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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Grace—Mark 10:2-16 (Amy Allen)

Jesus’ welcome of the little children provides us with the appropriate paradigm for understanding grace and the reception of the kingdom of God and challenges our emphasis upon rules and conditions.

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 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. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

This text and its synoptic parallels have received more than their fair share of attention on the recent political scene. Jesus’ words about marriage have been used to shame and belittle both those who have sought a divorce and those who have sought to marry outside of the narrow definition of “male and female” (Mark 10:6). Meanwhile, his blessing of the little children has become the quintessential image of a gentle and benevolent savior.

As such, this week’s gospel is really a story with two scenes. The first records Jesus’ teaching about marriage. The second describes Jesus blessing a group of little children. While commentators have sometimes linked these together under the umbrella of Jesus’ teachings about family, this does not do justice either to first century teachings about family or to the texts.

In the New Testament epistles there are several household codes—commonly referred to using the German term, haustafeln—that parallel (to varying degrees) typical Roman codes from the same period. A common feature in such codes is that they address three pairs of hierarchical relationships: master and slave; husband and wife; parent and child. Although sometimes in the New Testament haustafeln have been identified even when only two of the three pairs exist.

In this regard, Mark 10 seems like the best candidate among all the gospel accounts for a household code attributable directly to the sayings of Jesus. Both married couples and children are addressed. However, these three subgroups—husbands, wives, and children—arguably make up the majority of the population in 1st Century Palestine (excluding only those adults who have yet to marry). Moreover, beyond referencing this mass of the population in close proximity to each other, Mark 10 bears little resemblance to a traditional haustafel. To begin with, the only command issued in the entire text is to the disciples, not the parents, children, or spouses: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them” (10:14). In contrast, the whole point of household codes is to provide brief commands to serve as rules of conduct in each relationship. That is completely lacking here.

Despite interpretations of this text that imply Jesus is issuing a moral imperative not to divorce, he never does anything of the kind. Rather, he interprets the Torah in a rather strict vein that understands divorce as equivalent to adultery. He does not, however, judge or condemn such adultery. If one is interested in how the early Church understood Jesus’ response to adultery, John 8:1-11 is informative. Jesus has nothing to say on the question of homosexual unions.

Meanwhile, in the second scene, parents are at the sideline of the action. Jesus isn’t even commenting on the relationship between parents and children, but rather, on the relationship between children and the Kingdom of God. And this is where I believe the real connection between the two scenes—and their wisdom for our contemporary political environment—really takes place.

Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (10:15).

The Greek, like the English, is unspecific. It is possible to understand Jesus to be saying that disciples must receive the Kingdom of God as a little child receives; or it is possible to understand Jesus to be saying that disciples must receive the kingdom of God as a little child receives the Kingdom of God.

In this context, I prefer the latter. But how does a little child receive the Kingdom of God?

With innocence, humility, lacking pretension—perhaps.

But I agree with historians Cornelia Horn and John Martens who write:

There is something about children and their place in the kingdom that is simply not reducible to innocence, vulnerability, humility, lowliness, lack of prestige, simplicity, purity, nearness to God, openness to Christ, or any other attribute one may suggest. It is all of this and more, for their place in the kingdom is by virtue of their being simply children of God.[1]

And that’s the kicker. Every child is different—the little and the big ones. Some may be more humble than others. Some may be downright greedy. But every child—every single little person who Jesus called to him that day—belongs to God. Those children, who were small enough for Jesus to scoop them up in his arms and bless them, who still needed their parents to bring them to Jesus because maybe they couldn’t find him on their own, Jesus valued.

The disciples weren’t out of line, socially, for reproaching the children or their parents. Any more than the people in John 8 would have been out of line in throwing a stone at the woman caught in adultery. But Jesus tells them both to stop.

Because for Jesus, who is valuable—who counts in this God’s kingdom—is about much more than a set of rules or social standards. Who counts in the Kingdom of God is about simply being. Being a child of God. Accepting and receiving the love that God has to offer.

As grown-ups we may have difficulty with this—being on the receiving end of a relationship, admitting our needs, even admitting our failings. The children in Mark’s gospel account don’t seem to have this hang up. Jesus blesses them and they simply receive. Nothing else matters.

And so in a world caught up in issuing moral commands in the forms of legislation, Jesus beckons us, young and old, to come to him, to abandon our pretensions, and to receive the Kingdom of God—full of grace and acceptance for all of God’s children.

[1] Cornelia B. Horn and John W. Martens, “Let the little children come to me”: Childhood and Early Christianity (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 259.

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