Archive for the ‘Sermons Year B – Advent 2014 to 2015’ Category


Posted: October 5, 2015 in Sermons Year B - Advent 2014 to 2015

reading from Mark began at verse 2 of chapter 10, but in verse 1, we had just been told that Jesus has entered into Perea which is on the other side of the Jordan River from Judea.  He is still in the domain ruled by Herod Antipas, but is moving south toward Jerusalem.

“The crowds again gathered around him”—we note here that this is the only use of the plural “crowds” in Mark’s gospel.  Further, to establish the link with previous teaching, Mark says “as was his custom, he again taught them.”  The mention of crowds in this context suggests that there will be a large audience for the rabbinical debate which is about to ensue.

The test about to ensue is as Mark suggests. There are several controversies involving the Pharisees (2:15-17, 2:23-3:6, 7:1-15, 8:11-12). The mention of Pharisees invites interest and suspicion. I want to note here also that this tension with the Pharisees comes out of the historical tensions that existed in Jesus time. Scholars have often painted the Pharisees as both in opposition to Jesus and also effective in the development of the Jesus movement. I think this is simplistic in that new arguments by Jewish scholars dissatisfied with the simple them and us debate between Christians and Jews have given new critique to this relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees. We might consider here that it is no longer acceptable to consider the divisions within the society are as simple as we thought. We have glossed over the fact that Jesus was Jewish for many years accepting the simple argument that he was Christian and not Jewish but in fact he was and always was Jewish. The next thing to consider is that Jesus was a Galilean and that Galileans, Samaritans and Judeans were all Jewish. There was as there is in all our society’s differences and debate among religions. We might also consider here that although some 30-50 years later John’s Gospel suggests that Jesus was not welcome in his home country and that this is brought about by the fact that Jesus was considered by the Pharisees and a Judean, one of them, and that he was seen as too radical in his arguments to be welcome in Judea where the temple still held significant influence. Here we have the suggestion that Jesus was a Judean temple supporter who had been corrupted by his Galilean and more importantly his support for Samaritans, another Jewish view that was anti temple and anti-Judean. The texts around John the Baptist suggest that this interfaith tension was evident in Jesus time. If this is correct, then the rejection of Jesus is not rejection by Israel, but rather by a sub-group within Israel.

Returning now to our text we read that these Pharisees come to “test” Jesus, as they had also done also earlier and they ask if it was “permissible” for a man to divorce–“release”–his wife. This test was to place Jesus squarely in the same position that had resulted in John the Baptist being killed.  John had questioned Herod Antipas’ divorce and subsequent remarriage to Herodias (6:17ff).  “It is not lawful (exestin),” John had said. The same question–“is it lawful?” (exestin)–has now been placed before Jesus.  If Jesus agrees with John, that could be interpreted as treason against Herod Antipas.  (Jesus is in Perea, and on Antipas’ turf.) Mark has already told us that the Pharisees were conspiring with the “Herodians” (3:6).  If Jesus criticizes Herod Antipas’ divorce, some of those “Herodians” would no doubt argue that he should deserve the same punishment as that dished out to John.

We need to be clear about what divorce meant then also and we revert here to the old testement for the argument. According to Deuteronomy 24, divorce clearly was “permissible”–or “lawful.”  (Deuteronomy 24:1 states:  “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.  She then leaves his house.”)

There was even a certificate of divorce that was called a “get.”  This terminated the marriage and made it possible for the woman to re-marry.  The certificate read:  “You are free to marry any man.”  (France, p. 393)  Remarriage was not an issue for men because they could marry more than one woman. So we are led to ask what was this ‘something objectionable’, what defined “something objectionable”?  we note here that this question was hotly debated between the two main theological schools of Judaism in that period, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel.  The more conservative school of Shammai argued that only adultery was an acceptable reason for divorce. (The liberals perhaps) The school of Hillel argued that almost anything could be considered “objectionable,” such as burning the pot roast, for example. (The conservatives perhaps.

Jesus responds to the question with a question, which we know is a typical rabbinical and Jesus practice.  “What did Moses command you?” he asks.  The question is subtle.  Moses had no “command” on this issue.  The provision for divorce in Deuteronomy was, essentially, a concession to the reality of divorce and an attempt to provide structure and guidelines in its wake.

The Pharisees respond that “Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release.”  With the understanding that a “permission” is not the same as a “command”, this was true.  Moses had permitted divorce.  The Pharisees present an acceptable legal argument based on the book of Deuteronomy.

Jesus dismisses this permission with a sharp rejoinder.  “For your hardness of heart” Moses allowed divorce, he says.  The accusation of “hardness of heart”–sklerokardia–is a serious one.  “Hardness of heart” is associated with resistance to the ways of God (Jer 4:4, Ez 3:7). Moreover, Pharaoh, their ancient enemy, had also had “hardness of heart.”  No Jew would want to be lumped in with Pharaoh.  Secondly, Pharaoh is a representative figure for patriarchy.  Nobody is higher up the social ladder than Pharaoh.

Having associated divorce with Pharaoh and patriarchy, Jesus switches from the subject of divorce to marriage in general.  In effect, he will base his argument on a broader understanding of Moses–not specific commands or permissions, but a general attitude toward life and relationships based on God’s design of creation. Jesus says, “from the beginning of creation, he (God) made them male and female.”  The reference is to Genesis 1:27:  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Note that the “image of God” is both corporate–“them”–and includes both male and female.

