Reading Mark 10: the contradictions of grace

Ernst_Zimmerman_Christ-and-the-pharisees_700When I last preached on the lectionary reading, Mark 10.2–16 (as many of you might just have done) I felt not a little intimidated by the challenge. It feels though there was a time when reading and preaching on this passage was a lot more straightforward than it feels now. (Life as generally a lot less complicated 10, 20 [insert your chosen figure] years ago.) But both halves of the passage have been given a hard time by our culture.

The first half, Jesus’ teaching on divorce, has with many passages been dragged into the debate about sexuality—doomed planets of exegesis circling a black hole of ethical quandary. Jesus’ teaching here is plain (it is claimed), and the churches have equally plainly disregarded it, since either we don’t practice what we preach when it comes to submitting to the moral teaching of the NT, or because we rightly see that changed social circumstances mean that the plain teaching of the Bible can no longer be applied in our context.

The second half, Jesus’ welcome of children, has also been coloured by this debate: his apparently unconditional acceptance of children means that the only response we can offer people is an equally unconditional welcome, no questions asked. Any suggestion of putting up barriers or getting people to ‘jump through hoops’ of attendance at church or affirmation of belief is a contradiction to Jesus’ radical message of unconditional grace. On the other hand, culture has dealt this passage quite a different blow, since we no longer appear to believe in children as children—only as mini-adults who are nascent units of consumption. They don’t need to be protected from any issues in the adult world (how patronising would that be)—they just need to be properly educated about them, at as early an age as is needed.

Can we still hear these passages speak to us through the contemporary clamour? Yes, I think we can, if we sit quietly for a moment, determined to hear what they have to say to us.

The first thing I notice is that both episodes form a kind of test. Mark tells us this explicitly in the first half: the Pharisees ask him the question to ‘test’ him, the same word used of his being ‘tempted’ or tested in the desert at the start of his ministry. It Matthew’s account (Matt 4.3) Satan is characterised as ‘the tempter’ or ‘tester’, which is actually not a bad translation of the Hebrew term satan. Woe to us when, like the Pharisees, we use the real pain of other people as a testbed on which we can work out our theological ideas. And yet these questions often come to the church as exactly that—tests to see whether we conform to the accepted standards of autonomy, free choice and the right to happiness which are often held up as the highest good.

But the second striking thing is the one most celebrated in this passage. Jesus dismisses the lax teaching of Moses, given ‘because of your hardness of heart’, and points the Pharisees to the original creation teaching. At first, this sounds unquestionably virtuous; God’s intention has been spoilt by human failure, and Jesus comes to restore God’s original, pristine pattern for our human flourishing. Except that this is not the way this text has been applied so often. Let me put it another way. God’s command was too demanding in reality for people to keep, and so Moses introduced a concession to our real lives in order to make this command workable. Jesus has now come along and removed that concession. Understood in this way, Jesus is a lot less gracious and welcoming of human weakness than Moses—and that is how many people have in fact experienced the church’s teaching in this area, lacking in grace and understanding, and without any accommodation of failure. It feels though Jesus’ teaching is too hard, and with many of his followers at the time, we might be tempted to ask ‘Who can accept it?’ (John 6.60).

To answer this question, we need to look at the parallel account in Matthew 19. (The gospel writers offer us only condensed and edited accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, and they often abbreviate in different ways to make different points.) The TNIV of Matt 19.3 draws out the issue rather nicely: ‘Can a man divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ The question is less about divorce in itself, and more about rabbinical debates between the followers of two influential rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. The House of Shammai held that a man may only divorce his wife for a serious transgression, but the House of Hillel allowed divorce for even trivial offenses, such as burning a meal. Jesus is here clearly siding with Shammai; he is not making marriage the absolutely binding, indissoluble thing that Mark’s text has been used to create, and Matthew makes this quite clear. (It is worth noting, though, that Mark 10.12 adds a liberality that Matthew omits from Jesus’s teaching—the assumption that a wife might divorce her husband, so divorce is no longer a male prerogative.) He is making marriage something that involves serious responsibilities, and should not be entered into ‘lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God’ says the C of E marriage service.

