Without Guile

A Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22 – Year B – 4 October 2015
by John Edward Miller, Rector

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

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

 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 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. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.    – Mark 10:2-16

The Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Even though the gospels portray the Pharisees as annoying and supercilious nitpickers, we still have to give them credit. They get an “A” for effort when it comes to persistence. The Pharisees are relentless adversaries of Jesus, and they come at him time and again to unplug his growing popularity by exposing him as a pretender to the title of Messiah.

The Pharisees were legalists; they prided themselves in their grasp of the Torah. So they used the law like a snare. Their encounter with Jesus in today’s text from Mark 10 was another attempt at entrapment. The Pharisees’ ploy was to test Jesus’ knowledge of the law, which for them was the heart of the matter of righteous living. Their view was that God had given Israel the gift of the law; therefore conformity to the commandments equaled religious duty. Keeping the law was not an option. It was the way God’s people must live.

For them it was all about who’s got the bases covered, and who has dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s. It was as if religion is a life management system, and that faithfulness is about quality control, maintained by getting it right all the time. That, according to the Pharisees, will lead to shalom, to wholeness, peace, and salvation.

Thus anyone who appeared to buck the system, or who was seemingly playing fast and loose with the rules, was rejecting the gift of the law. The Pharisees saw Jesus as just such an outlaw, and he was in their crosshairs. This time they tried to lure him into their Torah trap, asking, “It is lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

The question of divorce was a hot topic in Jesus’ time just as it is today. Rabbis were weighing in on the issue, rendering interpretations of the law. They argued over circumstances that justify divorce, as well as ways to find a life beyond divorce. In religious circles at least, these conversations have continued to be important. Divorce has touched many among us, and it has left its scars on us and on our children. Hopes are dashed, dreams are shattered, bodies and minds have been battered, and spirits assaulted by forces that may be beyond any form of control – including the law of the land and the law of God.

The Pharisees tried to tempt Jesus to weigh in, but he did not take the bait. He knew that the law was not the issue. In this situation it was only serving as the edge of the wedge to split apart his ministry. The Pharisees wanted him discredited, and they were using what they had – their knowledge of the law – to destroy his credibility, if not his life. It is important to note that they were not interested in making a positive statement about the bond and covenant of marriage. The Pharisees did not protest its holiness and God’s intentions for people united by it. Instead, they dangled the question before Jesus, hoping that he would attempt an answer. In this protracted and deadly serious fencing match the Pharisees were eager to catch him unguarded and cry, “Touché!”

Of course, Jesus was too wise to fall victim to their wiles. He obviously had opinions on the subject. He knew the Torah, and interpreted it freely. However, he was more focused on getting his own message of God’s love and grace to the people than arguing tooth and nail with the Pharisees about the particulars of marriage and divorce.

So Jesus turned the table on his nemeses and asked them for an opinion. “You’re the experts on the law,” he seemed to say, “Tell us what it says about divorce.” The Pharisees proudly complied, and cited the Torah,[1] saying, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” Jesus responded with a swift counterpunch. He said that it was because of humanity’s “hardness of heart” that Moses established this law. His point was that the law’s purpose is to restrain an unbridled will, which can do much harm if allowed to run amok. It is a boundary, rather than an entitlement. Maybe the truth made the Pharisees blush; all we know it that they had nothing more to say.

Nevertheless it is clear that Jesus treated marriage with such respect as a God-given bond that he showed his conservatism in the way that he viewed its dissolution. He displayed his gravitas in a private talk with his disciples after the Pharisees departed. Most likely, Jesus was hoping to get them to take vows to God and covenant promises seriously, and not lightly or casually, as if relationships are like Dixie Cups – disposable after use.

Then, into the midst of all this heavy talk comes a procession of parents bringing their little children to Jesus. This appears to be a jolting change of subject – or is it? What would the blessing of children have to do with the question of marriage and divorce? And yet, these seemingly unrelated subjects are placed cheek by jowl in Mark’s account of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I think that this placement is no editorial mistake. And if it’s there on purpose, it behooves us to pay attention. There’s a meaning in this shift of gears, and it’s for us.

When Jesus saw that his disciples were shooing away the children and their parents, he became indignant. It upset him that his disciples were so hard-hearted that they failed to see the value of those children, and were preventing them from reaching Jesus’ presence. He told 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.”

