Readings for this Sunday:
Genesis 2:18-24 | Psalm 8 | Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 | Mark 10:2-16
It is easy to miss how revolutionary Jesus is in our text from Mark this morning. It is clear in at least two ways, but they require a little unpacking.
First you have to look at Jesus the teacher or rabbi.
Teachers of the day loved to debate, but there were rules then as there are today. It was not uncommon, for example, for Rabbis to set scripture against scripture as a rhetorical technique, as Jesus does by setting the Genesis covenant, which Jan read for us, against the Mosaic law that the Pharisees refer to in verse 4 of the gospel reading. Jesus asks them about divorce, and they refer to Deuteronomy 24: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”[i]
Now, the normal process would be to allow that tension between the two scripture passages to hang there for a minute—to draw in the listener with a pregnant pause—there’s even a word for it: an aporia. Then, as every ear was tuned in, the rabbi would resolve the dilemma—removing the tension by showing how the seemingly contradictory texts are really moving to the same solution.
But Jesus doesn’t do this. He changes the game. In fact the gospel of Matthew, which we know had Mark to work from, rearranges Jesus’ argument in Mark to conform to the more acceptable pattern of aporia.[ii] But in Mark, Jesus doesn’t let it resolve. He unsettles everything by saying essentially that Deuteronomy is flawed here, and the Genesis text has it right.[iii]
“Moses only did this because of your hardness of heart,” Jesus tells them. Or let’s say it this way: The law is rooted in a flawed understanding that sees men as the center of everything including the definition of what it means to be human. The law is written from an assumption that men have all the rights and women and—we’ll hear in just a second—children, have fewer.
But this is wrong, Jesus says. And Genesis proves it. “…from the beginning of creation,” Jesus tells them,
‘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.[iv]
Of course we know this language from so many marriage ceremonies, so that it’s easy to tune it out. But what must not be missed here is that the man didn’t normally leave his father and mother. In fact, the wife came to join his family, and they essentially purchased her with a dowry to the woman’s family. She left. He didn’t. But here Jesus makes this revolutionary statement that claims, based on Genesis 2, that the two of them, together become a new thing, the word there is literally a new physical body.
And in one deft move patriarchy and all its claims that the world revolves around male privilege is set on its head, and with it the roots of violence. And peace becomes possible.
That’s where the next section about the children comes in. In Mark, Jesus saves his strongest responses for those who would in any way become a stumbling block to children. There is no greater offense, because children are at once the most vulnerable and threatened, and because it is in vulnerability that the gospel takes root. You must come like a child to faith, he says.
There is both a claim of great danger and great possibility here. To speak to the danger is to say this: The roots of violence are found in the family system. That’s a big statement, so let me say it again: the roots of human violence are found in the family and the system of relationships shaped by family.
Modern psychology, and systems theory in particular has taken a close look at this, but in a way, it has only rediscovered an ancient understanding. Mark’s story uncovers an old truth, perhaps lost in the breakup of traditional kinship structures and the over-concentration of our modern culture on the individual—that our violence begins at home.
To say this is to understand that the family unit is a social system in its own right, so patterns in family relationships must be examined structurally. And a close look has revealed something startling—that the child is always the primary victim of practices of domination within the family.[v]
The violence that causes someone to take 6 guns to a local community college and start shooting begins at home. The violence that leads to a long string of mass shootings in our country, and the political refusal to impose reasonable limits begins at home; the roots of our warring and bullying, our mass incarceration, and the destruction of the earth are planted and fertilized at home.
I do not mean to say that there is a simplistic one-to-one correspondence that suggests that we can somehow blame particular parents for particular acts. Because our systems are larger than just family. Schools and churches, other environmental factors, of course, play a part. The invitation here is to understand more deeply how our relationships work, how our social structures work, and how powerfully we shape or misshape others, particularly children, for their future as adults.
According to the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, children are especially vulnerable, for at least three reasons: First, they are completely dependent on parents and other adults. Secondly, they lack critical awareness of manipulation by adults, so they cannot react to it. Third, because of the love they have for their parents, their tolerance for them knows no bounds.[vi]
Because children lack critical awareness and are so inclined to adults, they are ripe for humiliations that build up with little opportunity for meaningful reflection. So Miller notes that “adults who were themselves humiliated as children cannot but unconsciously reproduce that humiliation.” The result is a “vicious cycle of contempt for those who are smaller and weaker”—patterns of domination that persist from one generation to the next usually without our even being attuned to them.[vii]
The personal cost is depression and despair. The social cost is violence of all forms—the heroic willingness of adolescents to fight the wars of older men, the tolerance for the abuse and suffering of others, practices of imperialism that don’t even question our kneejerk need to dominate other cultures.
But in this powerful discovery, in our willingness to learn, in our courage to open ourselves to deeper understandings and to allow our practices and our hearts to be broken, are the seeds of possibility for a sea change. Sensitization to these patterns frees us from their bondage and opens us to ways that break the cycle. The truth sets us free. It shows us that these seemingly chronic patterns of violence and warring and injustice are not chronic at all! They can change in a generation as we attune ourselves to the ways of peace, and to those whose lives will make it possible.
In the book Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World, there is a similar sense of the power of a community, of a commons to shape us while we are young. We should understand the church Jesus brought into being as such a place:
The primary mediators of reality during our early years are our parents, or for some, grandparents, step or foster parents, or older siblings. They teach us how things are: whom to trust, whom to shun, what is safe and what is dangerous, how to love, and how to hate. …we learn in a preverbal, bone-deep way, fundamental dispositions toward generosity or meanness, respect or scorn, equality or domination. Through the give and take of these early relationships, the child composes core patterns of life with others.[viii]
If our violence begins at home, and at church, so too does our peace. The seeds of change are planted here. Patterns of living that make way for others, that protect the most vulnerable, and restore the earth—they are birthed here. It’s here in the common water in which we baptize, where we remember the earth that is the womb of all life and seek to bless it. It is here, in the breaking of the bread where we remember how we are one body, and in being broken that we can together be made whole. It is here that we learn how it was indeed “… fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, should give his only son to suffering, the pioneer for our salvation,” the first fruit of a new generation of peace, the one who invites us into our liberation as bread for the world, light in the darkness.
Come as a child, in the vulnerability that can be shaped by this word and this way. Come and be lifted into his arms and be blessed.
[i] Deuteronomy 24:1 (NRSV): “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2 and goes off to become another man’s wife.
[ii] Cf. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, 1994), 264ff, and Matthew 19:1-12.
[iii] Cf. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, 1994), 264ff.
[iv] Mark 10:6-9.
[v] Ibid., 268.
[vi] Ibid., 268-9. See Myers for this discussion.
[viii] Daloz, Laurent A. Parks et al, Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World (New York: Beacon Press, 1997), 27.
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