Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, October 3, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecotst 19

Pentecost 19, 2021
Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It will surprise no one to hear me say, this is a difficult text.  And it is a particularly troubling gospel reading for anyone who has gone through the soul-crushing meat grinder we call “divorce.”  And, sadly, this gospel text is easy for people to hijack for the purpose of making things worse for those who have been divorced, or who are about to be divorced.  Because some people like to quote little pieces of scripture out of context with the goal of making other people feel bad.  (You know, like Jesus always tells us to do.)

You’re probably familiar with the quote from Alice Roosevelt Longworth:  If you haven’t got anything nice to say, come sit by me.  That of course is a clever riff on the age-old wisdom, If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  You could imagine saying that to your kids, right?  If you’re like me, you already have said that to your kids.  If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

But then imagine you’re sitting around the dinner table and your kids aren’t talking.  When you ask them what’s up, they respond, “you told us not to say anything at all.”  And you’d rightly say,  “Wait.  Not saying anything at all is the emergency brake here.  It was the backup to prevent you from doing something worse.”  A safety net.  “But you told us not say anything at all.”  Not really.  Now that’s a long way to go to get where I’m going, but, believe it or not, that is what is happening in today’s gospel reading.

As we heard, some Pharisees come to Jesus and, to test him, they ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  They’re Pharisees.  They know the answer to this question already.  But they also know that to answer the question either way will cause division, which is exactly what they are hoping for.  But it’s even trickier.  Because their quote back to Jesus, from Deuteronomy, is not about divorce; it’s about remarrying someone whom you’ve previously divorced, but who has been married to someone else in between.  Don’t even bother trying to follow that.  Let’s rephrase it all a different way.

Let’s pretend that in Deuteronomy it says, “If you drop an anvil on somebody’s head, stop what you are doing and make sure they’re okay before you do anything else.”  And the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask, “Is it okay to drop an anvil on somebody’s head?”  And Jesus asks, “What does Moses tell you?”  And they say “Moses says, yes!”  Which is why Jesus then says, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”  Or, as you might say to your kids, “Because you can’t say anything nice, I made this commandment for you not to say anything at all.”  The Pharisees are looking to find an excuse for dropping anvils on people’s heads, and are misusing the Law of Moses as the basis for it.  And in this case, the dropping of anvils is—in actuality—divorcing one’s wife.

“Hey Jesus, is it okay to divorce a woman and leave her to fend for herself with nothing, in this first-century culture of ours that devalues women and children?”  Jesus answers, “What does Moses say?”  They respond, “Moses says yes!”  You ask your kids: Did I tell you not to say anything at all?  The kids say “Yes!”

So then Jesus does them one better, and says “. . . from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  He turns the conversation from being about the legality of divorce into being about the gift of marriage.  They ask, “Is it okay to demean women and throw them into the street?”  And Jesus responds with, “As God intended from the beginning, men and women are equal.”  This response is no small deal, in that culture, or in ours.  Jesus turns their cynical selfishness into a justification for elevating the downtrodden.  “Hey Jesus, we’ve already got all the power.  Is it lawful for a man to get even more?”  

But we don’t hear this passage from Mark’s gospel that way.  What we hear is, “Don’t get divorced!  Jesus says so!”  But that is not what Jesus is saying to the Pharisees.  He is saying forget your legal trickery for oppressing women and look at the point of marriage: two actual people come together on equal terms, as God intended from the beginning.  But, in response, you might then point to the conversation with his disciples in the house afterward, where Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

And my response to that is, first of all, this is a statement about remarriage, not divorce.  And, more importantly, women did not divorce men in that culture!  This is a radical thing to suggest!  In the conversation with the Pharisees and in the conversation with the disciples, Jesus is elevating women to their rightful place as equal to men.  Which might sound good and right so to do . . . but was definitely absurd to the people around Jesus.  It’s like here he goes again, lifting up the lowly, declaring that everyone is loved by God, threatening my value by making someone else my equal, like he did with that Syrophoenician woman a few weeks ago with that crumbs under the table stuff.  What’s next, Jesus, turning our children into our teachers?

Well . . . Jesus 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.”  Jesus always turns everything upside down.  Thanks be to God!

The Pharisees and the disciples were both trying to get legal arguments out of Jesus for the purpose of clarifying what they were allowed to get away with.  This is what adults do, you see.  Tell me the bare minimum I must do against my will in order to get what I am entitled to.  Or, sometimes, let me tell you why I am so deserving of your love, Jesus.  Or, get a load of how worthy I am because of all the things I have collected and hold so tightly in my closed hands.

But a child?  How does a child approach Jesus?  With open, empty hands, that’s how—just as we saw two weeks ago.  A child can offer nothing.  And in that culture, a child is worth nothing.  That’s why the disciples are trying to keep the children away from Jesus.  These worthless little brats have no business being around Jesus, say the disciples, because Jesus is only interested in the people who matter.  You know, the men . . . who can divorce their wives . . . like Moses says.

This gospel text is not a lesson on the evils of divorce.  And if you want proof, just look at what upsets Jesus here.  It’s not divorce, is it?  No, he is angry with the Pharisees for their hardness of heart, and for trying to twist the gift of the Law of Moses into a justification for mistreating women.  And did you see what makes Jesus indignant in this text?  The disciples’ keeping the children away from him.  Jesus doesn’t love the children because they’re cute; he focuses on them because they are insignificant and rejected, which is what makes them first, rather than last.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  So—just like two weeks ago—we must ask ourselves, how does a child receive the kingdom of God?  How does a child receive anything?  The key to answering that question is to focus on the word, “receive.”  The word is not “earn,” or “deserve,” or “demand.”  No, the word is receive.  Children receive things because children cannot go out and get them on their own.  Children rely on the kindness and love of the adults around them—for better or for worse.  Which is why when the disciples try to stop them, Jesus becomes indignant.  Which is a very strong response when you think of it.  He is indignant that they would keep the children from him.  Indignant!

“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  How do we receive something?  We stretch out our hands.  Our empty hands.  Nothing to offer, everything to gain.  This is how a child receives the gifts of God.  And it is also how the people of God receive the gifts of God.  We come to this Altar and stretch out our hands.  And if someone tries to stop us, we know that Jesus will be indignant.  Because you are welcome to this meal.  You are called to this heavenly banquet.  All of us equal.  All of us welcome.  All of us little children of God.  

And that’s when Jesus takes us up in his arms, lays his hands on us, and blesses us.


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