A sermon on Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 & Mark 10:2-16 by Nathan Nettleton
Some of you will be aware that I spent several years producing the Laughing Bird Paraphrases — paraphrases of the Sunday scripture readings in an Aussie idiom. In such a project, there is a constant temptation to “clean up” bits of the Bible that you don’t like, for one reason for another. Sometimes doing so is legitimate. For example, sections of John’s gospel can sound quite anti-Semitic in the way it constantly says “the Jews” did this and “the Jews” did that, and I realised, as had several major translations, that in most of those cases it is referring to the Jewish authorities rather than the entire population, and so it is quite legitimate to translate it as “the Jewish authorities” . I think it is also quite legitimate to phrase things in ways that avoid the use of pronouns and so don’t require us to refer to God as “he” quite as often. Feminist scholars have been quite right to point out that both male and female are made in the image of God, and so we diminish God if we think of God only as a bloke, and language has the power to shape the way we think of God. However, one of the ever-present dangers in such a project is to begin uncritically writing one’s own current personal preferences and political biases into the texts.
One of the things I was tempted to do, and have been criticised by some people for not doing, was to get rid of a lot of the hierarchical language. A lot of my peers have become very allergic to titles like “Lord” and “King” and “Most High” . They would argue, with considerable justification, that such titles come to us from human social class systems, and that we have projected those class systems onto God in a way that both implicates God and legitimates our class systems. Now being a person who has a real distaste for systems of aristocracy and hereditary monarchies, I am pretty sympathetic to such arguments. Like most Australians, there is a strongly egalitarian streak in my thinking that finds even the use of titles and honourifics a bit pretentious and uncomfortable. That egalitarian spirit wants to see and treat all people as equals, and to see God as taking the lead in relating to us as an equal and not demanding that we bow and scrape and say, “Lord! Master! Most High Sovereign! Ruler over all! King of Kings and Lord of Lords!”
I’m not quite sure why I didn’t go that way with my paraphrases at the time, but I remain glad I didn’t. One of the reasons I’m glad I didn’t is found in today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews, and in other passages like it. Here, the idea of a God-ordained hierarchy is not just a presupposition that finds its way into the language, but it is part of the basic subject matter of the passage. “When the Son had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” That’s not just a title or two. That is talking about superiority. And then it goes on to talk about subjection, about God making the world subject to us human beings. And only at the end does it get to a line that appeals to my egalitarian Aussie soul: “the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.” But this week I’m looking at even that line and wondering whether I shouldn’t be recognising an implied hierarchy even there.
The clue for that is jumping at me from our gospel reading, which at first glance has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. Rather it is a passage about the ethics of divorce. And being a person who has been through a divorce, I can tell you from painful experience that this passage has been used to terrorise and beat up many a divorcee. Jesus’ words here have been turned into a law with which to condemn many already hurting people. And when you look at the context of his words, that is ridiculous. What Jesus says is said in response to a trick question from the very people who were regarded as the hard-hearted legalists of his day. He is actually hitting back at the legalists, not giving them new materials with which to tie unmanageable burdens on people’s backs. They are trying to expose him as being out of step with the law, whereas Jesus is saying that if you treat something like marriage as just a set of laws to be be complied with, then you are missing the whole point of what God is on about. Jesus is not making a blanket condemnation of all divorced people at all. Rather, he is criticising religious teachers who exploit the law in order to maintain their own veneer of righteousness while behaving abusively towards their wives and children.
So what’s that got to do with my questions about hierarchicalism? Well, two things. They’re subtle, but they are there. Firstly, there is an obvious sexism, a hierarchy of the sexes, in the question the Pharisees ask: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They don’t think for a moment that women might be allowed to do anything. “What can a man do?” So firstly this passage provides us with an example of precisely the sort of hierarchicalism that I, and so many others, find objectionable and strive to eliminate. But look where the passage goes next. In a story which at first glance seems quite unrelated, we hear of the disciples trying to stop people bothering Jesus with requests for him to bless their children, and Jesus rebukes them and welcomes the children, telling the disciples that unless they receive the kingdom of God like a little child, they will never enter it.
Now let me draw a link between the two parts of this story, and then between it and our reading from Hebrews. Firstly Jesus is criticising these religious legalists for their approach to the laws about marriage and divorce. He is, in effect, saying that they are using the law to achieve their own ends rather than submitting to what God would want them to do. Because of their hard hearts, they are finding loopholes that put themselves in control rather than looking to God to lead them into truth and the fullness of life. And in the second part, Jesus is criticising his own disciples for imposing a hierarchy that says children aren’t important. Because of their hard hearts they too push aside the vulnerable who they regard as beneath them. And Jesus is saying no, you are not to take control and decide who can and can’t come. You are to submit to another perspective. You are to submit to God’s upside down values, even when they say you can’t just discard an unsatisfying spouse, and even when they would have you become childlike yourself. You see, both halves are about willingness to allow God’s values to trump our own. Both halves are about recognising that God says what goes, not us. Children are much better than us at recognising that someone else, not them, is in control. Sure they rebel against that control frequently, but they don’t deny its existence.