Now we can see the ‘hardness of heart’ that Jesus was rejecting. It is not that Moses was making impossibly idealistic teaching realistic. It was that he was pandering to men’s (note the gender) inability to take their responsibilities seriously. Divorce, even if for ‘good’ reasons, is desperately damaging and demanding, and should never be treated trivially. In particular, in Jesus’ culture, divorce was an instrument of male power over women, who depended on their husbands for provision and protection. Jesus is not being indifferent to the struggles we face, but it attending to them. Perhaps Jesus is being more gracious than Moses after all—but it is a grace which holds us accountable for our responsibilities.

jesus_kidsThat leads us to the second half of the reading. It is fascinating that Mark (and Matthew) keep these two episodes together, though I am not sure if there are any clues in the text as to why they do it. But for us, it is fascinating because it offers us the other side of the coin of grace—God’s costly welcome of people who haven’t achieved anything to warrant it. There is lots of popular speculation about what virtue children have that makes Jesus accept them—they are so innocent, so cute, so trusting, so unspoilt. In my experience five minutes in any primary school play ground puts such thin illusions to flight—and they miss the point of the passage. Jesus welcomes the children precisely because they do not have any virtues to commend them. For first century Jews, children didn’t really count until at age 13 they could take on the ‘yoke of the law’ and become a son of the commandment(s), bar mitzvah. And for first-century pagans, children counted even less. Until they could speak, they had no reason (logos), and were generally thought to be expendable, hence the widespread practice of infanticide.

This is to whom the kingdom comes: those who do not have any virtue to deserve it. This is grace. And we are to receive the kingdom as children—not as wide-eyed, open-faced and trusting (though that might not be a bad thing) but as recognising that the kingdom has come to us not because of any virtue that we possess, but simply that God has set his love on us, poured his love into our hearts by his Spirit (Rom 5.5).

There’s something else important tucked away here which we might not notice on a first reading. Jesus has business to get on with, and no doubt the disciples were keen to help him keep on message and on his agenda. Yet, as elsewhere in Mark, Jesus is happy to be distracted from his agenda by the people in front of him. To attend to children is costly; it means leaving what you think it important and attending to what they think is important. It means dethroning the self and placing another at the centre—which at times we find so difficult. And yet this is what God has done for us. He has sacrificed himself in order to be able to welcome us. In the OT pattern of things, to be right with God I needed to take time out, go to the temple and provide a sacrifice. In the NT pattern of things, God is the one who has taken time out; he has become the temple (Rev 21.22); he has provided the sacrifice.

We are now left with a quandary. Is the gospel free and gracious (as Jesus teaches the disciples) or is it costly and demanding (as Jesus teaches the Pharisees)? Is there a way that it can be both? I am still thinking about this—and I suspect I will go on doing so. But my own experience says ‘yes’. On the one hand, I am very aware that I came to faith not because I deserved anything, but simply because God invited me to know something of his love and acceptance. But I also know that the invitation to ‘Come, follow me’ has meant leaving behind things I was fond of, walking a path that I might not have chosen, and painfully confronting my own failures and responsibilities. Through this, I am pretty sure it has meant living a different life to the one I would otherwise have done, and Jesus calls this ‘Life in all its fulness’ (John 10.10).

It can be something of a cliché to say that God loves us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us as we are, but I think it is true. God offers us an open invitation, with no preconditions. But it is an invitation to be changed and transformed, walking in a new way of life that might turn out to be more than we can ask or imagine.

(First posted in October 2015)

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11 thoughts on “Reading Mark 10: the contradictions of grace”

  1. Thanks Ian, for reposting what is a really great review of the passages and a difficult issue.

    I think one of the things I have come to realise about grace, is that it seems to be very hard to understand until you have truly received it, and that might be why there are so many difficult “gotchas” in relation to grace.

    I find that objections to “cheap grace” are interesting, because it can’t be costly prior to receipt, or it wouldn’t be grace.

