“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Mark 10:15
Sometimes the issue isn’t really the issue. At least that’s what my friend David Lose says and I have to agree. It’s been my experience, as a pastor and a mom. Someone comes to me with a criticism or a frustration, but the real issue is they weren’t visited in the hospital, even though they didn’t let anyone know they were in the hospital or that something terrible just happened in their lives and they can hardly make sense of it. As a mom, my sons would be playing happily but then conflict erupted. More often than not it was because they were hungry or tired or both. A snack and a nap can soothe even the most unsettled soul. Think about it, all sort of turmoil’s swirling around your brain, a snack, a nap, calms you down helps you to focus. Maybe it should be mandated in Washington and Harrisburg.
Sometimes the issue isn’t really the issue. Take the Pharisees in today’s Gospel. They test Jesus with a question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus responds with a question, “What did Moses say?” While a good question, it’s not much help for the laws of Moses about divorce were subject to wide interpretation. The Hillel school of rabbis taught a man could issue a writ of divorce if his wife failed to please him. It didn’t matter the reason, perhaps being a lousy cook or a terrible housekeeper. While the Shammai school taught that only a wife’s sexual misbehavior was reason enough. Neither school permitted wives to divorce their husbands, even if they were abused and neglected. Perhaps the Pharisees sincerely wanted to know what the Jesus’ school teaches. Or could it be their question was less about divorce and more about order? After all Jesus regularly pushed the boundaries of law and order – feeding everyone, not just some; healing those with illnesses normally attributed to sin, challenging Sabbath traditions, praising the faith of a foreigner and criticizing the Pharisees themselves. So maybe the issue is divorce, or could it be something deeper, like what happens in a world when law and order becomes relative, when the rules are challenged, and change threatens stability?
Of course, this is just one side of the divorce issue. The other side is the social and financial implications of divorce, especially for women. They were cast out without financial support for themselves or their children. Often their only choice was to go back to their original family. If they were refused or were unable to take them in, the women and children became destitute. Some turned to prostitution, others sold themselves and their children into slavery or some simply died. Certainly, Jesus knew this – in fact, while other rabbis shunned divorced women, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus calls one of them, and a Samaritan at that, who had had five husbands and was living out of wedlock with another man, to be his first evangelist. Does anything go? Do rules of society and propriety simply not matter? Won’t all hell break lose?
So, what’s the real issue? To discover that, Jesus goes back to the beginning, to Genesis, to the creation. Actually, he goes to the second creation story in the Bible, for in the first, man and woman are created on the sixth day along with the cattle, creeping things, and the wild animals and God calls it all very good. In the second creation story, God creates man from humus, dirt, breathes life into him and places him in the Garden of Eden. Then God decides to give Adam a partner, tries out all the animals and birds – giraffe – too tall, elephant – too big, cat – too independent, eagle — too aloof, none sufficed. So, God takes a rib from the man, and makes a woman. This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh, not to be separated. Instead of debating the law of Moses with all of its possible interpretations, Jesus goes back to the garden to God’s original intention of human beings being gift from God and to one another.
If Jesus had just let it at that, but he doesn’t. He then gets his disciples alone and tells them, whoever divorces and marries another commits adultery for they are breaking God’s original intent at creation. I struggle with this. Taken literally and personally, this means that John and I will celebrate our 33rd anniversary of committing adultery next Thursday, for he was married and divorced before I met him. I suspect some of you are in the same situation. God’s original intent gets rent asunder for a whole variety of reasons. What God hoped for in Eden all too often fails.
Last week in Confirmation, our Ninth Graders wanted to know “Why did God make the serpent?” They noticed how that crafty animal asks the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from ANY tree in the garden?’” They saw how through this question, the serpent introduces original insecurity which is at the heart of sin, then and now. Think about it – once the question is heard, it’s not enough to be in the garden of Eden, not enough to eat of all the fruit of the trees except for one, not enough to trust God. Then suddenly instead of abundance there’s scarcity, instead of joy and thanksgiving there’s worry and anxiety. Beyond that, in listening to the snake, the woman becomes less than what God created her to be. And the man, the only one present when God gave the original command, listens to the woman and then blames her and God for giving him such a wife. If only our Ninth graders had been in the house with Jesus and his disciples during their conversation about adultery, they would have said, “Jesus, it’s just not that simple.” For while the two become one flesh, there is also that original insecurity, that once listened to causes all kinds of havoc.
We see original insecurity at work when children happily playing suddenly erupt into conflict when a toy is snatched away with the declaration, “it’s mine, not yours.” It’s there in a comment on Facebook that seems like nothing on the surface, but underneath is bullying at it’s worst. We experience it when we read rejection or anger into another’s expression when it might simply be indigestion. In marriages where couples consciously and unconsciously keep spread sheets, checking off failures and matching them against successes, the good and the bad, to determine when it’s time to cut and run. Some try to quell the original insecurity with drugs or alcohol, food or possessions, being blissfully optimistic or perpetually angry. This insecurity is at the heart of our societal differences, pitting one side against another in a seemingly endless cycle of conflict in which we all become less than God created us to be. It affects the church. Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann writes, “The crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violent and part affluence.” None of which will save us, now or ever.
So once again this week, Jesus takes us to the children. Two weeks ago, he put a little child in the midst of the disciples when they were arguing about who is the greatest. Last week he warned us about hurting the little ones. Then today while his disciples want to shoo them off, Jesus tells them not to for the children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Getting into that kingdom, happens when we let go of our original insecurity and live out of our identity as a beloved child of God. It is a precious gift of grace, not earned or deserved, but free. On this day, as Gavin is baptized, we are shown the way, the truth and the life, now and forever. Amen.
Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent