An Open Table where Love knows no borders

A Hug or a Contract Negotiation

A sermon on Mark 10: 2-16 by Nathan Nettleton

A video of the whole liturgy, including this sermon, is available here.

Following a set cycle of Bible readings, as we do here, brings both joys and frustrations. The frustrations mostly have to do with how the readings are divided up. Sometimes it can be annoying that a reading is cut off where it is. As a preacher, I may want to make connections to what comes next, but someone somewhere has decided we will stop here. Of course, we don’t have to obey, and sometimes I don’t. 

Sometimes though, it is more perplexing why they went on and didn’t stop. Today’s gospel reading is one of those. We began with the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus with a bit of a Catch 22 question about divorce laws. This results in Jesus making some very positive statements about the permanence of marriage and some consequent negative statements about divorcing your spouse and remarrying. These are very intimidating words for those of us like me who have been divorced and are remarried. This version in Mark’s gospel doesn’t even offer the exception that Matthew’s version provides. 

But then, all of a sudden, we are no longer talking about divorce, we are into the story of Jesus welcoming the children who are brought to him for blessing, and telling his disciples, who were trying to shoo the children away, that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

You could be forgiven for thinking the lectionary compilers were nodding off after lunch when they left those two passages together. And having been at a few of the meetings where decisions about alterations to the lectionary are made, I can assure you that it is possible!

In truth though, as surprising as it might be that the lectionary compilers didn’t split these two stories, the fact remains that the Apostle Mark put them together when he wrote his gospel. And generally Mark is quite deliberate in the way he relates one story to another, so perhaps there is a valuable truth to be discovered in the juxtaposition of these two stories. 

Now when I went to the commentaries to see what the scholars had to say on it, to be honest, there wasn’t much. About all they came up with was that it is natural for a point about children to follow from a point about marriage, but since the point about marriage was in the context of a dispute about divorce, it doesn’t seem all that convincing. But the reason I’m telling you that the scholars didn’t have much is to warn you that the connections I am making come purely out of my own reflections, and are not backed up by anyone much else that I know of. So make of them what you will.

But as I sat with the juxtaposition of these two stories, I began to see a link that I think might be quite helpful. Let me work backwards from the second story. The difficulty with what Jesus says about children in this gospel is that it is rather ambiguous. The construction of the sentence is such that it could quite plausibly mean any of three quite different things. 

It could mean that you must receive the kingdom the way a child would receive it. Or that you must receive the kingdom the way you would receive a child. Or even that you must receive the kingdom while you are a child. And a good case can be made for each; even the last one. I’m not going to unpack that debate, but I’m going with the first one: receiving the kingdom the way a child does. You’ll see why when I get back to the divorce comments.

The picture we get in this story is of parents coming to Jesus so that he might take the children in his arms and bless them. It is almost a Santa in the shopping centre type picture, a queue of kids with parents in tow, waiting to sit on the lap of the friendly bloke with the big beard. That might not be an altogether helpful  image, but from both this passage and the other one we saw a couple of weeks ago, you certainly get the impression that children felt pretty good about being around Jesus. He seems to have been one of those people who was very good with kids, who made them feel safe and comfortable and valued. Someone who took them seriously and didn’t talk down to them or dismiss them lightly. 

When we’re physically gathered for church activities, you’ll notice that Ian too is always popular with our children here, and I think that one of the reasons is that when he chats with a child, he treats them with the same interest that he treats everyone else.

I think what we sometimes forget when we are interpreting this passage is that accepting the kingdom of God and accepting the person of Jesus are really one and the same thing. And the way children seemed to accept Jesus was that they wanted to climb into his lap for a hug. Most children love to have hugs from the people they love. And I reckon that the picture of a child running up to Jesus for a hug is more or less the image he is describing as the way we need to receive the kingdom of God. Just an uncomplicated, joyous, jump into the arms, hug. 

Now what on earth could that have to do with the argument about divorce? Good question! But bear with me, because I think there is a connection, by way of a contrast. You see, what Jesus has to say about marriage and divorce here does not come up because he thought it would be a good time to talk about such things, but because he is being challenged with a curly question about interpretations of the religious laws as they relate to divorce. 

These religious experts have codified a set of conditions and procedures by which a man could get rid of his wife and still stay in the good books so far as religious law was concerned. And so Jesus’s words about marriage and divorce have actually not got much to do with questions about whether those who have had failed marriages can be allowed a second chance. 

It is not the divorced and remarried he has got in his sights, it is those who approach religion as a kind of contract negotiation where you argue and bargain for wriggle room and loopholes and exemptions. It is those who think that if you can find an angle by which you can legally defend your callous and cynical actions, then God will be persuaded and keep you in the good books.

In the context of a failed marriage, there is all the difference in the world between, on the one hand, saying “I failed, my vows have been betrayed, this is all brokenness and sin and disaster, and I cast myself on the mercy of God and trust that in time, God will raise me up and give me another chance”, and on the other hand saying “my marriage has ended but under the terms laid down in Matthew chapter 19, I have legitimate grounds for divorce and God is obliged to honour that and allow me this course of action without blemishing my record.”

