[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
This teaching marks a turn to family ethics. The Pharisaic question about divorce again serves as a foundation upon which Jesus makes a larger teaching that transcends the context of their specific query to make a larger point. In this case, Jesus outlines an expansive family ethic rooted in an understanding that, with the family at the center of social life, intrafamilial ethics have vast political consequences. In discussing both marriage and children, Jesus imagines models of the family that are radically expansive relative to his context.
Most notably, Jesus in teaching his disciples, speaks both of the conditions under which a man can leave his wife, and under which a woman can leave her husband. Even in the context of such a negative exhortation, the implication that women have agency in initiating a divorce is a departure from Greco-Roman norms of marriage in which the woman was regarded as property transacted from father to husband.
This text raises key questions in how modern moral principles can be derived from ancient texts. In the case of this text, it seems clear that a simple prohibition against divorce will not function as a modern moral norm as the ethical implications of such a prohibition are unnecessarily physiologically damaging and restrictive. Additionally, the institution of marriage in the ancient world bears little resemblance to marriage in the modern world and is undertaken for largely different reasons and in a decidedly less patriarchal context. What this text can demonstrate though is Jesus’ desire to empower women beyond their current social state. By evaluating Jesus’ teaching relative to context and seeing the direction it moves, we can seek to move in a similar direction from our own context. Seeking to empower women as equal participants in their social and romantic interactions in our modern context means improving access to birth control and healthcare, address issues of poverty which disproportionately affect women, and guaranteeing women equal pay.
The second piece of this pericope, in which Jesus rebukes his disciples for holding back children from coming to him, must be understood alongside the first. Jesus moves from rebuking the effects of patriarchy on married parents, to in turn discuss children. The children are held back from Jesus because of their marginal position in society and in the family. Again, Jesus surprises by insisting that the least-valued, most-vulnerable be brought forward; from the margins to the center. In light of the earlier teaching about divorce, it is important to see that this text is not a romanticization of the simple innocence of childhood. Rather, this teaching understands the gravity of the child’s experience. Jesus knows that children are open to the possibilities of different futures, in a way adults are not, and he knows that they are especially vulnerable to being exploited and wounded, thus passing on the disaffection, resentment, anger, and violence of their parents generation onward through history. Jesus understands childhood as a point in human development when the ethic of God’s kingdom has an unparalleled opportunity to interrupt intergenerational transmissions of trauma and ongoing cycles of violence and retribution. The kingdom received by a child interrupts the intergenerational transmission of racism, homophobia, sexism, and violence. This teaching does not call us to abandon the sophisticated thought of adulthood to return to child-like innocence, it invites us to understand how important it is to raise children immersed in the love-ethic Jesus teaches.
In this lection Jesus both teaches and models an expansive family ethic that recognizes both the importance of family structures, and the needs to form family for the sake of social and individual health. This ethic is expansive, inclusive, and characterized by love and mutuality. Its political implications should be clear. Rather than use texts like this one as political weapons to reassert rigidly patriarchal ancient social norms, we should be followers of Jesus, continuing along the path he was violently removed from, continuing the expansive work of the kingdom in our communities, and in our homes.
John Allen is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a chaplain to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.