In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus taught his disciples about scandals, or tripping points, and how we’re responsible for how we react when we get tripped up. It’s a variation on a common, and important, theme: that so much in life is not about what we experience but how we respond to it. I’d like to suggest that this week’s Gospel, which follows directly from last week’s text, expands on this idea, and asks us to reflect on our posture towards the world around us. In more informal language, we might say we’re being asked, “How’s your heart?”
The Gospel today is made up of two, seemingly disconnected, parts. First, Jesus is challenged to weigh in on the question of divorce; then, he is suddenly surrounded by children and he offers them up as an exemplar of good faith. The question for us becomes how the two fit together, why Mark chose to juxtapose them in this way. To do that, let’s look at the text more closely.
The story starts with some Pharisees coming to Jesus to see what he has to say about divorce, likely not from any genuine curiosity but in an attempt to trap him. He has none of this and throws the question back at them, “Well, what does the Law say?” When they reply with the circumstances in which divorce was allowed under the Law, Jesus — as he so often does — refuses to accept the letter of the Law, but insists on looking deeper, into the spirit of the Law. He says:
“It is because of your hardness of heart that he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10.5-12)
These are difficult words for us to hear from Jesus; most of us can think of so many situations where staying in a bad marriage has damaged people we know. The Bible unquestionably has a high view of marriage and understands it as a lifelong commitment and an image of the eternal intimacy between God and God’s people. However, the Law does still understand that there are times when that is not possible. And to me this is the interesting part: Considering just how high a view of marriage the Scriptures have, why would the Law of Moses make provision for divorce (as limited and one-sided as that provision was) at all?
Jesus hits the nail on the head: “because of your hardness of heart.” This is again hard for us to hear, especially because it has often been read in punitive ways. Often a it has been the person (historically, almost always a woman) who has suffered from the bad behaviour from a spouse for years and finally has had enough who has borne the brunt of these words, instead of the person whose behaviour pushed them to leave in the first place. But if we take a step back from the emotional question of divorce, from a bigger perspective there is nothing surprising or controversial here. God cares about marriage because God cares about all relationships. Broken relationships are always a symptom of sin, a missing of the mark. When two people — whether married or in a friendship or business partnership or any kind of relationship — are soft-hearted toward each other and are committed to being in relationship with one another, there are few issues they cannot resolve or roadblocks they cannot overcome. It may take a lot of humility, grace, repentance, and forgiveness, but they can do pretty much anything as long as their goal is to do it together. But, when even one of the two people isn’t committed to this course, when they value other things over the relationship and their commitments within it, a kind of hard-heartedness necessarily settles in, and there is very little now they can accomplish together. And, as Jesus points out, this is why there were stipulations for how to manage divorce even under the Law (at least for men); this is also why the Eastern Orthodox Churches — hardly bastions of progressive thought — have made provision for divorce for a thousand years already. Human hearts can grow hard to each other, and so relationships are not always sustainable. Sometimes for the good of both parties, it’s better to walk away to prevent that hard-heartedness from spreading.
You may be thinking that I’m stretching here, trying to make a hard teaching more palatable to our sensibilities. But I think this interpretation is justified, especially in light of the second half of this week’s reading, which otherwise seems tacked on for no reason. It says:
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 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. (Mark 10.13.16)
At first glance, this text seems to be completely unrelated to the first half of the reading. In fact, the Bible I was using added a paragraph break and a new heading to separate the two! In the broader context, it might also seem unnecessary: Mark had just told of Jesus welcoming little children in the previous chapter (right before the text we looked at last week). So, it would seem that Mark put the two stories side-by-side for a reason, and the Church has thought to keep them together for us. So we would do well to ask ourselves how the two connect. In this case, how is it that small children engage with the world that is to be an example for us? And what might that tell us about broken relationships? We know that it isn’t immaturity — for elsewhere we are urged to grow up into maturity (see for example Ephesians 4.13-15 and Hebrews 5.12). It isn’t an unexamined sense of innocence either — for elsewhere we are urged to examine our lives and repent (see for example Matthew 4.17 and 2 Corinthians 10:5). What I think Jesus is getting at is their humility, vulnerability, but also their capacity to love and welcome strangers, their curiosity, sense of wonder, and eagerness to be impressed by the world. In other words, their soft-heartedness. If we bring these traits to our relationships, they have a much better chance of being healthy and life-giving.
I’m reminded of a passage in the prophet Ezekiel, which revolves around this very metaphor. Speaking to the Exiles, he says:
Thus says the Lord God: … I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (11.14ff)
The image of salvation offered here is not just that they will re-enter the land, but also that they will be given new hearts. They will no longer have hard ‘hearts of stone’ but soft and supple ‘hearts of flesh’, hearts that can bend without breaking, that can receive and give love, can respond to God and other people with openness and curiosity. And this is what will allow them to walk in God’s ways.
And this seems exactly the dynamic Jesus is getting at today. It’s not simply a question of divorce, but a question of our posture in the world and to our relationships. Are we going to be hard-hearted, approach our relationships with the clenched fist of cynicism, bitterness, anger, jealousy, self-centredness or ambition? Or are we going to be soft-hearted, and approach others like children, with the open hands of vulnerability, curiosity, wonder, and joy?
These are hard words from Jesus this week. But, I am convinced, they are good words.