It is a bit like what is going on in the book of Job, from which we heard an extract earlier. The book of Job is full of wrong ideas about God and the way God deals with us, and most of the book sets out those various ideas in order to then declare them wrong by the end of the book. And while the bit we heard tonight is not one of the bits that is specifically refuted later on, it is nevertheless one of the kind of images that Jesus dismisses. People have often thought that human suffering is caused by God having arguments with the satan and we are just collateral damage in their dispute. But Jesus is scathing about attempts to portray God as a callous bargainer who is just looking to win arguments and prove points. That’s not how God operates.

So in assembling these stories, Mark reinforces Jesus’s point with the saying about children. “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” You can’t bargain your way into the kingdom. You can’t quote chapter and verse to prove that there is no legal grounds to keep you out. You can’t receive the kingdom of God like a lawyer haggling out the terms of a divorce settlement. You can only receive the kingdom of God like a child running joyously for a hug from a loved one. 

Which is also why the presence of children in our worship is so important. If you take what Jesus is saying here seriously, then you’ll begin to see that children in worship are not distractions from the message and the purpose of worship, but in fact they are bearers of the message. They embody the message. They are gifts from God who can demonstrate for us the spirit with which we all need to learn to engage in worship. So the next time you see a child run and jump joyously into someone’s lap, hear the words of Jesus, “Truly I tell you, that’s what it is all about. Until you can receive the kingdom of God like that, you’ve still got a long way to go!”


  1. Vincent Michael Hodge

    Nathan’s stimulating take on the Readings focussed on the apparent incongruity of juxtaposing two stories – the issue of Divorce and the Issue of welcoming children into what are considered as adult gatherings. He summarised his “Take” as : “…..Jesus is scathing about attempts to portray God as a callous bargainer who is just looking to win arguments and prove points. That’s not how God operates….So in assembling these stories, Mark reinforces Jesus’s point with the saying about children…..You can’t bargain your way into the kingdom. You can’t quote chapter and verse to prove that there is no legal grounds to keep you out. You can’t receive the kingdom of God like a lawyer haggling out the terms of a divorce settlement. You can only receive the kingdom of God like a child running joyously for a hug from a loved one…” End of Nathan’s quote. The poignancy of his answer to the Readings is that he does it from the “inside” – he has suffered the pain and confusion of divorce; he describes the feeling: ” ….In the context of a failed marriage, there is all the difference in the world between, on the one hand, saying “I failed, my vows have been betrayed, this is all brokenness and sin and disaster, and I cast myself on the mercy of God and trust that in time, God will raise me up and give me another chance…”. The other pole he describes is that of the Pharisaic questioner dwelling outside that experience and for whom the question is a about codes rather than empathy. This is all valuable insight since it is where Jesus starts from; Jesus always gets “down and dirty”, right into the lived experience of the pain. What we moderns might say as the “messiness of life”. Nathan has done a “jesus” here by drawing us into the experience of real confusion – a conundrum quite different from the mere classroom debate. Nathan’s own experience is not dissimilar to the Gospel evangelist himself. For just following on from this ‘no divorce’ position, Mark has the next story of the Rich Man. Mark has just told us not to desert a wife and next Mark is quoting Jesus about the correctness of a disciple leaving father, mother, wife and children. Confusing?Nathan’s lived experience is parallelled by Mark. And maybe Catholic Marriage Tribunals too? Thanks Nathan for giving us an empathetic sermon from the heart, from life and not just a lecture from the Study desk!

  2. Thanks Nathan. I think your connection between these two stories in the Gospel makes a lot of sense. The kingdom of God is not about bargaining, rules and punishment, it’s about love and connection. I am seeing and understanding this more and more. I appreciate you articulating it so clearly.

