly business must be recognized when it occurs, and often the best we can do is to seek whatever reconciliation can achieved, whether the union can be restored or not.
In this context, the arrival of the children comes as no surprise. Those who so often pay the heaviest price for our smashed and wasted unions, they fly into the arms of Jesus, and are pictured by him as the very heart of the Kingdom of God. “Receive God’s sovereignty as they do,” says the Rabbi. Welcomed and embraced, cherished and valued, not by their worth to any bargains to be made or judgments to be leveled. Valued because of their intrinsic value to God and to us. People with the rest of their lives ahead of them, freed from blame and purified from sin. With smiles and tears, victories and “ouchies,” purchase of God and embraced in the Everlasting Arms. Them and us.
Such value the Law can never win us, buy us or assure us. Only in the arms of the Christ -- the Child of questioned identity by humankind’s sinful ways and means, but the pure and upright Son of God in the power and truth of the Gospel -- can we realize our true “one flesh” identity in God’s gracious economy. Male and female, young and old – whether as fresh and pure as the newborn in our grasp, or sullied and scarred by the annals of sin visited by the ugly business of life lived here below – only in the nail-scarred hands of the Christ can we turn a new page, start a new chapter, set a new course, and be declared entirely and absolutely new.
For it is in the ugly business of the Cross that we can find a truly new way to live, to love, to forgive, and to journey on in confidence and hope. To discover the “one flesh” that is life lived in Christ, while we yet endure the ugly business of the human enterprise as inheritors of the beauteous business of beyond.
As we gather for worship this weekend, may we experience the healing power of Water, Word and Table, whatever breakage the Law has so far granted and taken, and learn from our Lord to be joined to his vision of the Kingdom, to embrace what truly grants life, life to the full, life to forever. In the name of the Christ who embraced death itself for the life of the world.
With You in God’s Good Work,