Simply Job

Wisdom literature

The Wisdom genre of writing in the O.T comprises the book of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, and the book of Job. On the whole, the book of Wisdom presents a conventional view of: do good and you will be rewarded, do bad and you will be punished. Ecclesiastes has a more complex and nuanced view which challenges the book of Wisdom’s more simplistic conclusions. Ecclesiastes views the universe as unpredictable. Bad things happen to good people just as good things happen to bad people, and there is no clear explanation for why this is so. This more nuanced perspective raises a core conundrum: can we rely on God to be both wise, and just? It’s this conundrum that the book of Job addresses.

The author of Job is an Israelite writing at a date that is difficult to determine. However, the point here is that he is drawing on a much older non-Israelite story about a man called Job who lived in Ur –  city of the Chaldeans, which in today’s topography is located somewhere between Damascus and the Euphrates. The book’s prologue and epilogue seem to hang together, both written in Hebrew prose and at first sight offer a simplistic morality more in keeping with the Book of Wisdom. The core of the book between prologue and epilogue is written in the most exquisite Hebrew poetry; the complexity and obscurity of which has posed a serious challenge for any translator.

Job’s story

angelic conferenceJob’s story begins in mythical time in the realms of the heavenly conference involving God and the more important angels. In this conference, God boasts about his servant Job, praising him for his faithfulness. The angel known as Satan, seeking to undermine God, questions God’s assessment of Job.  Satan basically says let me test Job and you will find out that he’s not as faithful as he pretends because once his prosperity is challenged he will curse God. God gives Satan his wish. He can visit any disaster upon Job so long as he stops short of taking his life.

The prologue presents Job as an amazingly successful and prosperous man. A man who has made wise investments including making regular propitious sacrifices to God. Suddenly, his whole livelihood is devastated by a huge earthquake which not only destroys all his property but kills livestock, servants and his children. Only Job and his wife are spared. This calamity is followed by a series of physical afflictions, reducing Job to a whimpering heap of festering sores.

At first, Job continues to praise God, and even though eventually he laments the day of his birth, he refuses to believe that God has abandoned him.

From left stage there now enter a couple of Job’s good friends. They tell Job that God is just, and the world is ordered by divine justice, ergo Job must have done something wrong to be so punished by God. His friends faithfully visit Job and try to comfort him in his afflictions.

We can get a sense of how Job’s friends felt when we consider our own experience of supporting a close friend through a period of suffering. After a while, the burden of witnessing pain we are powerless to control or take away plays on our own fears. We find ourselves subtly distancing ourselves from our friend’s suffering by secretly assigning blame or responsibility to the victim as the cause of their own suffering. We think after all so-and-so has only themselves to blame.

It’s not that we want to punish our suffering friend so much as we need to explain the cause of their suffering. Despite continuing to feel sympathy, it’s comforting if we can assign agency for suffering to something our friend may or may not have done. In this way, we distance ourselves from their experience of suffering by locating its cause to them and not to something that also could happen to us.

Job’s friends need to find an explanation for Job’s life falling apart. The most obvious one for them is provided by their conventional morality of divine justice – God does not punish the innocent, only the guilty They work hard to get Job to admit his sin. Job vehemently protests his innocence, not only to his friends but also to the Almighty.

As the first two friends are about to give up on Job as a lost cause a new friend arrives. He’s a younger man, full of the untested confidence of youth. He advances a new and novel idea. God is not punishing Job for sin but testing his faithfulness by purging him of ego – God does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit[1].

He continues to persuade Job for the next several chapters and finally, not only has Job had enough, but it seems, God has as well. Dismissing the arguments of the young friend God demands: Who is this who darkens counsel without words of knowledge?[2]

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 The long-awaited response

Now, God finally addresses Job directly. Job’s complaint all along has been -how can a just God act so unjustly towards him? God counters with shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty[3], pushing Job back on the defensive.

God now addresses Job from within a whirlwind saying: gird up your loins like a man for I now wish to question you[4].

downloadGod takes Job on a virtual tour of the universe asking him: were you present at the birth of creation? Did you bring order to the universe, have you seen this, been there, done that, and do you know how it all works? Do you claim to understand the complexity of the universe as if you are able to keep it all in good working order?