    However, if you have truly received it and understood, how can you not be moved to respond, in what those who have not “seen” or “heard” would understand as highly costly. It’s like seeing the same thing through a different paradigm or perspective.

  2. If the text offers few clues as to why both Matthew and Mark put these incidents together (and it seems not to), then perhaps experience reveals the profound bond between them: those who suffer most from the hardness of heart evident in the breakdown of marriages are always – and bitterly so – the children. Jesus’ profound compassion for such, as being weak and vulnerable and without status or power within the chaos and pain of fractured families, is deeply moving and pastorally convicting.

  3. Good that you take the Dick France (aka Lord of the Flies) line on children.

    The Mark/Matthew thing can be tested.

    If Matthew is closer to Jesus than Mark that is not at all what we would normally expect.
    – The internal logic (agreements in order and wording, inconcinnities etc.) points to Markan priority of course…
    -even before we consider the Petrine plurals, and also the numerous eyewitness details unnecessary to the narrative which sure enough both Matthew and Luke invariably leave out WHILE ALSO supplying none of their own, by and large.

    -Are there in fact any Matt additions to Mark pericopae that would be commonly thought of as closer to the historical Jesus – or even of probable historical value? It is as ever the big picture that we need to attend to. Matt rewords and rejigs and expands and summarises in these Markan passages but he does not give signs that he has independent source material there.

    -Furthermore, this particular set of independent additions looks very Matthean. It is scribal and rabbinic, dealing with exceptional cases that Mark’s version left untouched.

    ‘For any cause’ looks an innocuous addition and is in fact (Instone-Brewer) anything but. But its innocuous face may be a sign that Matt is sneaking in the max possible in a minimally conspicuous way. This wording again is thoroughly matthean, scribal, rabbinic.

    Further still, Jesus’s words on adultery that follow, and also the reference to creation, BOTH favour the simpler Markan presentation.

    Both of these also are very large-scale and solemn claims.

    If the idea is that Matt is closer to Jesus than is Mark, that is bound to be very contentious. Are there any other examples of that? And Matt’s greater closeness would need to be actually *likely* (which is generally an impossibility) for that train of thought to work. But the evidence (above) is that Mark, is in this case as in others, the closer. And Jesus’s teaching is the crisper for it.

    I do think that by far the most *merciful* thing is not to expose people to the sexual revolution in the first place. So long as it is not presented as an option, as normal, as the way this culture does things, it will not occur to them till they are already sufficiently grounded and secure. Which has for a much longer period been the way we have done things in UK – proof that it is not only workable but has worked for longer than the present (unworkable) scenario. The happier cultures are invariably the close family cultures who have lowest instances of these things, and there is a reason for that – but now I am verging on stating the obvious.

    • Hi Christopher,

      I was not going to stick my neck out on this, but seeing as there are so few comments (perhaps we are all exhausted after last week’s blog), here goes. I think the idea that Mark fully recorded what Jesus said and Matthew’s comments are an addition is unlikely for two reasons.

      Firstly, the overwhelming social, literary, and documentary evidence discovered in the last 70 years, is that in ancient Israel divorce for the man was confined to the sexual immorality of his wife (Deut 24:1-4), in contrast, the wife could divorce her husband for failing to provide food, clothes, and marital rights as per Exod 21:10-11. Jesus, as Ian points out, was asked about the husband’s situation. What I think has led us into thinking only the husband could divorce is that he alone could issue the certificate to permit her to remarry (the ‘decree absolute’). It is the same in Israel today (Google “agunah”).

      Similar divorce grounds to the OT are evidenced across the ancient near East for at least two millennia before NT times. For Jesus, in one conversation recorded in Mark, to overturn this understanding would be a remarkable volte-face, especially, as Hugenberger comments, “In recent years . . . there has been a fresh appreciation for the Jewish background of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and his radical dependence on the Old Testament in keeping with his own disavowal of originality.”

