BEING LIKE A CHILD MEANS HAVING A PARENT
Today's Gospel lesson presents a challenge to the preacher for sharing the Good News in Jesus Christ. Jesus' words about marriage and divorce don't strike those who have suffered the great pain of divorce as Good News. And I dare say that many, or perhaps even most, of us here today have a knot somewhere in our guts due to the pain of divorce, because its pain is contagious to more than just those who go through it. Extended family and friends often share the pain, too. The children of divorce are growing up and speaking out more about their pain. And, of course, there is the terrible pain of those who themselves have gone through divorce. The point is that divorce is probably the number one cause of personal pain in our society today. How do we say a word of comfort and hope in the face of it? And how shall we deal with this text that makes Jesus seem like a harsh legalist instead of our loving, forgiving savior?
One way to deal with it is to point out who Jesus is talking to. He is talking like a legalist because he's talking to the harsh legalists of his day. He is talking to the Pharisees who came, as Mark tells us, to test Jesus with a matter of the Law. Well, Jesus turns their test back around on them. He is using their legalism against them, a legalism that they, in their male dominated culture, used for their own benefit in order to write a divorce from their wives when it was convenient for them. Women were not afforded the same luxury. The Pharisees tried to test Jesus by quoting the law of Moses that allows divorce. But Jesus uses their same approach of legalism to take it to a higher court: namely, God's decree about the sacredness of marriage in Genesis 2. He, then, explains the law of Moses as God's allowance for their hardness of heart. Jesus is challenging their legalism and their male domination. He's exposing their hardness of heart.
Today, in our modern context, these words of Jesus have been thrown at people who are going through the pain of divorce. Would Jesus be joining in on these condemnations? Or would he again be exposing legalism and hardness of heart, this time on the part of those who turned his words into a Law with which to bash already hurting people? I think it would be the latter. Jesus, whose heart was loving and forgiving, would want to challenge hardness of heart.
That's one way to deal with this difficult text on divorce. Another way would have been to ignore it! Our gospel lesson also has that heart-warming story about Jesus blessing the children. I could have simply focused on that instead! Right? Well, it's not only too late for that, but believe it or not, I actually think these two passages are related. They appear to be so very different! Yet I want to suggest to you today that this story about the children can give us the key to understanding all that has gone before it, including this passage on divorce.
How so? Listen to these familiar words from Jesus again: "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." Isn't it plain that this passage is about much more than just Jesus hugging some children. He makes such a wide-sweeping, blanket statement about entering God's Kingdom. And entering into the household of God is what the Good News is all about.
The next problem is the meaning. Obviously, none of us adults can turn back the clock and go back to our childhoods. So what is it about children that we apparently need to mimic? Their humility? Their innocence? Their simplicity? Their trust? There's been all kinds of speculation about these words from Jesus. But in the context of this passage, and in the context of what we're talking about today, I'd like to suggest that they mean this: what we need to mimic in children is their obedience. Or, more generally put, we need to be like children by recognizing that we have a parent, namely, someone who still has authority over us, even as adults. Jesus is simply stating the obvious truth that one cannot be a child without having a parent.
I think this makes a whole lot of sense given what we know about Jesus' ministry. Scholars stress that Jesus did in fact talk a lot about his "Abba" in heaven. "Abba" is the Aramaic word Jesus would have used, that we usually translate as "Father," such as in the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father, our Abba, who art in heaven...." But "Abba" might even better be translated as "Daddy," a child's name for his or her father. Yes, Jesus stressed a great deal that we need to approach God as our Daddy in heaven. And that's precisely what I think he is stressing here in this passage about blessing the children. To enter God's household, all of us need to become like children. In short, we need to recognize and approach God as our heavenly parent, our "Abba."
Why? Why was this so important to Jesus? We noted earlier that, in his debate with the Pharisees over divorce, Jesus quotes Genesis 2, our First Lesson today. Genesis 2 is part of that larger story of the first man and woman in the garden, the story of the fall into sin that we talked about so much last week. Well, once again, what was their sin? The beginning of the story shows Adam and Eve to be like children. They were obedient to God, their "Abba." If God said not to eat of the tree in the middle of the garden, they simply obeyed. They didn't eat from that tree. But then the serpent, that crafty one, sold them on the idea that they could know what God knows, if they ate from that tree. In other words, they could be their own authority; they could be their own parents. As soon as they listened to the serpent, they ceased letting God be their parent. They ceased being like children who need to recognize their parent's authority. This is how and why I think Jesus called us to become like children again. Jesus called us to recognize God as our loving heavenly parent, as someone who does know more than us and who cares that we not go astray.
