Given that the Pharisees supply an answer to their own question readily enough when Jesus prompts them to do so, they certainly don’t seem to have been seeking enlightenment from Jesus. If, as Mark tells us, their question was asked as a trap, it doesn’t appear to have been much of one.
However, I’m told that marriage had come to be regarded mostly as a legal arrangement between families, and divorce raised the question of how that legal arrangement could be terminated. It seems this was a hot topic of debate among religious scholars of the time.
The Pharisees were trying to catch Jesus in a position of unorthodoxy. There was also a deeper trap: John the Baptist had literally lost his head by directly challenging the divorce and remarriage proceedings of King Herod.
Jesus evades the trap by refusing to become caught up in legal technicalities. Instead, he resets the whole notion of marriage, placing it firmly back in relational terms, as a committed human relationship that reflects God’s original vision for humanity. Divorce was not part of that vision.
This is not easy for many people to hear, particularly not for people whose marriages have failed and ended in divorce. This can be a painful subject for such people, and has not been helped by some of the hard-hearted positions the institutional church has sometimes taken on this issue.
Marriage is meant to be the most intimate and fulfilling union between two people, but that isn’t necessarily the way it works out, for various reasons. I do not believe that Jesus is condemning people to situations of unendurable misery when marriages do not work out as hoped, despite the best efforts and intentions of those involved. I believe Jesus would have great compassion for such people.
I also think Jesus is setting forth a beautiful ideal, describing a dream in the heart of God for human flourishing. Tragically, some peoples’ waking reality can be more of a nightmare.
Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom on earth, and he seems to have understood that as bringing about a new creation that would enable us ultimately to return to what God originally envisioned for us. Mark tells us in this section of his Gospel that the disciples struggled to understand and accept what Jesus was up to.
Not long before the passage we read together this morning, the disciples had been arguing over which of them was the greatest. Jesus responded by placing a child among them and urging them to recognize and welcome his presence in that child.
The disciples had previously tried to stop someone acting in Jesus’ name because that person wasn’t part of their group. In just such a way, the disciples in today’s passage tried to stop people bringing children to Jesus. Perhaps it’s not too surprising that Jesus apparently became somewhat irritated with them.
We might be inclined to think of children in terms of their innocence. I am told that in Jesus’ social context, children were more typically thought of in terms of having no social status and being powerless and entirely dependent. Children had no right to expect anything, but instead received whatever good came to them in life as a gift.
It has been suggested that if Jesus was teaching disciples in our day, he would not necessarily be holding up children to consider. He might rather draw attention to other vulnerable people excluded by much of modern society, such as the homeless and refugees.
Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom on earth, and he continues to invite everyone to enter the realm of God’s gracious rule after receiving it as the greatest of good gifts. Doing so involves developing open-hearted attitudes and actions on our part that might not always be entirely comfortable for us, a compassionate way of being and relating that does not necessarily come naturally to us. Developing that way of being and relating requires an ongoing process of inner conversion in response to the persistent lovingkindness of our God.
St Benedict wisely understood human nature and the resistances we have to doing what is ultimately in our own best interests. In his Rule for monastic communities, he makes ongoing conversion of life the central commitment. This is supported by obedience rooted in deep listening and stability as a determination to stay present to all that challenges us to love more generously.
This conversion is often a slow process requiring much patience as we repeatedly disappoint ourselves and sometimes others, hopefully learning something from each disappointment. Just as Jesus did not give up on his disciples (nor the Pharisees, for that matter), he does not give up on us either.
In responding to the constant reminders to turn again towards God, we gradually learn to see as God sees and to love as God loves. We learn to see those around us who might have been invisible to us before, we learn to love those around us we might not have paid enough attention to before.
The hope is that the end of a process that might begin in fear and trembling is new life lived with an open heart, a heart that had been hardened by life in this world, now made tender by living in response to the relentless lovingkindness of our God.