CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Love and Other Kid Stuff
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But 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.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
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 10:2-16
No matter how many times they lose, the Pharisees never tire of playing gotcha with Jesus. This time they want to trip him up on the finer points of marital law. But Jesus doesn't look at marriage the way they do. They are into contracts, conditions and codicils. He is all about love.
The Pharisees question Jesus about legal obligations. He answers them by describing the essence of married love as the two shall become one flesh. As such, he envisions marriage as a blessed state, sanctified by God to unite all loving couples.
Rabbinic law and custom had codified a distinctly second-class status for married women. A man could simply declare a marriage dissolved. A woman enjoyed no comparable privilege. Jesus sweeps this inequality aside. He declares the couple to be one flesh, equal before God.
While this gospel’s pronouncement on divorce is framed in absolute terms, variations and exceptions are posited by both Matthew and Paul. Princeton theologian C. Clifton Black offers a useful perspective on the letter and the spirit of the text: “What may sound to our ears as relentlessly harsh assumes a different tenor when we understand that Jesus’ intent is the protection and honor of the spouse as a child created in God’s image, not as chattel to be discarded on selfish whim.” In that context, Black goes on to conclude: “Although he does not address the question in Mark, it is hard to imagine that Jesus would have sanctioned a social contract in which one or both members were abusive or subject to abuse, for as Jesus frames the matter—within the goodness of God’s wholesome creation—that would be no marriage at all.”
In prayerful reflection, our own leaders—clergy and lay from across the Church—have advanced this view of continuing revelation, as we work towards Becoming Beloved Community. Specifically, since the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost, the Body of Christ has been receiving new truth from God right up to this present day.
These revelations have accelerated apace with the explosion of knowledge in physical, medical and social sciences. Breakthroughs in genetic and behavioral sciences have given us new insights into the nature of human sexual identity. And in light of these new realities, many faithful leaders in the Church—in the spirit of God’s unconditional love—have been moved to extend the blessings of marriage to all of God’s people, not just those within the heterosexual community but members of the LBGTQ+ communities as well. We celebrate as sacred these unions of our beloved brothers and sisters. And we urge the faithful to support and embrace them as surely Jesus does. Among its statements of belief, The Episcopal Church includes, “In Jesus, we find that the nature of God is love, and through baptism, we share in his victory over sin and death.” They further emphasize, “We strive to love our neighbors as ourselves and respect the dignity of every person.”
Through married love—both by natural birth and by adoption—successive generations come forth to be baptized in Christ. And it is the faith formation of children that is the focus of the second part of this gospel.
Jesus is preaching, and a group of parents want some of his goodness to rub off on their kids. The scene is so easy to visualize. The parents are pushing forward. The kids are being kids. And the disciples are trying to maintain some kind of order. The results are a sublimely teachable moment: Jesus declares his unconditional commitment to love, even at the expense of decorum. Let the children come to me...for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Taken together, these two brief lessons can be seen as the New Testament in microcosm. Love wins! Love trumps legalism. God's priorities are not the world's priorities. The proud and the powerful are put on notice: Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it. And to cap it all, the love of Christ is always accessible. It's there for the taking, as when: He embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them.
Not a word of what Jesus said to the children is recorded in scripture, but what a powerful lesson he preached. He swept aside the barriers raised against the children. He did not just talk to them of God's love. He held them in that love. He blessed them with it. In imitation of Christ's powerful lesson, St. Francis urges us: "Preach the gospel at all times...use words when necessary." What a lesson for those of us still too inhibited or courteous to proclaim Christ to the world. While we gather courage to evangelize vocally, let our love in action do the preaching for us. And like kids coming of age, the right words will follow.
The Rev. Canon David Sellery is the canon for congregational mission in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.
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