Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday 4 October 2015 - 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Divorce and remarriage / Marriage from creation / When two become one / Suffer the little children / Compassionate kingdom / Jesus: the exact imprint of God / We see Jesus

Sentence: We see Jesus ... now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9).


Loving God,
yours is the vineyard and the harvest.
Help us to recognise the one you send and to follow him.
Make us willing workers in your vineyard,
so that we may offer you an abundant harvest.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-14, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16


Genesis 2:18-24

Due to some deft literary stitching Genesis 1 and 2 are often read as a single account of creation. In fact there are two accounts, 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25. In the first account there are seven days of creation and the creation of humanity, male and female is the culmination of the creation of the earth, sky, stars, moon, plants and animals. In the second account there is one (long) day of creation with humanity represented by the Human (Adam; Heb. adam) being 'formed' from the ground (Heb. adamah) early in the account (7) and humanity divided into two genders being the end of the account (21-25). Through the account humanity thus takes centre stage rather than being the culmination of it.

Noting that the ending of the creation of creatures in the first account is 'male and female he created them' (27b) with the command, 'Be fruitful ...' (28) we see a parallel account of the creation of male and female at the conclusion of chapter 2: when the single 'Human' becomes man (Heb. ish in relation to woman, Heb. ishah) and the woman is created from the Human (22). These two bone of bones and flesh of flesh then become husband and wife and reunite as one flesh again (24), with the implication that from their uniting in sexual intercourse they will be fruitful according to 1:28.

In the gospel reading we find that Jesus himself stitches aspects of the two accounts together so that what he says about marriage is drawn from Genesis 1:27; 2:20-24 as well as Genesis 5:2.

Psalm 8

As a 'related' psalm, this psalm is undoubtedly related to the epistle reading rather than the gospel reading. (It is a little difficult to think of any psalm which discusses divorce!)

This is a beautiful song of praise to God praising the majesty of God's Name (1, 9). The glory of God is seen 'set ... above the heavens' (1b). So great is God that the psalmist wonders why God is 'mindful' of human beings (4). Yet, with respect to the nature whose beauty inspires this psalm, the psalmist recognizes that human beings are nevertheless esteemed (5) and given roles of responsible stewardship (6-8).

Hebrews 1:1-14, 2:5-12

Having completed James we begin Hebrews. This enigmatic letter has some Pauline characteristics which has led to some in the past ascribing its authorship to Paul but scholars are now agreed it is not by Paul and unsure who the unnamed author is. It is also enigmatic in terms of style: it looks a bit like a letter but reads like a (long) sermon. It certainly is an exposition of many Old Testament texts as it advances its case. To understand that case, let's look at our two passages for this Sunday.


'our ancestors' in the first verse is a clue that this letter is not only addressed to Jewish Christians but also that there is an issue which is best approached by going back into the past. So verses 1-2 set up a contrast: the prophets spoke in the past but in these 'last days' (i.e. in the present era) God has spoken 'by a Son.' If we guess from this comparison that the central work of the letter will be to argue for the superiority of Jesus Christ then we guess right.

Verses 2-3 set out the rank, status and function of the Son, in one of the greatest christological statements of the New Testament with 'exact imprint of God's very being' arguable the most important of the statements made. Verse 4 then notes, almost in passing, that the purification of sins (on earth) and the seating 'at the right hand of the Majesty on high' (in heaven) makes Jesus 'superior to the angels'. In fact this particular superiority becomes the first great theme in the superiority of Jesus (1:5-14).

The argument that unfolds in verses 5-14 weaves texts from the Psalms and Isaiah together to ask questions and make statements all of which nail down, underline and highlight the point introduced in verse 4. There is a little carryover of the argument in 2:5-9.

Why this intense 'competition' between Jesus and the angels? We do not know for certain because we are not told. But it is not difficult to hypothesise that the addressees of the letter were worshipping angels and either counting Jesus among those angels (i.e. as just another angel) or even as less than those angels. Angel worship was not unknown to the first century Christians. Colossians 2:18 warns against 'worship of angels.' Twice in Revelation John is tempted to worship an angel and twice he is told not to but to worship God instead (19:20; 22:8-9). On this hypothesis, the writer of Hebrews strikes his first blow in his message to a congregation misunderstanding some basic Christian teachings: Jesus is superior to angels. A similar hypothesis is that the congregation being addressed have some kind of confused understanding about angels. While they might not have worshipped them, were they overly interested in them, speculating on who they were, what they did and how they could be contacted? If this interest in angels was detracting from clear recognition of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, what we read here makes sense: the writer acknowledges the importance of angels but vigorously and repetitively sets out their relative importance to Jesus. He is completely superior to them. Only Jesus is the exact imprint of God.