It’s curious that God does not defend the idea of divine justice but asserts divine sovereignty in the face of Job’s accusations.

The upshot of God’s response to Job is that Job cannot claim to understand anything God does, including the inexplicability of suffering. What may look like an injustice to Job, is from God’s wider perspective simply part of a larger and richer whole encompassed within divine wisdom, something beyond Job’s capacity to understand. And thus, we arrive at the final chapter of the book with Job acknowledging the foolishness of his demands to know all that God knows. 

Suffering’s reframing

When we are faced with something beyond our understanding, we can either pull back, stay safe, and simply say: just accept the way things are because it’s all a mystery. Or we can treat that which is presently beyond our understanding as an invitation to become more curious and to journey further. Something has shifted for Job and he now embraces that which seems beyond his understanding with curiosity. A new perspective opens for Job from which to view his experience of suffering. Throughout this whole terrible experience, Job has been so fixated on protesting his innocence and calling God to account, he has failed to notice that the experience of suffering has been slowly changing him. Having his whole world blown to smithereens transforms Job so that faced with God’s sovereignty he is able to now confess:

I had heard of you by hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you: therefore, I recant – give up my demand – for I am only a creature that lives among dust and ashes.

Job’s experience is now reframed by his knowing that he is both at the center of God’s concern, yet, at the same time, only one speck of dust within the enormous complexity of God’s perspective. He may be no wiser as to why he has had to suffer but he knows that God has never abandoned him.

First takeaway

For Job, and for us also, this is both a thrilling and terrifying discovery. Like Job, it’s hard for us to sit in the tension between knowing that God loves us, utterly, and the recognition that we are powerless to control so much that happens in our lives and our world.

We now come to what appears to be a happy-ever-after ending as God restores all Job’s losses tenfold. This is a jarring conclusion to what otherwise is the most profound exploration of the relationship between human suffering and God’s justice. It’s seeming simplistic message and the return to the prose style of the prologue has led commentators to see this as an ending tacked on to the original story because, after all, don’t we all like happy endings?

Second takeaway

However, what appears to be a happy ending gloss-over nevertheless raises some profound questions. It strikes me rather like a reboot of the story. Using the analogy of downloads on our computers, the more significant downloads, the ones that reconfigure aspects of the operating system require a complete machine reboot to take effect.

Third takeaway

This traumatic destruction of Job’s whole life and all he thought he could take for granted has changed him and now requires a reboot to take effect. Job is newly restored to even more good fortune. But Job in the epilogue is not the same as Job in the prologue. He is a man who now understands the nature of abundance as a gratuitous gift from God and not simply his reward for good behavior and the offering of propitious sacrifices.

It’s a common human experience that only after we lose something do we come to understand its true value. In short, for the first time Job now understands that God’s generosity is given not earned. If we apply this insight to our own lives we can appreciate the significant shift in self-understanding involved.

This takeaway has a particular meaning for us in a time of the annual renewal of our stewardship responsibilities. God’s renewal of Job’s prosperity is a gracious and gratuitous-unearned gift, for which Job feels a new intensity of gratitude towards God. This manifests in a new commitment to live with greater generosity in the way he uses his wealth.

In his reboot, Job now comes to mirror God’s expression of generosity.  He gives his three new daughters evocative names which translate roughly as Dove, Cinnamon, and Rouge-Pot. He settles on them the same inheritance as he settles on his sons; something completely unheard of in ancient Israel.

Final takeaway

“The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control?” It is a question worth pondering. Can you love what you do not control: this wild and beautiful creation, its wild and beautiful Creator, your own children? [5]

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[1] V37:24

[2] V38:2

[3] V40:1-2

[4] V40:6

[5] Katheryn Schifferdecker in her 2012 commentary citing Ellen F. Davis, particularly her chapter, “The Sufferer’s Wisdom,” in her book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2001), 121-143.

 

Being Thankful

An address from Malcolm Griggs to start St Martin’s Annual Renewal Campaign for 2018-19

Thanks Giving 

Good morning .   Usually, it’s another  member of my family standing here, not me, but it’s traditional during the stewardship and in-gathering time of year for lay people to convey their personal perspective on what church and community mean to them and how we have concluded that it is important to give back.   That’s the part of this that is frankly unsettling .  I have no problem making people’s eyes glaze over with boredom when discussing abstract concepts, ….it’s one of my core competencies….but when it gets personal? …well, it’s personal.