We can imagine that a collective, “Huh?” emerged from his disciples. They were confused, to say the least. Under the law, children had no status; they were not recognized as persons until they reached maturity – and then only if they were males. So Jesus’ interest in them was surprising, but his statement that theirs was the kingdom of heaven was astounding. Legally it made no sense. But of course, most of what Jesus did or said made no sense in the eyes of the law. That’s because who he was and what he was doing went beyond the letter of the law.

Jesus was the presence of God among us. His divine Spirit was God’s Spirit, and his words revealed God’s Word, including the commandments of the law. His was a life of all-surpassing grace that shone brightly against a background of mundane squabbles and petty attempts at control in a world that cannot be subjugated to the will of mankind. Not even the fastidious Pharisees could satisfy all the requirements of the law; everyone falls short, and needs assistance.

I believe that he had that in mind when he spoke to his disciples about the value of a little child. He said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And then he laid his hands upon the child in his lap, and blessed him, and all of the others brought to him. We see this scene at every baptism. The Spirit of God embraces every child with grace that will forever abide, no matter what.

Jesus proclaimed that entry into the kingdom of God depends on our receiving it as a little child. Childlikeness is the criterion. What that means is to receive the kingdom openly, forthrightly, honestly, directly, and without guile. That’s how little children are. Their little lives are the exact opposite of hardness of heart.

Each one of us began that way. We had no pretentiousness or dishonesty, no hidden agenda or scheming needs for control. We were simply living, and being real in a world that we did not yet know. And we did and said things that we adults might consider abrupt or unmannerly, but were true to the moment, and contained no guile.

Some of you may have heard me recall that I met a five-year-old angel in our churchyard last spring. She was with her preschool classmates looking at the gravestones. I joined them to explain what why they were there and what their inscriptions said. The children walked from stone to stone, pausing at the ones with little lambs on them. Somehow they knew what that meant. And then they noticed the numbered concrete slabs. I said that a little girl had drawn the numbers with a stick when her father poured the wet concrete. The children got that, and they were happy to learn that we have a list of the names that go with the markers. As they ran through the churchyard counting the numbers, one little girl came back to ask me a question. Looking up at me with pure innocence in her eyes, she said, “John, what will be your number?” Her face, so full of trust, was a message from God. “And a little child shall lead them,” I thought. And now I’m thinking of a number . . .

From the beginning children have no control over their life; we are totally dependent on grace of God. It comes to us directly through our parents and caregivers. However, as you and I developed, we learned how to get things we wanted, and what to say to get our way. It is our attempt to take control of our life. In addition, layer by layer we’ve wrapped ourselves in coats of protective insulation. We allow precious few to touch the bare wire underneath the coatings of self-preservation, and me-first strategies for success, leaving us separated and bound by hardness of heart. Like the Paradise we’ve all lost, our childlikeness fades; it does not last.

Why then, does Jesus raise the standard of childlikeness as the key to the kingdom? It would not be like him to taunt us with a fleeting ideal. However, what is like him is to show us that we cannot save ourselves, and then to show us the way.

Reinhold Niebuhr famously said, “Love is the impossible possibility.” The ideal is not within our grasp, but the ideal exists, and it is real. We just need help getting there. That help is grace – God’s mercy and God’s empowerment. It’s like that with childlikeness, too. We recognize it when we see it, even though we may not remember being pristinely “like a little child.” The good news is that God’s grace can take us there, if only momentarily, and that much good will result from those sacred journeys – especially the softening of our hardened heart.

If you have a baby photo, especially one in which you are wearing your baptismal gown, take time to wonder at its beauty, and think, “Where is that little child now?” That child is in you, and in me. He or she has grown up, weathered by sundry experience and wrapped in layers of guardedness. Your child – that precious, open, guileless self – cannot be easily embraced. But, God knows it is worth the try. With God’s grace you can reconnect if you take the risk. My childhood principal used to say, “Boys and girls, always let your reach exceed your grasp.” His wisdom applies to grown-ups, too. For in our reaching out in trust we shall meet the extended hand of our loving God, whose grace is sufficient to renew trust and to heal our heart.

In the Name of God, let it be. Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 24:1-4.