      The second reason, is the Bible’s metaphoric marital imagery pervades Scripture from Genesis to Revelation and is certainly found in all four Gospels—including Mark. In that imagery God is portrayed as divorcing Israel (e.g. Jer 3:1-8; Isa 50:1) but offering her a future re-marriage (e.g. Isa 54:5-7).

      It is now the academic consensus that in John 4 the interchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a bridal scene. The significance of this is that the Samaritan woman is seen as representing divorced northern Israel. Thus Jesus is offering a divorcee a remarriage at the marriage supper of the Lamb—Jesus himself taking the role of Yahweh. (All the NT marital imagery demonstrates a high Christology.)

      Divorce and remarriage are persistent themes in this imagery. Metaphors take something from the source domain and apply it to the target domain. For a metaphor to work the concept must actually be in the source domain. In other words, divorce and remarriage was part of Jewish cultural life in NT times. Now the question is—would the Gospel writers (including Mark) use this imagery in the ‘divine marriage’ while denying the validity of divorce in mundane marriage? Such would demonstrate a remarkable inconsistency and, furthermore, destroy the purpose of the metaphor.

  4. Much here to ponder. But…

    (1) I never said Mark gave an exhaustive account.

    (2) My main point about Matt not adding first-hand details in Markan pericopae was not addressed.

    (3) (2) is compounded by the very Matthean nature of the additions that do in fact appear.

    (4) The proposed theory requires not only that Matthew MAY be closer to Jesus than Mark (and even that is almost never the case) but that it is LIKELY TO BE (which is virtually impossible).

  5. I would like to make a couple of observations about the Mark/Matthew discussion.

    The exception for ‘porneia’ is present Matthew 5.31-32 (The Sermon on the Mount) as well as Matthew 19, the parallel passage to Mark 10. Perhaps Matthew transplanted it. But I consider the Sermon on the Mount to be an accurate eye-witness account of the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, the exception would seem to be from Jesus.

    The reaction of the disciples in Matthew 19.10 is interesting in that it suggests that Jesus was not just coming down on the stricter side of a current rabbinic argument. Rather, I would suggest, their reaction is a sign that he is being more strict than the stricter side. Thus Matthew give us a sign of the severity of Jesus’ teaching, despite giving the exception which would imply greater leniency than Mark’s account.

    • David and Christopher,

      I appreciate these thoughtful comments ina very sensitive subject – and I agree David that the disciples did see Jesus as being strict.

      Although it has been argued that the ‘any cause’ divorce of the Hillelites had gained traction in NT times. A possible indication of that is Matt 1:19, in that Jospeh was going to divorce Mary “quietly” – this seems to be a reference to a Hillelite divorce in that no immorality had to be proved.

    • There are several Matthean doublets in the Sermon on the Mount of which this is one (the golden rule is one of the others): the doublets are accounted for by Matthew reproducing Mark but also having various thematic collections of teaching in the Sermon into which some of the same sayings fit well. Difficulty with your argument could be that your view of the nature of the Sermon is used as a logical step in the argument whereas as it stands it is an assertion. (I must admit I am in a minority of one when it comes to the origins of the Sermon, but not because others have rejected the relevant arguments but rather because they have never occurred to them, which is of course quite different!)

  6. Thanks. I am coming at this only from a technical synoptic-problem point of view, but it does seem to me that the pattern (2), in combination with (3) and (4), is definite enough to trump other considerations. Strictness and leniency are not on my radar; I am interested only in getting as close as possible to the ipsissima verba: whether strict or lenient does not matter. In fact Jesus is strict and defends in practice all the poor people who are unjustly abandoned and compelled to live in an unresolved state through no fault of their own. But such conclusions are best come to through history-of-traditions study, because the happy chance of there being several interrelated gospels means that h-of-t study can be highly detailed, and give far more and better data than (at this distance of time) other methods, since their logic is timeless.

    • Brian, Steve Biddulph in the secular world has written on this. I have travelled extensively in Madagascar and in this so-called ‘primitive’ culture they look to differentiate boys from girls, and endeavour to give a role for boys in manhood, when male physiology seems to proscribe a transitory purpose. The Western church in our modern era has singularly failed to do this.


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