Mark 10 and the contradictions of grace

Ernst_Zimmerman_Christ-and-the-pharisees_700I am preaching tomorrow on the lectionary reading, Mark 10.2–16, as many of you will be—and I feel 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 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.

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18 thoughts on “Mark 10 and the contradictions of grace”

  1. Ian,

    Well done on the thoughtful phrasing of this post. Your sentence ‘understood in this way, Jesus is a lot less gracious and welcoming of human weakness than Moses’ is quite telling.

    Why was Christ’s stance on divorce any less gracious than His stance on sickness? For instance, just suppose for a moment that Jesus added to His sermon on the Mount:
    ‘You have heard that it was said from ancient times: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed;’ (Lev. 21:17, 18)

    ‘But I say to the man with a shrivelled hand: ‘stretch out your hand’; and I say unto the paralysed: ‘take up your bed and walk!’

    What is it that prevents us from interpreting Jesus’ approach to sickness and disease as ungracious and unwelcoming? Why aren’t liberals up in arms about Christ’s desire to treat deformity and paralysis as something to ‘fix’? Are these not just another part of human identity and diversity?

    The truth is that the gospel is incompatible with moral relativism. Nowhere in scripture does grace imply the simplistic affirmation of any hitherto intractable physical restriction or behavioural characteristics as part of an inviolable identity, only to rubber-stamp it ‘Do not touch: part of Imago Dei’.

    Grace always provides empowerment for change, rather than merely affirming whatever characteristic has enough popular support to pass for an identity. Our thoroughly modern theological dilemma results from the re-working of the gospel to equate grace and welcome with the uncritical affirmation of even behavioural characteristics that (accordIng to the spirit of the age) comprises identity.

    • Your comment raises a number of issues. First, I guess one difference is that, in the Hebrew scriptures, the lame etc couldn’t approach God/God’s holy place. In the New Testament, God reaches out to them. So that sounds pretty gracious to start. Second, in the New Testament we’re not given many hints that the lame etc were saying ‘don’t heal me, I’m fine like this.’ Third, there is a whole interesting discussion possible about the Deaf community, where sections of that community would not want to be ‘healed’, and do see being deaf as part of their identity. Will they be deaf in heaven (does it make sense to ask such a question)? Having said that, I wouldn’t want to start that discussion properly unless it included some deaf participants.

      I entirely agree that grace is intimately linked to transformation. And I also agree that any uncritical affirmation of any identity or lifestyle is not desirable or wise.

      • Jonathan,

        All good points, but I am simply questioning the notion that the high demands of hard sayings (such as Jesus’ uncompromising stance on divorce) are, ipso facto, ungracious and unwelcoming.

        I’d agree that, in the NT, God reaches out the lame, but in doing so, His word of healing commands them to do what is for them impossible and contrary to their natural limitations and abilities.

        Absent divine empowerment, much of Christ’s behaviour in the gospels would come across as impolite, ungracious and unwelcoming. It is the eventual miracle that helps us to realise that this approach is just His way of drawing out human importunity that is a part of genuine faith.

        for instance, Jesus repeatedly probes His friend’s guilty conscience to despair with the question: ‘Do you love me?”, only to command the apostle: ‘Feed my sheep’.

        You say: ‘in the New Testament we’re not given many hints that the lame etc. were saying ‘don’t heal me, I’m fine like this.’ You rightly infer receptivity to be a key factor.

        The heathens of the Gerasene region were unreceptive: so overcome with fear of Christ’s inadvertent destruction of a costly herd of swine (albeit ritually unclean) as to implore Him to depart from their land.

        The repeated lesson of scripture is that it is personal cost that determines what is construed as empowering and affirming, and what is interpreted as ungracious and unwelcoming.

  2. In any discussion of Jesus and divorce, I’m more and more struck by the earliest recording of Jesus saying on the subject:

    “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor 7)

    This is Paul’s summary of Jesus’ preaching for the Gentiles – i.e. having removed the comment from the Jewish context. Remember this is what Paul is saying Jesus is saying into a society somewhat like ours in terms of the availability of divorce and the prevalence of promiscuity. There are no ifs or buts, not even any suggestion about adultery being a reason for divorce and remarriage.

    Now either Paul was inaccurately presenting the content of Jesus’ message, or we have a clear ‘command’ for us today. Certainly my own perception is that there is nowhere to hold the line between allowing divorce and remarriage and allowing gay marriage.

    Yes, Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow Him? Easy? Of course not…

    • Ender’s shadow,

      The strange thing is that straight after what appears to be this unequivocal prohibition of divorces, St Paul distinguishes among those he calls ‘the rest’ (who are married to unbelievers), those who have been deserted by unbelieving spouses.

      He states: ‘But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?’ (1 Cor. 7:15,16)

      St. Paul’s pastoral accommodation specifically addresses Gentile converts deserted by their unbelieving spouses whose situation was not addressed by Christ’s response on divorce.

      Some may well debate what ‘ou dedoul?tai’ (not bound) might mean in verse 15, but it’s clear that St. Paul distinguished those deserted by unbelieving spouses as no longer under the marital obligations of those whose spouses were ‘in hearty agreement to stay’ (syneudokei oikein in verse 13).

      The CofE might plot a trajectory from this apostolic teaching to the Church’s permission for divorce. The same cannot be said for gay marriage.

    • Ender’s Shadow you said:
      “either Paul was inaccurately presenting the content of Jesus’ message or…..”

