'When God wishes, He becomes fire, burning up every coarse passion that has taken root in the soul. "For our God is a consuming fire" (Dt. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). When He wishes, He becomes an inexpressible and mysterious rest so that the soul may find rest in God's rest. When He wishes, he becomes joy and peace, cherishing and protecting the soul.’— St. Macarius the Great
The text for today is indeed difficult one. For one thing, it is about divorce, often taken for granted in our society yet proscribed in Jesus’ words for today. It is made further difficult because marriage meant something different to the time of Jesus.
My favorite anthropological sociologist, John Pilch, points out that children, in spite of 1st century ambiguity toward childhood, were considered “from God.” Therefor, one never really became an empty nester as a parent and neither did one really ever become emancipated from ones father. Father and mother remained the steward of their progeny until death. As a son, one would always seek to be obedient the will of the elder of ones family. A daughter in the house would do likewise and would be required to transfer her allegiance to her family-in-law upon marriage.
To be good stewards of the children that God had supplied, one was expected to arrange good marriages for them, marriages that somehow counted as a blessing to the families involved. In other words, families married families, when husband a wife came together.
In olden days, divorce meant something different. Two families were put asunder. To make that worse, those families had received God’s gifts, offspring, and had taken their office of steward very serious. When the elders, after deliberation and negotiation, agreed that God was pleased to bind the couple and the families together, it was indeed as if “God had joined together.” Divorce was a negation of that very process and of the will of God that it aimed to discern.
Somewhere in the ancient way of doing marriage is also a concern for generations yet to come. Once offspring, life from your life, is a gift from God, then all life is likewise something sacred that one is steward of. Will future generations of life be had and cared for? Will the family that will receive them be able to raise them? Will the husband make a good father and eventually patriarch to tend the process in future years?
In our time, we seem to be more of the mind that the point of marriage is to find a soulmate of sort. That is a very different sort of arrangement and it is entered into by the will of the two people involved, not by their families. In our time,the phrase: “What God has joined together,” is based on the courtship of the couple, much of which is bathed in the flood of emotions that romance brings, not a serious deliberation or a panel of elders doing their best to make a good election for everyone involved.
The Gospel of Mark is also written into a time in the life of the church when it first began to grow around the eastern Mediterranean. We probably need to remember that some of those who had become Christians had done so apart from their families. We will hear that the disciples: “gave up house, sisters, fathers, mother . . .,” to follow Jesus. (Mk 10:29-31) What now would marriage look like in the church and how would it come about? There no longer was a patriarch to negotiate for the son or daughter. What would marriage mean now? Maybe Ephesians 5 was a first attempt to put a new face on the purpose of marriage: showing, by faithfulness, gentleness, kindness, and mutual submission, how Christ acts towards his church. In that milieux, divorce would be very harsh note of discord.
Our reading ends with a little episode that mirrors one we read two weeks ago. Children are brought to our Lord who only shortly before has said: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (Mk 9:37) Today we hear: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Shortly before saying that, Jesus has stood at the foot of the Mount of Transfiguration and looked into the eyes of a terrified father whose son’s young life has been one of utter peril. (Mk 9:22)
Children then and even now are fragile and uncertain. Their “life” often has “if” as its middle word. (Mikey Hart, “Apocalypse Now”) There is a reason that parents have sleepless nights — at least parents whose hearts are made out of flesh and are capable of aching. Hardened hearts might well be oblivious to the cares of children and frankly too busy to bother. (Mk 10:5)
You, yes, you, received life as a child. Was anyone a steward of your life? Were they good stewards of it? As a child, do you remember elders — not necessary family but adults in general — show you the meaning of a hard heart?
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the fragility of children put them at low places in the social pecking order in the 1st century. That did not mean they were unloved necessarily. Then the challenge was: Will you take a lower place and welcome them as if they were the Lord. Here the challenge is to be welcomed in the kingdom of God as one fragile and lowly. Can a hardened heart do either? Can hardened hearts care for life? Can they care for souls? Can they lead the church? (we are still arguing who is the greatest at this point in Mark) Can they read the commandments of God or see the life of Jesus without asking the universal first and wrong question: “What’s in it for me?” Can hardened hearts love God?
Can a God whose heart is hardened become known as the babe of Bethlehem? Can you follow him if yours is?
Will you welcome the child and be welcomed as a child for Jesus’s sake?