Note: This is an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015.
This Sunday is the Feast of St. Francis. There is much to celebrate about the recent U.S. visit of the Bishop of Rome who took this saint’s name, even for Protestants (after all, October 4 is also World Communion Sunday). In particular, Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ is an important statement of public theology addressing the implications of our interlocking ecological crises for our civilization. So we would do well to focus preaching on these themes, perhaps through the lens of the gospel’s concern for children (i.e. future generations).
The gospel reading continues our journey through Mark’s difficult and demanding discipleship catechism, corresponding with the community’s literal pilgrimage across the Palestinian landscape: south into Judea, progressing slowly but surely toward the showdown in Jerusalem (10:1). This “catechism” next turns to an arena where issues of justice and power are often overlooked: marriage and divorce.
The Pharisees engage Jesus in an argument not about the morality of divorce, but about what constitutes the legal grounds for a man to dismiss his wife (10:2). This subject was vigorously debated between the two great rabbinic schools of the period, Hillel and Shammai. Jesus refuses to get involved in Pharisaic casuistry, however (10:3-5), as was the case previously in 7:1ff. Instead he addresses a culture of male power and privilege, in which a woman who had been “dismissed” by her husband became a social outcast with few means of supporting herself.
The original vision of Genesis, Jesus argues, stipulated equality between men and women. The marriage covenant, far from delivering the woman into male legal and social power, instructed the man to break with his patriarchal “house” in order to “become one flesh” with his wife (10:6-8). Jesus’ conclusion in 10:9 refers to the way in which patriarchy, not divorce, drives a wedge that tears this equality asunder.
As in Jesus’ previous conflict with the Pharisees, a private explanation is given to the disciples (10:10, see 7:17). It recognizes the inevitable tragedy of divorce, yet maintains the principle of equality. Jesus’ first clause (10:11) goes beyond Jewish laws of the period, in which a man could commit adultery against another married man but not against his own wife. But the second clause, which asserts a woman’s right to initiate divorce proceedings, directly contradicted the teachings of the rabbis, who reserved this solely for men (10:12). No one who has endured the pain of “one flesh” being torn apart (as I have) can minimize the pain of divorce. Yet even here Jesus refuses to overlook personal and political relations of power. Women must no longer be treated as object; they are fully equal and responsible subjects.
It can hardly be accidental that Jesus follows this debate with another vignette about children, who most often the victims of divorce (10:13-16). For a second time in this section Jesus brings children into the center of attention (see 9:36f), but is this time rebuked by the disciples (10:13). This affront finally provokes Jesus’ indignation, and he solemnly vows that what is at stake is nothing less than the “keys to the kingdom.”
The principle of acceptance, stated earlier in the positive, is now reiterated negatively:
Whoever receives such a child in my name receives me;
Whoever receives me receives the One who sent me. (9:37)
Whoever does not receive the sovereignty of God as a child shall not enter it. (10:15)
In both episodes Jesus’ tough pronouncement to adult disciples is contrasted by his warm, physical embrace of children. Just as his followers must not “forbid” practices of liberation (9:39), they must never “forbid” children (10:14).
What is meant by this categorical challenge to “receive” the child? Too many commentators and preachers offer quaint, idealizing homilies on children as symbols of “innocence and trust.” On the contrary, the child in first century Palestine represented the most powerless class. They were the “least of the least” in the social order of antiquity, with neither status nor rights. And among the marginalized today, children still are the most vulnerable: the first victims of poverty, disease, war, displacement, and social disintegration, including the breakdown of the family. This is why Jesus demands that they be embraced without qualification.
Throughout this section Mark has articulated the Way of the cross as the practice of solidarity with “little ones” in daily life. In every social relationship in which power is unequally concentrated, the Jubilary task is to redistribute it—even in the context of traditional structures such as marriage and the family. Jesus has also undermined any “proprietary” privileges that the discipleship community may wish to claim for itself. There is plenty of exemplary behavior outside our communities of faith and plenty of problematic behavior inside them. The vocation of the church is not to render moral condemnations, but to seek justice within and without.