When I was a little boy my family lost a pet. He was a small terrier-mix named Porgy. My parents had adopted Porgy and his adopted sister Bess one Christmas, and my six siblings and I were very excited. Bess, however, was a shepherd mix – bigger and more rambunctious – and when she came close to knocking down my grandmother who lived next door and visited pretty much daily, we sadly had to place her elsewhere, which was done with great solemnity. Porgy lived out his life with us though, and when he died it was very painful. At the time, I just sort of pushed my feelings aside until, over a decade later, I found a friend who was one of the most ardent pet lovers I’ve ever known. Nancy explained to me that ALL our pets go to heaven and wait for us – that when we arrive in our turn, they bound or crawl, fly or slither to us, and greet us with love. What a relief I thought – and still do! All pets go to heaven. Their owners? Hmmm. That’s another story entirely!
I’m actually much more comfortable, the older I get, in the notion that our lives are not as much about going to heaven as they are about creating the Reign of God while we are here. And that’s what’s so wonderful about the teachings of Jesus. He seems always to want to help us move toward actively shaping the Kingdom of God each and every day.
In our gospel passage this morning Jesus, once again, seems moved to help – although, quite honestly, for a moment he also seems to be pretty harsh about it. In reply to the usual provocateurs he sets out what sounds like a pretty rigid interpretation of the law regarding marriage. Is that the point he’s trying to make? Rigid interpretation of the law? Think of all the ways you know how Jesus moves in the gospels and perhaps, like me, you’ll imagine that harshness and rigidity are not what he’s after. I don’t know a Jesus who ever proclaims ways we humans can be justified in making insiders and outsiders. That being said, we know that today there are, in many ways, different issues – psychological and emotional, social and ethical – than those surrounding marriage and divorce in first century Palestine, but it’s probably safe to say that there were complexities then as much as now.
What Jesus may be doing in this exchange is meeting his questioners where they are. He’s replying as a legalist to the harshest legalists of his day. Mark tells us that they have come to test Jesus on the law – so the manner in which he replies in this instance doesn’t necessarily indicate his nature. Think about it – would he be joining in with some manner of condemnation that lay thinly veiled within his questioners? Or would he be, in his reply, exposing legalism and hardness of heart – this time on the part of those who interpret God’s words as weapons to be used against already hurting people? I have a really hard time imagining Jesus that way. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single example where Jesus seems concerned about sin and punishment. Sin and forgiveness, yes. His first wish for us is peace, after all. Moreover, I don’t think the Pharisees were the slightest bit interested in divorce. They were only interested in testing Jesus. No, I think that it’s hardness of heart that’s the real subject here – the real point Jesus is trying to make. How do we live our lives in such ways as to move away from the kinds of hardness of heart that don’t support Jesus primary desire for us – the kinds of hardness of heart that are focused on sin and punishment? We’re constantly negotiating human tradition and experience in the context of determining God’s will. Divorce is part of that negotiation process, and the entire subject is made more tender when we realize we’re not trying to negotiate God’s law as much as we are God’s will.
Hardness of heart – it’s a fascinating subject.
Sadly, however, it seems so much of our hardness of heart is borne of fear:
• Fear that maybe I’m missing out on something better, so what’s part of my life now becomes disposable
• Fear that those who are not like me must be made lesser somehow, so that my value as a person is not compromised
• Fear that I am not enough – that if you flourish I may lose something of life…somehow (I don’t quite know how, but I’m not taking any chances) – as if flourishing, like honor to the ancients, were a limited commodity.
Sadly, too, the worldly world doesn’t seem to help us manage the hardness of our hearts. In our world culture the overwhelming emphasis is on individual satisfaction – meeting one’s own needs. The promise of marital fidelity, for example – and so many other promises we make to others and to God – all are under relentless threat.
How are you able to navigate them? What kinds of thoughts or practices can any of us employ that will assist us? Prayer, I’ve always felt, is key. Prayer always helps.
And since some forms of prayer include reading and reflecting on scripture, we find some helpful points by prayerfully reflecting on the final section of today’s gospel passage, in which Jesus, once again, draws a child into the moment.