So maybe let’s approach it this way:  If any one of us were standing here today to discuss the level of importance that the church occupies in their life and why they give of their talents; I suspect we’d hear  something a bit different from each of us . Some things would resonate, others would not, but perhaps a thought might be kindled , or a motivation encouraged.   There is no one path to engagement with our church community . As Mark often says , we are a congregation on a journey , and I think that can apply to our spiritual journey as well as how we interact with the Church  and with our broader community.

For me , there are intersecting factors in how I view my role in the church and the community and how I choose to spend my time and how I choose to make contributions of my time and resources.  For the sake of ease , and because this is supposed to be personal, I’m using terms like “I” and “my” , but for the record , …decisions on resource contributions and so many other things in my life are actually “our “ decisions , made by me and Linda together , as we have always done.

So the disclaimers dispensed  with,  let’s now get back to these intersecting factors that I mentioned.  These factors include Stewardship, Citizenship, and Gratitude. And each of these factors is somehow tied up in Love. Love for community, love for God and the love of God for God’s creation , including us.

So that brings me back to the first of these intersecting factors that inform why and how I choose to contribute .

Stewardship 

the concept to me has to do with the present and the future ; in particular the need to preserve things that matter for generations that will come after us.  I’ll give two examples of what I mean…one global…the other closer to home.

First, there is no conceivable positive outcome for the future  resulting from the destruction of coral reefs, the rainforests or an increase in Carbon Dioxide content in our atmosphere.  In my view if we allow this to happen we are failing in our role as Stewards of God’s creation . We are not the “owners” of God’s creation .  It was given to our temporary , responsible use, not for us to destroy through our negligence or willful greed , without regard for future generations.  That was not our job. Our job was to act as steward of God’s creation so that others may know God through it . 

The other example ,  quite close to home here at St. Martins, is this wonderful place where we are able to meet with each other and affirm together what we believe and what we seek to understand .  St. Martins has been around a long time and has been in this location , in this building , for 100 years.  I believe we are stewards of this building and of the spiritual life that is facilitated by gathering in this place.  We cannot, through action or inaction , fail future generations who may benefit from a congregation here .  This includes worshipers, seekers of spiritual knowledge and solace, and the community at large who may benefit from our outreach programs .  I believe our faith informs how we deal with each other and with the world around us.  So Stewardship of God’s creation and stewardship of God’s vision for our relationship with God and with each other is a prime factor for me in how to spend time and resources and this intersects with the next factor.

Citizenship

To be a good citizen in a democracy  requires, in my view,  the discipline to be civil with those with whom we disagree .  A lack of disagreement among members of society is a hallmark of a totalitarian state ( not to mention just plain boring) ; and so, while many of us could use a good dose of “boring”  in our political discourse lately ,  it is critically important that we listen to each other respectfully without abdicating our right to advocate  our own point of view.

It is also essential  that we are educated on the critical policy positions that affect us all , ….and that we vote .  The reason I think Citizenship intersects with stewardship is that Citizenship , and our participation in our community through civic engagement is often the means by which we can ensure that we are good stewards of the resources needed to enable our community and people from other communities who wish to join ours, to be fed and sheltered and educated and given a chance to be safe and to be loved .  Citizenship is not just activism on policy issues. It is , or should be , the secular version of what we Christians promise in our baptismal covenant when we say that we will “Respect the Dignity of Every Human Being”.  That’s a powerful promise that we make as followers of Christ , and when we respect the dignity of every human being  it’s hard not to be a good steward.

And when these things happen I am grateful, which brings me to my last intersecting factor .

