Readings: 18th Sunday after Trinity

25 September 2015

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Proper 22: Job 1.1; 2.1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1.1-4; 2.5-12; Mark 10.2-16

 

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us your gift of faith that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to that which is before, we may run the way of your commandments and win the crown of everlasting joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

THE Pharisees return in the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel with another question that is designed to put Jesus in an awkward relationship to the law. Jesus is asked to comment on divorce, with a view to enticing him to pronounce the law wrong, and to offer something in its place.

They, and the Scribes, have already tried the topics of forgiving sins (Mark 2.6-12), picking wheat or healing on the sabbath (Mark 2.23-3.6), and ritual cleanliness (Mark 7.1-16); and have evidently failed to learn from these encounters that Jesus is not to be trapped. Perhaps it goes against the grain to admit that he is as well-versed in the law and the scriptures as they are.

Jesus replies with a question: “What did Moses command you?” (Mark 10.3). Their reply allows him to catch them on a technicality; for there is a difference between commanding and allowing, and if the Mosaic Law comprised the whole Pentateuch, then there was only one command about the duration of marriage — the creation ordinance of Genesis 2.24.

Provision is made in Deuteronomy (24.1-4) for ending a marriage under particular circumstances, and this is the line taken in Matthew’s rendition of the same episode: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19.9).

Mark leaves matters more open, and although Jesus could have acknowledged the differing views of conservative interpreters, who thought that there were very few causes for divorce, and liberals, who were prepared to grant divorce on quite slender grounds, he does not do this. Instead, he points out that the additional permission came about because of human failure to live up to the standards set by God at the very beginning.

There was, Bishop Tom Wright points out, a particular case in the Pharisees’ minds: the marriage of Herod to his former sister-in-law after his own divorce (Mark for Everyone, SPCK, 2001). How satisfying it would have been to persuade Jesus to condemn the king. But that should not distract contemporary readers from the extraordinary difficulties of this discussion in a society where many who hear it read in church will personally have experienced the hurt of divorce, and will know at first hand the many and complex factors that bring marriages to an end.

The explanation that Jesus gives privately to the disciples seems to offer an inflexible pronouncement (Mark 10.10-12). Rather than attempt to find reasons to discount it, we might turn to a less clear-cut matter. It is hard to know exactly what is meant by the “hardness of heart” that Jesus recognises in the Pharisees (Mark 10.5), but a very similar expression is found as he heals the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on the sabbath. On that occasion, the meaning is clear. Jesus is grieved and angry at an attitude that would place rigid rules above the saving transformation of human life (Mark 3.4-5).

The narrative moves abruptly on to the arrival of parents with their children, presumably seeking blessing and healing (Mark 10.13). The disciples must share him again, in the midst of this privileged time alone, and only in sharing him will they learn properly what he has to teach them.

They have seen him take a child as the picture of a precious citizen of God’s Kingdom once before (Mark 9.33-37). Now he asks them to be childlike receivers of the gift of the Kingdom: people of no social status who are delighted to be given something, not defenders of the rules that exclude others from admission.

That salvation and elevation to glory are the destiny of flawed human creatures is the dazzling announcement of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. The Revd Dr Tim Jenkins (whose deep and luminous reading of this book in a series of sermons is available electronically at www.jesus.cam.ac.uk/chapel-choir), recommends learning Hebrews 1.1-4 by heart.

It prepares the ground for the next chapter, which notes that God finally chooses to speak to us not through angels, but through his Son; who takes on our nature in every respect, and undergoes suffering and death to make us perfect (Hebrews 2.10-12). In Christ we are all offered a better chance and a “crown of everlasting glory”.

 

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