This week’s Gospel lectionary passage is probably familiar to many church-goers and Bible readers. And that may be part of the problem of dealing with this text. Considering that much of Mark’s writing here is about marriage and divorce (a sensitive-enough topic at any moment but considering how volatile the subject of marriage is today and the fact that divorce has touched so many families) those who ponder the recorded words of Jesus–and especially those who would preach on them–should do so with caution and discretion. For an excellent and thorough commentary and exegesis, take a few minutes to read what Matt Skinner over at WorkingPreacher.org has to say.
Now, for the passage itself (and, I know, it’s tempting to just skip to the end and all the lovely words about blessing and valuing children but try to resist the urge):
Some Pharisees came, and to test him 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 NRSV
I know I’m not alone in having the experience of hearing folks use this passage in a (pick your favorite word: traditional, conservative, rigid, outdated, inspired, appropriate) way. Much depends on the extent to which one reads the Bible literally, metaphorically, or in some other way. And we could, of course, have quite an extended discussion on just who has the “right” (whether civil or religious) to enjoy the blessings of marriage–and, then naturally, to face the possibility of the challenge of divorce. But I don’t think that’s the best way to respond to this portion of Mark’s Gospel. Well, then, you’re right to ask: What is?
This is once incident among many when Pharisees (or scribes or Sadducees) try to trap Jesus. Each time he proves his ability to out-finesse them. They attempt to use Moses’ words but Jesus goes back much further than that, appealing to the Genesis creation accounts. There we find a key to the entire argument: human beings are not meant to be alone. (If you haven’t already, check out Skinner’s commentary linked above for a bunch of cautions.) In its simplest form, God’s blessings come within relationships, both between persons and in community. You don’t have to start humming the camp song “No man is an island” here to realize this. And as part of that Jesus emphasizes the need to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
Jesus’ own disciples tried to keep those annoying parents with children away from him, which led to his rebuke. Of course, this isn’t just about children. In Jesus’ day, even more than in our own times, children were among the marginalized–people who happened to be poor, disabled, sick, deformed, or of the “wrong” religious, ethnic, gender-oriented, or social group help to give further definition to this category. All of them and each of them are equally eligible to receive God’s blessing. Who are we to keep them in the shadows?