So what does this have to do with marriage and divorce? I think that it helps us to see that marriage is not meant to be simply two adults choosing to join their lives, or then, in a few years, choosing to go their separate ways. Jesus is right to quote Genesis 2 in reminding us that it is God who joins husband wife, and so it is God who remains the authority in marriage. Genesis 2 shows how God made us to be equal partners, neither husband or wife having authority over each other, because God is the parent, the authority, in our relationships. Marriage, in order to grow and last, needs to be rooted in a loving relationship with God.
Do you know, for example, what studies on marriage tell us that husbands and wives can share that is most highly correlated with a good, lasting marriage? Prayer. The husband and wife who pray together have a better chance of staying together in a loving relationship. We might suggest that this is a good way to follow Jesus' prescription and become like children, rooting the marriage relationship in God as our loving "Abba." Loving mutuality between husband and wife is rooted in letting God have the ultimate authority.
Genesis 3 shows how the marriage relationship gets messed up: the man and the woman stop letting God be their parent and try to claim authority in their own lives. We talked about this last week, and can't repeat the whole thing. But we said that when we see each other as equals without God as our authority, our parent, then we constantly fall into rivalry. We become stumbling blocks to one another: parents to children, but also husbands and wives. The notion of stumbling block for Jesus entailed a love/hate relationship. The person we love to emulate also becomes our rival. And as the conflict increases so does the love/hate nature of the relationship. How many divorces does this describe? Husbands and wives who have become locked into a love/hate relationship? They began their marriage in love, thinking they could always share one another's desires, but over the years their desires begin to conflict. And a love relationship slowly turns into a love/hate relationship. I think I could show you today, if we had time, how Jesus understood the psychology of this better than Freud and better than many of our modern psychologists. But I simply want to stress again that Jesus' prescription for us, as a way out of such love/hate relationships, is to root them in the loving desire of God our "Abba."
Before I close, I feel it would be helpful to put this matter of marriage and divorce squarely in its modern context. The institution of marriage has undergone tremendous change over the last several decades, and probably the biggest factor has been the liberation of women within the oppressive structures of a male dominated marriage. There has been so much change that many conservatives still cry out for a backlash or a return to the past. I think that the two parts of our gospel can help us to steer somewhat of a middle road, perhaps.
The first part, Jesus' challenge to the hard-hearted Pharisees and their way of oppressing others with all their laws and their false authority, is squarely on the side of liberation. No person, whether religious authority or husband or whomever, should attempt to take God's place as the authority in another person's life. The husband is not the head of a household; God is. And we can't go back to situations of oppressive marriages. Jesus challenges the hard-hearted Pharisees, with their view of marriage and divorce, just as Moses challenged the hard-hearted Pharaoh saying, "Let my people go!" Our faith calls us to liberations of all kinds, calling us to be equal partners, brothers and sisters of our loving "Abba."
But the second part of our gospel, in which Jesus calls us to become like children, does bring a word of caution to our liberation movements, I think. We might need to ask ourselves: Do we become so liberated that we cease to see ourselves as God's children, as still needing to be grounded and rooted in God's loving desire for us and for Creation? In other words, have our liberation movements sometimes moved us to be equal brothers and sisters but no longer with any parent in our lives? No higher authority other than our own selves? And what is the cost of that loss of grounding in God? Haven't we shown the last couple weeks that the fruit of such a move is more rivalry and conflict, not less? So Jesus cautions us that no one can enter God's household without becoming a child. We cannot be truly brothers and sisters, we cannot truly be equal partners in marriage, unless we have a parent. A loving, heavenly "Abba."
Finally, we would be remiss if we didn't let the last word in a sermon on marriage and divorce be one of forgiveness. Jesus called us to know God as loving "Abba," as the one who loves us unconditionally, as the one who is always calling us home with a forgiving love that can make us truly God's children, and, as God's children, loving brothers and sisters of one another. We are called first of all to be brothers and sisters in baptism. And we are called again and again to this homecoming meal [pointing to the eucharistic table], where Jesus our older brother offers us God's forgiveness for all of our sins. He offers us the strength and guidance of learning to becoming like a child. As the Son of God he shows us how to be sons and daughters, obedient to our loving "Abba's" desire for us. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, October 4-5, 1997
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