Sunday

07 October 2012

"'Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.' And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them." (vv. 15-16)


Background

Divorce is a very sensitive subject, and one that arouses strong feelings amongst Christians in particular - not least because Jesus' teaching about it seems so uncompromising. It appears in slightly different forms in the Gospels of Matthew (Matthew 19:1-12), Mark and Luke (Luke 16:18), and Mark's account (the earliest) is probably the closest to what Jesus actually said. We need to look at this very carefully. One of the 613 commandments of the Jewish law allowed a man to divorce his wife if he found "something objectionable about her" (Deuteronomy 24:1). A wife had no such rights (verse 12 was almost certainly added later in the more gentile (non-Jewish) context of Mark's church, because Roman law gave women more rights). The husband owned his wife - in the Exodus version of the tenth commandment her value was placed below that of his house, but above a slave, ox or donkey (Exodus 20:17). A second-hand wife was worth even less, being 'damaged goods'. Men wanted to marry virgins. Her father might take her back, but otherwise she, and her children, would be destitute. Young women in that position might well be forced into prostitution, or other kinds of exploitative relationships, having nowhere else to turn.

No wonder this was a controversial aspect of Jewish law - hence the question - and Jesus, even more controversially, rejected this commandment outright. His overriding concern was for 'the little ones', the vulnerable and marginalised, and this concern took precedence over the Jewish law - a major theme in Mark's Gospel, especially in his attitude towards women at the margins of society. A man should not divorce his wife, because to do so would potentially make her a social and religious outcast. So Jesus' teaching needs to be understood in the context of first-century Jewish society before we try to apply it today.

This understanding is clearly reinforced by what follows - Jesus, again controversially, welcomes "little children" (v. 13) (and, presumably, their mothers) into what should have been an exclusively adult male gathering. And he says, forcefully, that the kingdom of God, in a radical subversion of all 'proper' religious thinking, belongs to them. The kingdom truly belongs to the 'little ones', both metaphorically and literally.


To Ponder

  • If Jesus' real concern was to protect vulnerable women, how might his teaching about divorce be applied today? Should women (or men) be forced to endure loveless, abusive or exploitative marriages? Is it right that, in many parts of the Christian church, the divorced are still treated as 'second class citizens', regardless of the reasons for their divorce?
  • "Jesus' teaching needs to be understood in the context of first-century Jewish society before we try to apply it today." Do you agree? What problems might this pose for those who want to assert that 'the Bible says…'?
  • "…for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs" (v. 14). If that is true, what are the implications for the Church if it is called to follow 'best kingdom practice'? Why do you think 'church membership', for example, is usually restricted to adults?


Bible notes author: 
The Revd David Rhymer

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