Gratitude

I am grateful for many things, but I’ll name a few that top the list, and then end by describing how I think all of this fits together:

  • I am grateful for this Church , which has welcomed and supported us through Linda’s ordinations, my Daughter’s wedding ( two years ago this month) and day to day life . I’m sure everyone here can think of why you might be grateful for St. Martins…life events like baptisms, confirmations, weddings or funerals, or day to day spiritual sustenance
  • I am grateful for the opportunities that were afforded to me to obtain a good education and a meaningful career
  • I am grateful that I don’t have to worry about shelter or where my next meal will be coming from
  • I am grateful for friends who make life interesting
  • I am grateful for my family . I’m especially grateful that 40 years ago this month I decided to take  a study break and go downstairs to a common area in my dorm , where I met my future wife.
  • I am grateful for the outdoors and New England in the Autumn ( and actually New England any time of year)
  • I am grateful for the gift of music , especially the richness of the music environment that we have in Rhode Island, including our excellent choir here at St. Martins, and also the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School , which has an extraordinary group of musicians and teachers, including our own Cheryl Bishkoff.

I know we are charged with being Stewards of God’s creation and God’s expectations of us as a community ; I know that Civic engagement , small or large,  is important  in fulfilling our mission as Stewards ,  but for me the Motivation  for civic engagement and Stewardship is gratitude.  That laundry list of things for which I am grateful was not random.  I support , with my time and resources , St. Martin’s Church , The Rhode Island Philharmonic , Nature Conservancies, and organizations that alleviate hunger, enhance education, and provide shelter to God’s children.  I do this not out of a sense of duty, but out of a sense of gratitude for things that matter ;  …and I am thankful  that in some small way , through my time, or whatever I might be able to afford,  that I can contribute in the present and FOR the future.

Next month we will celebrate Thanksgiving .  Most of us have visions of turkey and stuffing and great food and giving thanks for our blessings. And that’s fine .  But I wonder if this year Thanks Giving might mean something a bit different ?   In addition to giving thanks ,  perhaps we should  think about giving because we are thankful.

Heartfelt Questions with Heartstopping Answers: Mark 10

 

What does the promise of eternal life mean to you? In chapter 10 in Mark’s gospel, we eavesdrop on an encounter between Jesus and a young man who asks Jesus: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Picture the scene if you can. Jesus is going about the countryside, preaching and teaching about making the kingdom of God a lived reality in this world. He’s drawing quite big crowds, made up of a mixture of rural peasants, townsfolk who have journeyed out to view the latest entertainment attraction, and the better off, those with time to kill. Among the better off there were those who had a particularly religious interest in Jesus’ message – the religious elite with an anxious ear for anything that challenged their hold over hearts and minds.  The gospels cover many such encounters between Jesus’ and this group. In the story of the young man, we catch glimpse of another constituency among Jesus’ following, i.e. the spiritually curious.

There are people who view the practice of religion as a process of painting by numbers or painting within the lines. These are the complacent and prideful; those who feel very satisfied at their own ability to meet the religious demands. Viewed from this perspective we might see the young man as one who prides himself on his own achievements, as in: Look at me, see how I have kept the commandments since my youth. But his question reveals that he is not one of those who stand with head raised before God, extolling the virtues of his own spiritual self-sufficiency. For him, fulfillment of his religious obligations leaves him with more questions than answers.  His question reveals that his life of religious obligation leaves him wanting something more.

This young man in Mark’s gospel experiences himself caught in a spiritual-religious tension, a tension which I suspect is familiar to many of us to seek to live lives of faith that go beyond mere rule keeping, willing to risk giving up our spiritual self-sufficiency in favor of placing our trust in the energies of God’s grace.

***

Asking Jesus questions is something of a perilous affair because as this man discovers, Jesus is the master of the unpredictable response. From the outset, the young man gets off on the wrong foot with his addressing Jesus and Good Teacher. Jesus looks at him and says: why are you calling me good? Don’t confuse the messenger for the message. In response, I can picture the young man as he makes an involuntary intake of breath and takes step back.

So, Jesus now has this young man’s number, as we might say. He begins to answer the question by asking him: You know the commandments?  The man affirms that he has faithfully kept the commandments since his youth, which given his age can’t have been a very long time. Jesus might have gone on the ask: so, in that case, what’s your problem? images

However, Mark tells us that: Jesus looked at him and loved him. Seven eventful words that speak of Jesus profound ability to see straight into the depths of the human heart where he reads the true nature of this young man’s struggle within the tension between religious observance and spiritual longing.

The man’s opening question: what must I do to inherit eternal life might be reframed as: is obeying the commandments enough to inherit eternal life? because he already suspects that obeying the commandments is not enough to inherit eternal life.

