Saturday, October 06, 2012

Octover 7, Proper 22, Between the Angels and the Animals

 Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

So that’s why we bless little children in our church. It’s a gospel thing. We do it on behalf of the Lord Jesus himself. When I bless your child I’m channeling the blessing of Our Lord.

Why are little children special to the Lord? Why does he make them examples for us? Well, first off, I don’t think it’s coincidental that, in the Greek original, all of Jesus’ words for children are in the neuter gender, neither masculine or feminine. You get this in other languages too, that their sexuality is undeveloped yet. There is something in this about the Kingdom of God, that our sexuality as individuals is not the most important thing about us, and that behind our gender is our more essential unity as human beings. You certainly see that in the Genesis story, how sexuality is relative, not absolute. Jesus draws the point out later in a debate with the Sadducees, in saying that in the Resurrection there will be no giving or taking in marriage, and that we will be single, like the angels of heaven. Which anticipates our freedom from the sociology of sex.

Which means that your marriage is temporary, it’s not eternal; it’s for this life, not for the life of the world to come. The Mormons get this wrong, with their doctrine of celestial marriage. Mr and Mrs Romney expect to be married forever and ever and ever, while Mr and Mrs Obama are only married till death do them part. (I’m just saying!) So while marriage is a wonderful gift and mystery of God, it is not absolute, it’s relative. It’s for our lives here in between, in between this creation and the new creation, for existing in between the angels and the animals.

No wonder the Lord Jesus did not get married. You know that his not being married will have kept him from being perfect among the Jews. But consider that he knew on that he was born to die, which would be unfair to any wife and children he might have. More than that, he was the Adam of the future, the Adam of the new creation, and in that new creation, to be single is not to be alone. How this will be remains a mystery, for then what about the remaining sexual characteristics of our resurrected bodies? We don’t know. The difficulty of this mystery led to later speculations, like that fourth century Coptic papyrus recently in the news, that Jesus must have been married. The Orthodox went the other way, to underplay his sexuality and his full humanity. The challenge is to aim down the middle, in between the sacredness of marriage on one side and its relativity on the other, the challenge is to live between the angels and the animals.

This gospel takes us right down the interlocking boundary of comfort and of pain. It’s a comfort that Jesus blesses the children. And yet his words about divorce have been painful to many people. O Jesus please don’t make it any harder, the breakdown of a marriage is pain enough. The shame in losing what you promised, the guilt you feel when you are judged. Even a good marriage has its painful spots, and it’s even more painful to have to divorce, and then Our Lord is calling me an adulterer if I find love the second time around? Is it really sinful to remarry?

I can’t make it nice what Jesus said, and, dare I say it, I wish he hadn’t said it like that. Never once in my counseling of struggling couples did I say that if they didn’t stay married, neither of them could marry again or else be an adulterer. Yes, Roman Catholics believe that, but it just doesn’t jive with the rest of the Gospel. Think of Jesus and the woman at the well. She’d been married five times and now was living with her lover. Jesus challenges her but neither condemns nor tells her to break up with him. Jesus actually calls the guy her husband, and tells her to come back with him.

The painful thing that Jesus says here was actually for some protection of the wife. He said it in the context of women having no rights in marriage. The choice of her husband was not for her, but her father, and the choice for a divorce was not for her, but for her husband, no matter what she wanted in the matter. He needed only to write out a bill of divorcement and tell her to get out. And then who would take her in? There was no alimony then, and she could not contest the property because women did not own property. How could she support herself? Sell herself? Find some other guy to take her in as a concubine or at best a second wife? Did you see the NPR special Half the Sky the other night? That’s the context we are talking about.

Jesus is making a judgment on the rights of husbands, that the legal permission they got from Moses, in Deuteronomy, was only a concession to what they were doing already. But the prior teaching of Moses, from Genesis, is that a woman is equal to a man, and not his property. So who are you to treat your marriage like a contract under your control? It is a gift of God and a mystery of God which you owe to God. You have to love your wife as much as you love yourself.

Jesus was single but he had a higher view of marriage than the Pharisees. They saw marriage as absolute and cheap. He saw it as relative and precious. So it would be just as wrong for us to make an absolute of either divorce or adultery. Both of them are just as relative, or even more relative than marriage is. Just last Sunday Jesus told us that to cut off your hand if it leads you to sin. If your marriage becomes unloving or hateful or abusive, you may have to cut it off. You may be scarred for life, but you are not unforgivable or barred from trying it again. There is no death which Jesus cannot bring again to life, no pain which Jesus cannot comfort. We can’t avoid the pain in what Jesus says, but he does not say it as his new heavy law against remarriage.

The issue is hard-heartedness. That’s what binds these two stories together, as the stories always interplay in Mark. The hardness of the righteous Pharisees, the hardness of the disciples who push the children away. That hardness is a defense against the pain of living in between, in between the hope and the reality, the future and the present, the angels and the animals, all the losses and the pains that come with having bodies and affections, all the incompleteness, which the angels do not know. The hardness can also come from trying to be righteous, from being strong and steadfast in obedience, from avoidance of the weakness and the pain. That hardness of heart can come from good intentions and better purposes, from trying to achieve the Kingdom of God. But we cannot achieve it, we should not even try, we can not build it or advance it or extend it, we can only receive it, like little children, and to be so totally receptive of the Kingdom of God is the second reason, the main reason, why Jesus tells us to be like little children.

To be so receptive and so open and so defenseless and soft-hearted is so very risky when you consider our position between the animals and angels and our consequent predicament of bodily pain and spiritual suffering. But God has taken this very risk as well, as we are reminded in our second reading, the epistle to the Hebrews. In the person of Jesus, God took human flesh, lower than the angels, and all the risk and pain and suffering. In the person of Jesus, God became a single, lonely, abused and abandoned human being, betrayed and denied though he was innocent as a little child. He did this to atone for us, but also to lead us and encourage us, that we ourselves can make our way right down that middle way between the pain and the comfort, between the suffering and the glory, and the losing and the love.

His personal history is the pledge that you can make your way through it with him, and with the rest of us who follow him as well, and that he is with us as we go that way, it is precisely where he meets us, there, right in the middle of it all, which is what you would do yourself, because you know what love is. And you know what love is because he first loved us. That is the air you breathe as you go this way, the air that is the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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