(2:1-4: not specified for reading today, nevertheless a brief note may assist the preacher: these verses seem at first to be an aside (they take us from heaven back to earth), but may also be counted as a transition within the overall argument of the letter. The emphasis on angels here falls on their role in the delivery of the Law of Moses, 'For if the message declared through angels was valid ...' (2). We rightly ask where angels figured in the story of the delivery of the Law to Moses in Exodus. They do not, save for a slight reference in Deuteronomy 33:2 to the angels accompanying God at the time,  but there was a popular view in ancient Judaism that the angels played a role when the Law was given to Moses. This view also influences Stephen (Acts 7:38, 53) and Paul (Galatians 3:19). In these verses the writer argues that if the angelic message of the Law charted a future in which disobedience received 'a just penalty' (2) then to 'neglect' the 'salvation' offered by Jesus Christ (who is so much superior to the angels) is to incur (so to speak) double wrath from God: 'how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?' (3) The rest of verse 3 and verse 4 then emphasise the validity through attestation of the gospel 'declared' by the Lord. The theme of 'how can we escape etc' permeates the remainder of the letter).


Before we go any further I need to point out that the inclusivity of language in the NRSV (which generally works fine) does not serve it well in this passage. The passage cites Psalm 8 which includes mention of 'the son of man' and that must be engaged with in respect of what resonance it might have with Jesus as The Son of Man, indeed Jesus as a single/lone human being. Working inclusively the NRSV confines the literal, masculine translation to the footnotes and works with 'human beings', 'mortals' and 'them' in verses 5-7. Thus we might be helped to have the less inclusive but more accurate rendition given here for the first part of the passage (RSV adapted re thou/you, etc):

"5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking.
6 It has been testified somewhere,
'What is man that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels,
you have crowned him with glory and honour,
putting everything in subjection under his feet.'
8 Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control.
As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.
9 But we see Jesus ..."

With verse 5 we are back from the interlude (but important transition) of 2:1-4 to the theme of Jesus' superiority to the angels (5). The 'coming world' is not subject to the angels but will be subject (or is becoming subject to Jesus). For evidence, the writer goes back to the Psalms, this time to Psalm 8 with its enigmatic talk of humanity made a little lower than the angels but after a while they will have everything subject to them. The NRSV is not wrong to inclusively count humanity as made lower than the angels and later to be lord over all things, but the singularity of the RSV (adapted) highlights some elements of wordplay going on. The human being extraordinaire is the now crowned one who fulfils the prophecy inherent in Psalm 8 (Hebrews 2:9).

But humanity is not out of the picture. Jesus is the 'pioneer of their salvation' (10). He goes ahead of us - another great theme in Hebrews - to secure and hold for us what God graciously makes available to us.

The writer makes one other point we should note. The fuller phrase in verse 10 is 'God ... should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.' Perfection here is not ethical perfection: Jesus was understood to be without sin. Perfection here is about the completion of God's purposes. For the purpose of salvation Jesus needed to suffer. By suffering (in particular suffering as the ethically perfect one to become the perfect sacrifice for the sins of imperfect humanity) Jesus completed God's purposes for the world.

Going back to verses 8-9 we find the writer focusing his readers on Jesus ('we do see Jesus'). His 'suffering of death' is for our sake because he has tasted 'death for everyone.' We need to look over to verses 14-15 to see what that might mean: he has destroyed 'the power of death' so that we might be free from the fear of death.

There will be more to say on these matters as we work through the remainder of the letter.

Mark 10:2-16

The topic of divorce remains one on which Christians ask questions. Currently the Roman Catholic church is coming to terms with a fairly dramatic change concerning annulment of marriages, pronounced by Pope Francis recently (see, e.g. here). Some readers here may have intensely personal questions about their own life situation, perhaps feeling trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage or fearful of marrying in case marriage does not turn out well. In what follows I have drawn some wisdom from Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, London: SPCK, 2001, pp. 129-133 and from Robert H. Stein, Mark (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2008, pp. 453-460. The thoughts expressed here are, of course, my responsibility rather than theirs.

From a narrative point of view, Jesus is drawing closer to Jerusalem and his death. This passage begins with the Pharisees seeking him out 'to test him' (2). These kinds of tests will become more intense as the days go by and the distance to Jerusalem grows shorter.

The fact that a question is asked about the legality of divorce suggests that the matter was controversial then. It would be no test to ask Jesus about a theoretical matter on which little rested of theological or pastoral importance. Presumably people generally were asking under what conditions they might secure a divorce (or, to be more accurate, under what conditions a man might secure a divorce from his wife (2)). As best we can tell the rabbis fell into two camps in their answers to such a question, roughly the 'hard' camp and the 'soft' camp. To which did Jesus belong?

Spoiler alert: what follows is not egalitarian!

The 'hard' camp, the school of Shammai interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1 ('... but she does not please [her husband] because he finds something objectionable about her ...') as restricting divorce to sexual unchastity by the wife. The 'soft' camp, the school of Hillel interpreted it more liberally and 'permitted divorce for such things as a wife spoiling her husband's supper or his finding someone more attractive than her' (Stein, 455).