Out of the Ten Commandments this young man has kept from his youth, only two are positive actions: keep the Sabbath day holy and honor your father and mother. The other eight are negative prohibitions prefaced by the words: you shall NOT.

Religion based on prohibition has a certain appeal, although it is, as the young man experiences, ultimately unfulfilling. Its appeal lies in the way it limits the area of responsibility, confining responsibility to essentially not acting. But its appeal is also its deficit. Religious practice based on non-action is ultimately unfulfilling. In refraining from doing that which is forbidden, responsibilities are met,  nothing more is required[1]. For those who long to love God and love their neighbor as themselves, which is how Jesus reframes the Ten Commandments, the religion of prohibition is not enough.

***

Jesus looked at the young man and loved him because the young man wanted Jesus to help him to the next level of response to God. He is about to discover that the promise of eternal life rests upon positive action in this life. You lack one thing, Jesus tells him; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.

Heartfelt questions occasion heart stopping answers. Mark tells us that the young man is deeply disturbed by Jesus words and goes away troubled for he is a man of great wealth. In his response we see plainly that his longing for God was no match for his worldly fear; a predicament with which I suspect many of us can identify.

 ***

As stewardship season approaches this story reminds us of an uncomfortable question: are we able to open our checkbooks as widely and we long to open our hearts? 

Jesus answers the young man’s question by emphasizing that eternal life is about action in this world not hope for the next. It’s not what he does to avoid committing sin in this life that will give him a reward in the next. It’s what he does in this life. The promise of eternal life comes to those who have the courage to participate as God’s agents in the divine dream for the coming of the kingdom in this world’s real time.

***

October 21st, next Sunday, is the kickoff of our Annual Renewal Campaign or as NPR calls it our fall pledge drive, but to call it so is to trivialize the deeper currents that sustain our annual renewal process, which go beyond questions of financial support into those of spiritual inventory. The four weeks of spiritual inventory will be supported by a 40-day program of daily Bible passages, questions, and prayers – exploring scriptural teaching on social justice.

In his answer to the question about eternal life posed by the rich young man, Jesus teaches his disciples about the fundamental connection between gratitude, generosity, and social justice. For the goal of following Jesus is not to ensure that we go to heaven when we die, but to make heaven a reality in this world before we die.

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on this earth in real time as it is already so in heaven.

The 40-day Social Justice Bible Challenge which will run alongside our 30-day Annual Renewal Campaign offers to bridge the gap between knowing the Bible and living it.

For those of us already heavily invested in issues of social justice, the daily meditations will connect our compassion with God’s Word. For others among us, who already take Scripture seriously, the readings, questions, and prayers will help us to shape a renewed vision for action.

Whether our need is to connect our commitment to social justice with God’s Word or let our love for God’s Word shape a renewed vision for social justice in this world, the resources of life are given to us not to hoard and protect but to enjoy as good stewards. Stewards of the kingdom do not hoard, they share. They are not motivated by fear of scarcity, but by the promise of abundance. Our individual prosperity is inextricably linked with the flourishing of our neighbor’s wellbeing. Do good and share what you have for the promise of eternal life is predicated on the practices of social justice.

In today’s America, rising inequality of wealth is reflected in plummeting commitment to wider issues of social justice. In his Atlantic article, which the men’s Op-Ed discussion group will review this coming Tuesday evening, Matthew Stewart writes:

Every piece of the pie picked up by the 0.1 percent, in relative terms, had to come from the people below. But not everyone in the 99.9 percent gave up a slice. Only those in the bottom 90 percent did. At their peak, in the mid-1980s, people in this group held 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. Three decades later that had fallen 12 points—exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1 percent rose.

That’s why Jesus says it’s easier for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.

[1] Even today some Christian traditions still preach obedience to the Ten Commandments. This is very strange because Jesus in effect abolished them for his followers by reframing them in the Two Great Commandments of love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Yet, the continued appeal of religion based on prohibition is because the religion of prohibition limits our personal responsibility. If you can refrain from doing that which is forbidden, your responsibilities are met and nothing more is required of you. We see the tone and effect of this kind of religion all around us in the so-called Christianity of the cultural-conservative right. The battle in some parts of the country over whether the Ten Commandments should appear in our courtrooms is put in perspective when we realize not only should they not appear in our courtrooms, but they have no place in our churches either.