      And that’s the crux of it. How do we know about that accuracy? Supposing some Nigerian bishop today says something and goes on to say ‘not I but the Lord’, how do we know that his words are from the Lord? I’m sure he will say that whatever he says is consonant with scripture, and that’s how we know. But that approach simply makes the bible a self referencing book which won’t work. So we appeal to tradition – the Church – and reason, and human experience. And not suprisingly, the picture becomes rather more complicated and nuanced.

      St Paul is simply appealing to what Carl Jung called an archetype. And he chooses his archetypes carefully, of course. And so do we all. And such an appeal doesn’t totally negate what we want to achieve, but nontheless it’s as well to be aware what we are doing.

      As the spiritual writer and Franciscan Richard Rohr puts it:

      “We must begin with a foundational “yes” to who we are and to what is. This is mature religion’s primary function. It creates the bedrock foundation for all effective faith. You must begin with original blessing and not original sin. If you begin with the negative or a problem, the whole journey remains largely a negative problem-solving exercise.

      If you begin with the positive, and get the issue of core identity absolutely clear–a clear “Identity Theology” instead of endless moralisms about who is in and who is out–the rest of the journey is ten times more natural, more beautiful, more joyful and all-inclusive.”

      • ‘And that’s the crux of it. How do we know about that accuracy? Supposing some Nigerian bishop today says something and goes on to say ‘not I but the Lord’, how do we know that his words are from the Lord?’

        Well, for a start such a Nigerian bishop’s words have not been included in the canon of Scripture. I would think that should make a difference, wouldn’t it?

        It is such a shame that Jesus hadn’t listened to Richard Rohr more. He could have dispensed with all that ‘Repent and believe because the kingdom of God is at hand’, with forgiving sinners before they had even mentioned sin, and ‘Calling not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’

      • Andrew,

        I get some of what you say, but I would (perhaps unsurprisingly) disagree with Ruhr. There is nothing about a human ‘yes’ that is foundational.

        Instead, we should begin with a ‘yes’ to who we are foundationally and to what is foundational.

        The purpose of scriptural archetypes (as in Genesis and the gospels) has always been to reinforce what is genuinely foundational, rather than merely to be shoehorned into whatever cultural and personal identities are embraced as new norms by later generations.

        • David thanks for your thoughtful reply. I am sorry that Ian felt it necessary, once again, to resort to sarcastic comment. It does this blog no credit.
          I am short on time this week but I do want to copy more or Richard Rohr on this. I’m not surprised you disagree with him, but this does not make you right and him wrong of course, or vice versa.

          “God inhabits all creation from the very beginning. Genesis 1:9-31 makes this rather clear. All our distinctions are merely mental and therefore deceptive. Except for the experience of many saints and mystics, religion has greatly underemphasized any internal, natural resonance between humans and God. This gives us clergy a job! We first remind you that you are “intrinsically disordered” or sinful–which then allows us to just happen to have the perfect solution. It is like the vacuum cleaner salesman first pouring dirt on your floor, so he can show you how well his little Hoover works. As if the meaning of the universe or creation could start with a foundational problem!”

          I think Rohrs point here is compelling.

          • The phrase ‘all our distinctions are merely mental and therefore deceptive’ appears to support pantheism, instead of panentheism. Is the transcendence of God a deception?

            It is not a false distinction to say that humans are not infinite as God is in knowledge, wisdom, love or power.

            ‘It is like the vacuum cleaner salesman first pouring dirt on your floor, so he can show you how well his little Hoover works. As if the meaning of the universe or creation could start with a foundational problem!”

            This is an interesting analogy that speaks more to our emphasis on preaching and numerical growth than it does to the concept of original sin.

            Perhaps a better analogy would be the recent VW pollution emissions scandal.

            Despite the wonders of human progress, pollution has incurred a terrible cost and one that we can’t ignore.

            No different from industry and no matter how much we trumpet our clean credentials, we have in-built alarms which we can either accept, or re-calibrate again and again (as VW did) to affirm what we want others to believe about us.

            The gospel isn’t trying to sell us anything. It’s simply challenging us to calibrate ourselves honestly; which is not some much about escaping heavy penalties and boosting our credentials as it is about wonderfully more pure and safe future world that Jesus places within our grasp: ‘at hand’ so to speak!

  3. I think Jesus talks exactly about original blessing and not original sin.
    And the way some of the communiques and letters from Gafcon bishops read, you’d think they were more important than scripture……

      • Ian:

        The whole approach of Jesus to the sabbath is a striking example…….
        The whole idea that the healing ministry showed the the blessing and power of God and was not a remedy for the sin of the diseased……
        The woman caught in adultery….note that nowhere does she ask forgiveness and nowhere does Jesus condemn her

        In haste – (but I think that’s enough)

        • Andrew,

          Unless the New Testament exists in a historical vacuum and you ignore OT references, there is a givenness about original sin and brokenness permeating the gospel.

          We know that beyond just original blessing, the Messiah imparts spiritual elevation: ‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called
          children of God!’

          Yet, the principal obstacle to divine blessing is sin. I think you’re right to emphasise how Jesus seek to lead with good-will and blessing, but He is still not hesitant to challenge His hearers when fundamental obstacles to those blessings arise. These include the possessions of the Rich Young Ruler, the serial monogamy of the Woman at the Well, and St. Peter’s instinct for self-preservation.

          It’s only after Jesus’ miracle at the pool of Bethesda that we are told: ‘Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.’ (John 5:14, 15).

          In the case of the woman caught in adultery, the absence of a recorded confession cannot negate the guilt implied by Jesus saying ‘Go and sin no more’.

          The difference is that today, many people find it an alien concept to believe that their actions might not only offend neighbours, acquaintances and work colleagues, but also God.


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