Jesus continues:  “Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.”  Here, the reference is to Genesis 2:24:  “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  Note that the man is to leave his family–that is, he is to leave his own patriarchal tradition. This leaving is much greater in consequence than just leaving home. To leave the family is to part with the very core social arrangement that undergirds a communal society. Not unlike an act many Pacific young people face when choosing a western more individualistic way of living and perhaps at the core of much disruption for Maori people without whanau connections. Jesus adds, “What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate.”  Jesus avoids the technical term for divorce (apoluse) and switches instead to “separate” (chorizo).  He does not directly challenge the Mosaic law which allows for divorce, but instead bases his argument on God’s intention in creation which is the unity that lies at the centre and goal of marital relationships and the essential equality of male and female.

That a man may divorce his wife, but not vice versa, is both an expression of the institution of patriarchy and a subversion of the intention of God “from the beginning of creation” for whole and unbroken relationships. Its less about the consequences of a marriage breakdown and more about the cultural assumptions and the development of practice and law that subvert holistic, healthy relationships between people.

Jesus and the disciples go away from the crowds and “into the house.”  The disciples have questions, which is not surprising since Jesus has just upended centuries of tradition.  Jesus responds, “Whoever might release his woman and might marry another commits adultery upon her.  And if she, releasing her man, might marry another, she commits adultery.”

The challenge here is that in the world of that time, a Jewish man could not commit adultery against his wife.  The definition of adultery was of a married woman with a man other than her husband.  If a man had relations with a married woman who was not his wife,it was considered to be adultery against the woman’s husband, not against his own wife.

In a strong defence of women, Jesus asserts that a man who divorces and remarries abrogates not only God’s intention in creation but also commits adultery against his first wife.  Further, Jesus contradicted Jewish law by stating that a woman might divorce her husband.  This was acceptable in Greco-Roman law, but not Jewish law.

To summarize to this point, Jesus invokes God’s intention in creation which is that relationships be equal and unbroken.  He subverts the dominant patriarchal worldview that only men could get divorces, and only women could commit adultery against her spouse.  His teaching recognizes the profoundly wrenching experience of divorce, as anyone who has been through it can attest, and also recognizes the reality of divorce and the importance of maintaining justice in its application.

Immediately after these teachings, we have people bringing children to Jesus “so that he might touch them.”  (Interesting:  Every other use of the word “touch” in Mark has to do with healing.  Some scholars argue here that the children were sick. The disciples “rebuked” (a strong word used only here in Marks Gospel). The disciples rebuked those who were bringing the children, apparently forgetting that Jesus had already said that whoever welcomed a child also welcomed him, which was the same thing as welcoming God (9:36-37).  Here we have the disciples getting it wrong again.

Jesus then says, “Do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”  Children represent all the “little ones” cared for by God.  Of these “little ones,” the kingdom of God is constituted. In Mark’s gospel, the phrase “truly I say to you” occurs 14 times.  It indicates a special pronouncement, and means the listener should underline what follows.  Then Jesus says, “Whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.”

The saying is not about the “simple faith” of innocent children and how we all should emulate their unquestioning trust.  It is, rather, about the precarious state of children, their vulnerability, their lack of status.  (It is claimed that 60% of first century middle-eastern children died before their 16th birthday.)  Indeed, already in Mark, the synagogue leader’s daughter had died of illness (5:21ff.), the syrophoenician woman’s daughter was ill (7:24ff.), and a man’s son was demon-possessed (9:14ff.).

Nobody is more powerless than a child, then or now, and every child knows it.  Hierarchical systems, of whatever kind, oppress those on the bottom.  Pharaoh oppressed his slaves.  From the point of view of the child, families oppress children.

Any psychologist worth his or her salt recognizes that children will almost always internalize the conflicts of the family.  If the family is experiencing stress, the children think it’s their fault.  Why wouldn’t they?  They often experience being at fault and earning the displeasure of their parents.  This is part of their everyday experience.

In the first century world, children were property of their father.  They were accepted into the family on the father’s say so, and were subject to his authority all through their lives.  This made them sitting ducks for “Stockholm syndrome.”

That is, they may feel oppressed within the family, they may have little if any voice, and they are generally not allowed to express their anger.  Nevertheless, they also recognize their complete dependence on the good will of their father and, in a sense, come to identify with their father.  In the process, they learn that it is all right to oppress those who are smaller and weaker, a view they carry with them into adulthood.

“Whoever receives a child receives me,” Jesus had said (9:37).  In the kingdom of God, which is to be practiced here on earth, children are to be “received.”  They are to be accepted.  Again, in our lection, children not to be “hindered.”  They are not to be turned away just because they are small and powerless.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  Turn a child away–turn away those who are weak–and you are not in the kingdom.

I want to suggest that the apparent failure of the CYPHS system in our country is an example of a cultural system that has lost touch with its Gospel imperative which is the wellbeing of the child and not the fiscal or political efficiency of a system of management. It is about the relationship the child has with God as a cherish human being made in God’s image rather than making sure all the rules of the day are kept.

The episode closes with Jesus taking children into his arms, “blessing them and “laying hands on them.”  The children had been brought so that Jesus might touch them.  Relationship is what it is about.  Amen.