 

Kingdom Vision

20 Pentecost Year B Proper 22                                                        7 October 2018

Mark 10:2-16     A sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

The first advice that I came across as I began preparing to preach for today was, and I quote: “Beware this week.  As soon as you read the word, “divorce” aloud, a whole sermon will appear in people’s heads.”

The guy’s got a point. Sort of like saying, “Don’t think of an elephant”, there is virtually no way to read or hear this passage without becoming distracted from anything that immediately follows. (You are thinking of an elephant, aren’t you?) But this isn’t an elephant. It’s an emotionally fraught issue, almost sure to evoke a reaction to one’s own story or that of a loved one; of guilt, judgment, anger, loneliness, sadness—the opening of a wound of some kind. Because divorce is by definition the death of a relationship, and with death comes grief. This is why today’s Gospel is one of those passages that, tragically and too often, can be weaponized. And as a result, there are those whose experience of divorce has left them alienated from church and community. There are those who have been coerced to remain in an abusive marriage. There are those who hear Jesus’ words about marriage being between man and woman who have been led to believe that this is God’s judgment on gay marriage. The irresponsible use of the Bible as a cudgel to elicit cultural conformity is, unfortunately, more common than not, and this isn’t a new phenomenon. The thing is that people forget that there is a huge difference between seeing the Bible as a source of wisdom— wisdom that is admittedly often challenging– and seeing it as a way to confirm one’s own biases.  So here’s a little word to the wise: The more comfortable a passage like this makes you feel, the more likely it is that you should take another look. And then another.  And if you find that it disturbs you, keep reading, keep thinking, keep listening. God has something to say—it just may not be what you expect.

The key with today’s reading is that, as tempting as it may be to divide the text into two separate encounters, we need to look at the entire passage as a whole. Because the author of the Gospel of Mark has intentionally ordered and constructed his story in such a way that we see, not just random episodes and parables tossed willy-nilly on the page; we are meant to see a vision of the Kingdom—the Dream of God.  

“Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”

The idea of seeking to test Jesus is nothing new; it was a frequent pastime for Temple authorities. There were at least two ways that they might have been doing this, and both carried the potential to get Jesus in trouble (which is what they desired). Socially and politically, divorce was a hot topic during this period because of the scandal of the marriage of the Roman Tetrarch Herod Antipas to his brother’s ex-wife Herodias. When John the Baptizer pointedly criticized them for this he was specifically talking, not just about divorce per se, but about the fact that they had obtained a divorce for the purpose of marrying another.  As you may remember, John’s criticism resulted in the loss of his head; perhaps the Pharisees hoped for a similar outcome for Jesus, that upstart Nazarene?

Or, thinking from the standpoint of scripture, the Pharisees might have been trying to involve Jesus in an argument regarding the law of divorce as stated Deuteronomy 24:1, which says that a man may divorce his wife if he found “indecency” in her—he can then write her a certificate of dismissal, as they called it, and divorce her. The argument among different groups of Pharisees was how strictly or loosely to interpret the term, “indecency”.  Some felt that it meant unchastity, while others interpreted it more loosely as “indecency in anything”, as in; she burned dinner or forgot to buy lamp oil, or she dared to “speak as any foolish woman would speak”, as we heard from Job in the first lesson. Regardless of how ‘indecency’ was defined, a husband could divorce his wife pretty much at will, which effectively left the woman tossed out on her ear with nothing; no voice and no recourse. It wasn’t that a woman could never initiate a divorce—she could. But her husband was free to refuse it, whereas the woman had no choice but to accept the consequences of dismissal from her home. The possibility of being left destitute put women in an extremely precarious position, while their husbands had the security of being able to do what they wanted. Such is the nature of patriarchy.