The moment is about much more than Jesus hugging some children. He makes a sweeping, blanket statement about entering God’s Kingdom – about bringing about the Kingdom of God that is already among you.
Children. “It is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.” In order to enter the Kingdom of God one must receive it as a child. We must be like a child.
How? What do we need to mirror that is childlike? Is it their humility or innocence? Their simplicity? Their trust? A good amount of attention has been paid to the meaning in this passage over the centuries, and modern scholars are beginning to write about this mirroring of children, and they seem to be leaning toward obedience. It is adopting the obedience of children in our spirits that will have the greatest effect.
We need to be like children, by recognizing we have a parent, namely, someone who still has authority over us, even when we are adults of any age.
This moment in today’s gospel passage echoes Jesus’ conversation with his disciples as he taught them to pray.
“Our Father”, he said. Actually, he used the term “Abba” for father, connoting a deeper intimacy between us and God than what may have been actively known up until that point. In all matters – and, I think, most particularly when it comes to interpreting scripture – we’re told to approach God as obedient children. With simplicity. With trust. With obedience.
This is so significant it goes back to Genesis – to Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden. In highly symbolic language temptation – the snake, ego, call it what you will, the truth transcends literalism – temptation rose up for the first couple and, suspecting they were missing out on something, they disobeyed. And in that moment, wrongly believing they could know what God knows, they moved from being in loving and obedient relationship with God as parent, to becoming what they believed was their own authority.
I’ve begun to think that this aspect of human nature, while appearing to some as liberating, has in fact lent to the propagation of a brand of faith that does not look to God as authority as much as it looks to use a misplaced notion of God’s authority as justification for side-stepping that other great thing we know about Jesus. How does declaring God’s authority to be at work when it comes to depriving fellow citizens of their civil rights (?) – how does that demonstrate an understanding of the greatest commandments as Jesus has made them known? Love God fully. Love neighbor and self fully.
What happens when we cease to see ourselves as God’s children – as still needing to be grounded in God’s loving desire for us and for creation? Are we getting more equal as brothers and sisters only to no longer need a parent in our lives? No authority greater than ourselves? Or worse yet, an authority we use to prove God hates all the same people we do? What is the cost of that loss of grounding in God? Isn’t it more rivalry, conflict and senseless destruction and not less?
Can we really be brothers and sisters without a parent? Can we be equal partners in marriage without God being the loving and supportive parent over us and our beloved spouses? When there is no jointly recognized authority, no mutual sense of transcendence, then there is nothing to prevent us from falling into endless rivalries, sibling and otherwise. We risk descend into an increasing darkness of order and disorder.
I think Jesus is trying to offer us a kind of strength and guidance that is available to us in learning to be like a child. Don’t forget, too, how good children are at “No!” and “Why?” It’s natural for us to push back at and to struggle with God. Israel, after all, means “Who wrestles with God”! Be like a child and welcome God’s reign in your life as though it were a child come into your midst. We can’t lose when we attempt this.
In the culture of Jesus’ time, where honor and shame were decisive factors in determining behavior, people would have been very eager to welcome someone of high status whose company could be seen as increasing one’s own honor. Children, however, were of especially low status. There was no perceptible value in hosting a banquet for a child. (Children’s birthday parties are a modern invention.) So when Jesus says that reception of God’s dominion is like embracing a child, he is asserting, again, that God is not experienced in power but in weakness. Recent events involving gun violence – in a culture that allows the horrific pattern we, as a nation, seem to accept – underscores this so clearly and so painfully. (Did you have a chance to hear Colbert’s monologue the other night?) What’s the definition of insanity, Nation? It’s doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That’s insanity, not common humanity – not mutual transcendence.
Co-creating the kingdom of God is not a way to become first or recognized. It’s not about co-opting a singular meaning in scripture in order to perpetuate differentiation. Jesus is always trying to tell us that co-creation is, instead, a way to identify with the least, the hurting and downtrodden. It’s about serving simply for Jesus’ sake.