But there is an even sharper possibility to consider about what lies behind the question. John the Baptist has already been executed for criticizing the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias (6:17-20), and Herodias had divorced her husband to marry Herod (note 10:11-12). The test question may have been a specific trap to draw Jesus also into angering Herod and thus into the possibility of his been removed from further public ministry by imprisonment if not execution.

Typically of Jesus, he asks a question of his questioners rather than answering their question. He is not just being 'clever/smart'. He wants the Pharisees to go back to first principles. He also, if the Herodian background to the question is correct, wants to avoid their entrapment. Only later will he reveal to the disciples what he actually thinks about the Herods' dodgy marriage (11-12).

So instead of answering the question whether it is legal for a man to divorce his wife he asks 'What did Moses command you?' (3). Their answer, v. 4, shows that they already know the answer to their question: it is legal!

Jesus goes on to offer a 'hard' interpretation of the legality of divorce (as then understood). Moses had authorised a legal way forward (or 'out') but it was not because of the softness of God's heart but 'because of your hardness of heart' (5). That is, the very pressure of desire for divorce led to Mosaic legalising of divorce. The general principle of marriage, as Jesus goes on to remind his hearers, is that 'what God has joined together, let no one separate' (9) and the theological reason for this general principle is that marriage is intended from creation itself, indeed from the fact that God created humanity 'male and female', to be a unitive relationship, two bodies becoming 'one flesh.' (6-8). The Pharisees want to talk about the grounds for divorce, Jesus turns that to talk of the foundational truths of marriage.

Nevertheless, marriage is challenging and few marriages remain blissful everyday after the wedding day! The disciples understand these things about the difficulties of married life because they themselves seem unconvinced by Jesus' response to the Pharisees. Surely divorce is not forbidden no matter what difficulties a marriage falls into? So we read, 'Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.' (10).

In Matthew's version of this story they say a little more, 'If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.' (19:10) In other words, 'Your teaching on this, Lord, is too tough!'

Jesus responds with words which are brief, blunt and difficult ever since for the church to administer (11). While they may have been - as suggested above - a particular riposte aimed at the Herods, Mark reports these words here without reference to the Herods which implies that Mark felt that what Jesus said about marriage applied generally to all disciples and not just to local celebrities with well known marriage merry go-rounds.

That means that we should hear what Jesus says in these verses as applying to disciples. First, that he envisages that disciples will not have the same hard-heartedness as the Israelites in general had. The work of God in the lives of disciples should enable them to meet the challenges of marriage. Secondly, given the generally high expectations on disciples to live holy lives, worthy of the God who calls them into the kingdom, there should be no surprise that disciples are called to live their marriages to a high standard, the standard set by God in the original institution of marriage in creation.

Incidentally, for some readers Mark 10:9 may appear to contradict Mark 10:11. The former forbidding divorce and the latter acknowledging divorce but forbidding remarriage. In fact on the understanding of the rabbis, divorce implied freedom to remarry, so forbidding divorce and forbidding remarriage amounted to the same thing.

But the question will be in some readers minds, because of their own difficult marriage situation or that of a loved friend or family member, what do these verses mean for my situation? First, these verses do not tackle specific questions of when divorce might be acceptable (at least in the sense of the lesser of two evils, for instance when a spouse is being physically abused). That some exceptions became of concern to the early church is witnessed to in Matthew 5:32, 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 which provide 'exception clauses.' Secondly, we therefore should not read these verses in such a manner that we feel bound to remain in an impossible situation. If we feel we are in that situation we should seek help from a pastor or marriage counselor.

What we - the whole Christian community of disciples - should be clear about from these verses is that God's expectation is that the married remain married, that no spouse hardens their heart against their partner simply because they find them unsatisfactory, that temptations to adultery will be resisted and that the intention in our hearts towards our spouses will be guided and directed by God's Word and not by the values of the world. These values, it seems in the Western world, are determined according to what will make me happy rather than according to what sacrificial love towards our spouse means.

Our final verses, 13-16, funnily enough involve children. Was that coincidence or did Mark deliberately place this incident as a natural follow on from discussing marriage?

On the one hand we can read this story as a mixture of cuteness and compassion: the mean ol' disciples try to shoo the children away and Jesus gets cross about that and says, "Let the little children come to me ..." They come and snuggle into Jesus' arms and he blesses them (16).

On the other hand this is a story, like most stories in Mark's Gospel, about the kingdom. First, 'to such as these ... the kingdom of God belongs.' Secondly, 'whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.' (14, 15). There is something about children which we are being invited to consider. It may not be just one thing. So we think of the innocence of children and their trusting natures, of the vulnerability of children and their powerlessness in society ruled by adults, and (casting an eye ahead to the next story, 10:17ff) their willingness to come to Jesus without negotiating conditions beforehand.

That is, if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven we may need to let go of the cynicism and wariness of adulthood and entrust ourselves to God. We may need to let go of thinking of how strong and sturdy we are and recognize the vulnerabilities within and allow God to speak to those with an invitation to come humbly under the rule of God.

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