So, whether it was the question of the legitimacy of Herod’s marriage or the validity of the Law of Moses or a combination, the Pharisees put Jesus in a tricky spot. But interestingly he responds by diverting the line of questioning away from that of divorce instead toward that of marriage. He says that the only reason the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy allows for the certificate of dismissal is because of “your hardness of heart”. In other words, God’s intention was for two people to be in a faithful, respectful, mutually loving relationship, period.  One flesh. But since people, fallible creatures that they were, kept screwing that up, the Law of Moses allowed a way for the relationship to be dissolved if necessary. And then, as it turned out, people had even managed to mess that up by skewing the divorce arrangement in favor of the man. So Jesus sought to get back to the basics, that is, what marriage was about in the first place; that two become as one.

I’d like to digress just a bit here because, like the word, ‘divorce’, the statement from Genesis 2 that Jesus cites– ‘God made them male and female…’– is a potential red herring; a distraction from the main issue. In order to avoid the trap of seeing this as an argument against gay marriage, you have got to remember one simple thing: This is not what this passage is about. The question to Jesus is about divorce. Divorce is about marriage. Marriage at that time was seen a legal arrangement between families of men and women to achieve financial security and a prosperous legacy. Jesus’ point in citing Genesis was not to promote heterosexual unions but to make a statement about a relationship between two human beings; a relationship intended from the beginning to be a mirror image of God and of God’s loving care for Creation.

For Jesus, a marriage relationship was not just a legal arrangement; it was a covenant relationship of mutual generosity, wholeness and healing.

For Jesus, this Kingdom view of marriage is a template of what God desires for couples when they marry.  But we have to acknowledge the fact that the Kingdom that is not yet still needs to allow for human brokenness. Sometimes relationships cannot be saved. Sometimes they need to end in order to ensure the well-being, dignity, and healing of everyone involved, especially those left most vulnerable.

Jesus simply acknowledged this need by leveling the playing field when he said that not just women, but men too were held to the standard of not being allowed to divorce in order to marry another. It may seem a small thing to us now, but it was a sea change for married women. For Jesus, the inbreaking Kingdom offered a measure of fairness toward the most vulnerable that had been missing.

That is what the Dream of God is about: raising up the downtrodden and cherishing those who are the most invisible and the most silenced. And here we find the thread that connects the first part of this passage to the second.  For Jesus, this entire encounter was so much broader than the mere fine points of Mosaic Law. The Kingdom is first and foremost about relationship. How do we see God? How do we see one another? What do we honor in one another? Perhaps more to the point, where do we fall short?

_Suffer the little children to come to me..._People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them… And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. 

If you’ve been following the lectionary, this is the second episode in the past three weeks, and the second time in the space of chapters 9 and 10 of Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus takes children in his arms. And it is the third consecutive week that your clergy have stood in this pulpit and spoken about the vulnerability of women and children in society.  When the Gospel repeats something, and when it calls preachers to say pretty much the same thing for three weeks in a row, that means someone is trying to get our attention. 

Notice that when Jesus focuses his audience on children, he doesn’t do it through his usual teaching medium: Parables. With the exception of the Prodigal Son, which is about grown children, Jesus does not offer parables about children. Why? Might it be because, as good as parables are for illustrating a point, showing is always better than telling? Nothing communicates God’s love for children more effectively than the image of Jesus holding a wee one in his arms and offering a blessing. So if Jesus is offering us something even more vivid than his parables, he is trying to get our attention.

To honor children in the way that Jesus does here was as radical as offering women more of a voice in marriage. Children in first century Palestine were of no account until they were old enough to pull their own weight, at which point they were pretty much seen as miniature adults. What Jesus does here is revolutionary—something that doesn’t actually get fully acknowledged in western society until the 19th century—and it’s this: Jesus treats a child as something special.  Jesus actually looks at children developmentally. He sees childhood as a distinctive and valuable part of life—an aspect of human development that can teach us something in particular, which is that those who are most fresh from God offer us a glimpse of our true calling as creatures of the Kingdom.

When he looks at the children Jesus sees trust, honesty, generosity, and wonder.

He sees in them the creativity, spontaneity, and courage that comes from not yet knowing what they can’t accomplish. He calls us to see with the eyes of the Kingdom; to honor and protect those gifts of childhood in every person, and in ourselves. But to see with the Eyes of the Kingdom is something else as well: It is also to see the victimized and the invisible. It is to defend and protect those whom the world would dismiss.

God is calling us to open our eyes once again, to remember who and whose we are; to see the world through the eyes of the One who came to us as a vulnerable infant.

 

 

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