And that takes me back to the letter to the Hebrews. What was our one possibly egalitarian line? “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” Suddenly when we come back to this from the gospel passage, the idea of being children has a slightly different ring to it. For we have been reminded that becoming like children is not easy, and it is something we tend to resist and rebel against. And, it is being pointed out that even being brothers and sisters of Christ is not so much about mutuality and equality with Christ, but about accepting our place as children of our common Father.
I have two dogs. I enjoy playing with dogs and training dogs. I have a young dog at the moment who is training better than any of my previous dogs, and the main reason for that is that I understand my relationship to the dog better. Dogs do not expect equality or mutuality. They do not expect democracy or negotiation. Dogs are naturally pack animals, and packs have a clear hierarchy. Every dog knows where it fits in the hierarchy. They may sometimes challenge the ranking, and the order may change from time to time, but it always exists and each dog knows its place. My dog is working well because he knows his place. He is happy knowing that I am his pack leader. He would be just as happy being my pack leader, but I don’t plan to allow that! But he wouldn’t be happy being confused about the hierarchy. He wouldn’t be happy if I tried to institute some sort of democracy. He needs to know who is boss, because it creates security and a sense of place for him.
Dogs and children are not the same, and you don’t raise children the same way you train dogs, but there are some similarities. The relationship of a parent to a young child can never be non-hierarchical. Although elements of democracy and mutuality and negotiation are well worth striving for with children, young children need to know that there are some secure boundaries and that someone is in charge. They need to know who calls that shots and who they have to answer to in order to feel that they have a secure place in the world.
Part of being childlike in order to receive the kingdom of God is just this: accepting our place in the pack, accepting that it is not us who calls the shots and defines what is right and wrong, but God. Accepting that we have to answer to God, and not only to ourselves. And as the story of Jesus and the disciples and the children illustrates, this doesn’t come easy to us. In fact it probably comes a lot harder to us than it did to the disciples in their day. We 21st century egalitarian-minded Australians are much more used to thinking that we rule our own lives than pretty much anybody who went before us. We baulk at the idea that we might have to answer to anybody. We are the rugged self-sufficient types and we salute no one. “But truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
And if we can get past the jarring of our egalitarian sensibilities, this is wonderfully good news. Sure it is news that is rather affronting to our ambitions of self-reliance and being rulers of our own lives, but what a freedom it offers. Relieved of the crushing burden of responsibility for making the world turn out all right, we can find our true place, the place where we belong, and be free to be what we were created to be. Knowing that God reigns on high, sovereign over the whole universe, we know who calls the shots and we can relax and put our trust in God’s gracious leadership. And this is not even all bad news for our egalitarian ideals, for knowing that Christ is Lord enables us to know that all rival claims of lordship and all alternative hierarchies are spurious. It is a basic human weakness that when we are fearful and insecure and don’t know our place in God’s scheme of things, we turn on one another and push some down and others up and create our own demonic hierarchies. We start exalting male over female, or white over black, or rich over poor, or citizen over refugee, and we create hierarchies by victimising those we designate as lower. Attempting to abolish such hierarchies without establishing our place in a proper submission to the lordship of God, ends up only making us the sorts of brothers and sisters who are always torn apart by rivalry. To find our common loving sisterhood and brotherhood with one another and with Christ, we must find our place as fellow children of the one God. We may choose to honour the leadership of those who are clearly leading from a position of submission to Christ, but we can confidently stand against those who would usurp Christ’s lordship and attempt to lead us on an opposing path.
So I’m glad I didn’t try to write those reminders of God’s lordship out of my paraphrases of the scripture readings. I need them there to remind me that Christ is Lord and that God rules over all, because if I forget I panic and start trying to make myself lord and to control everything. I need to be reminded that unless I can accept the authority of my parent-figure, my pack-leader, my Lord and Father God, then I will, in my arrogance and foolishness, run away from the wondrous privileges of being a chosen and beloved child of God. And in a world where there are always arrogant fools getting themselves elected or seizing power by force, I need to be reminded not to despair, for the fate of the world lies not in their hands but in the hands of the one who rules over all and who humbly offers his life for all. To him be all majesty and authority, dominion and power, both now and forever.