  3. Vincent Michael Hodge

    I make these comments from the safety of my study rather than from a beating heart with profound life experience. My wife and I just celebrated 40 years of marriage yesterday and I have no idea what I might have done right to make that milestone. So whatever rubbish I write, be assured that Ii know the why of a successful covenant of nuptial bliss and even less about why I have not failed to go this distance. Princess Diana once said that there were 3 people in her marriage – a reference to Camilla. In Catholic Sacramental Theology a big part of the ban on Divorce is a reference to the faith from Ephesians 5 and passages like this gospel from Mark there are also 3 Persons in every catholic marriage – the couple and God in Jesus Christ. The number of times I have called upon that Third Party to save my relationship and to teach me to grow is more numerous by far than the words in this diatribe I put before you. So please I know nothing – I only know something has worked and often despite me rather than because of me. So I will stick to my bookish examination and leave the existential events anonymous for the moment. I realise that Covid lockdown is weighing heavy on you all in Melbourne and environs. No worry if you might not be quite desperate enough to try and read my contribution following.
    I think Jesus’ Genesis quote as per Mark is rather smart talking by Jesus if you look at the Genesis creation narratives. His rebuttals to the Pharisees are quite humorous in his ability to play with words as much as the Pharisees play with Scripture.
    As a general statement we do not start to get the use of Words as NAMING of human beings until the end of Genesis Chapter 3 and that is a preliminary to the birth of Cain and Abel rather than a continuation of the focus on Eve and the Man. There is only EVE and that name comes at the end of Chapter 3 at verse 20. I am not sure if there is a use of ADAM as a proper NAME. I do know that the Hebrew word (Adam) is primarily a generic word for human kind or a single man. It is alos a play on the Hebrew word for ground which is a similar spelling. This Naming seems to come just as Genesis transfers its interest from Parents to Rivalrous Brothers. Perhpas divorce would have been a better outcome for them since in their progeny we have Humanity’s Founding Murderer.
    Anyway the point is that in Chapter 2 there are two “Adams” – one is the generic all encompassing human before the separation of the woman through the “rib/side”; the second ‘adam” is an the individual designate called “man” who is comes into being but deficit the woman life. Apparently the Hebrew word can reference either “rib or side”. I am only a Google based Hebrew “know-all’ but I am told by a Jewish scholar that before the rib/side is opened we have this generic “adam” and after separation we have “ish = man” and “ishah = woman (ie “from man)”. So if we want to use the expression “Adam and Eve” we must be clear that we are talking post “opening of the rib/side” and now in lieu of a generic “adam” we have “ish” and “ishah” ie two separate beings that each lack what the other has – man and woman – equal and complementary – hence the reference to “helpmate” in this scripture narrative is a reference to rescuing one another from “alone-ness” as “equals” .

    So Jesus quote in Mark is a play on words maybe since the other part of the quote Jesus uses comes not from Chapter 2 but from Chapter 1 of Genesis where Jesus says that God made us “male and female”. This is taken from a parallel creation story written 200 years after the story in Chapter 2. One is maybe 800 BC and the other maybe is 500-550 BC. The Babylonian Exile in 587BC and the destruction of their Jerusalem Temple of Solomon required the Israelites to account for the apparent weakness of their God. Hence Genesis Chapter 1 which tells us that they has been mistaken and that the God of the Israelites could use all Nations for His Purposes. Paul faced a similar issue with his Gospel to the Gentiles but that is for another day. Hence Chapter 1 is a story of a God who Created the entire world and not just a Garden for the Israelites a per Genesis Chapter 2.

    The Hebrew words “male” and female” in Chapter 1 seem to have a connection to the reproductive aspect of life and is about pro-creation – the Hebrew may be referencing sperm (male) and receptive/pierced (female). This ties in with the words of Creator in Chapter 1 that we are to “multiply and be fertile and in a royal way of kingship have “dominion and subdue the earth”. So Chapter 1 has a pro-creative aspect while Chapter 2 has a personalist relationship between man and woman.
    So according to Mark, Jesus makes Genesis Chapter 2 combine with Chapter 1 – the “face to face” characteristics of “man and woman” who cling to each other to be whole/one body ( nuptial bond) also come together to be fertile and form one body (child). So Jesus has combined both aspects to make the Pharisees reconsider their position. By his mixed quote from Chapter 1 and chapter 2, there is an emphasis on man and woman forming a covenant bond that is their wholeness as one body after God had made them into two companionate beings; there is also the parallel reference from Chapter 2 to the progeny – their multiplying- emphatically, says Jesus, their relationship produces another indivisible body – a child. In both cases what has been joined must not be sundered.
    And this leads to the major point that Nathan raised about the weird juxtaposition of divorce codes and the status of children. This last reference to a ‘child” at Mark Chapter 9(36) and 10(13) allows Jesus to promote the place of children within Pharisaic society. He rebuts the Pharisees with a statement from the first: “in the beginning” – this is a trump card – God’s Word in Scripture from the beginning trumps The Law as interpreted by Moses. He then rebuts them in a second way by a reference to the last/ to the lowest– a child – who is also one body that cannot be sundered – a body that is the fruit of the “one body” relationship designated by God as both “male and female” and as “man and woman” in Chapter 1 and chapter 2 respectively. Whether Jesus is building a sociology of marriage or not, he certainly countered the Pharisees in methodology that showed where God’s Holy Spirit had SPOKEN to a Jew of First Century AD.
    In my Roman Catholic tradition this FORM OF TEACHING was exactly what was said at the Catholic Church World Meeting of Bishops between 1962-1964 ( called: Second Vatican Council) in a document called officially “Gaudium et Spes” but which translates as a document aimed at the “Church in the Modern World”. In a chapter sub-titled as ” The Dignity of Marriage and The Family” you can find amplified at paragraph 45 what Evangelist Mark is saying in miniature. There is the nuptial bond of the couple from, like a tree, there is fruit bearing in a single body we call a “child” – Jesus gazumped the Pharisees with a natural coupling of ideas drawn from Scripture and which pre-dates Mosaic Law with its amendments. So as Nathan clearly articulated, this does not pre-empt a modern day discussion about marital breakdowns and remarriages. For that we need much more dialogue and the building of the proper contexts for interpretation of the Written Word and Centuries of life experience. Fortunately for you Nathan’s sermon has more to say on that than any more words from me could add value.

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