Sunday, 7 October 2012

Asking the trick questions

This is the gist of my sermon this morning on Mark 10:2-16.

Some Pharisees came: and to test Jesus they asked him: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
I've been fielding quite a few press enquiries over the last couple of weeks, about the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, and some of the things that the press keep asking about the various candidates is  'where does he stand on gay marriage?' or 'does he support the ordination of women?'.

Reading Mark 10 for today's sermon, as I read that first test question, time seemed to compress. People don't change much, do they?  We seem to have an inbuilt desire - part of what the medieval theologians described as original sin - to classify people. And so we ask some key questions, of bishops, of politicians, of people we meet at parties (more subtly). And we assume that the answers to those questions will tell us whether the person is on our side or not. Are they right or wrong, good or bad, in or out, acceptable or unacceptable, depending on their answers to a few key test questions.

The actual questions change over time and between contexts. In modern American politics, abortion is a key one. And indeed we seem to be heading that way here. In church circles, gay marriage is rapidly overtaking the ordination of women as the killer question.

In Jesus case the gospels record four test questions put to him. There is this one about divorce, and then a set of three test questions put to Jesus by different interest groups on another occasion: should we pay tax to the emperor? If seven brothers all marry the same woman in turn, as each dies in turn, whose wife would she be at the resurrection? And which is the greatest commandment?

These questions were put to test or to trap Jesus. The questions were obviously designed to have no safe answer. They test specific points of Jewish and Roman law, or the Pharisees and the Saducees theological disagreements on points of theology, and to that extent don't translate well into our own time and place.

But what is very striking about the test questions Jesus was asked, and the test questions that people are faced with in our own time, is how much they revolve around issues of sex and gender. Abortion, gay marriage, divorce, remarriage, how sexual relationships on earth will map onto relationships in heaven. We often hear how the church today is obsessed with issues of sex and gender, and perhaps it might give us some perverse comfort to know that there is nothing new in that. Questions of sex and gender seem to be particularly latched onto whenever human beings are looking for questions to ask to test who is in and who is out, questions asked specifically in order to condemn someone. Questions asked to police the limits of the group and the purity of a religion.

Another way in which time seems to compress between then and now in reading this passage is the way in which questions of sexual ethics and the way we treat children are brought together here. Now it may well be that in previous generations people might have been blind to the fact that these are linked, but we certainly can't make that particular mistake any more. Whether it is a 15 year old and her teacher running off to France together, the latest celebrity paedophilia scandal, or the systematic grooming and pimping of young girls in Rochdale, questions of sexual ethics and the appropriate boundaries and relationships  between adults and children  are everywhere.
This reading is part of an extended section of teaching by Jesus in Marks gospel which broadly addresses issues of Christian discipleship. The section extends from mid way through chapter 8 to nearly the end of chapter ten, and both begins and ends with Jesus trying to explain to the disciples that he was going to be killed, and the implications of this. Much of the teaching in this section is teasing out the implications of Jesus own example for living a Christian life.

It isn't only the Pharisees who find this hard to take. Time and again in this section the disciples either can't take in what they are hearing, or react against it. Right at the beginning, in 8:32, when Jesus has just begun to teach the disciples about what will happen to him, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him, prompting Jesus into that startling command to 'get behind me, Satan!'. Further on in chapter 10, when Jesus has mostly finished his teaching for now and the disciples are on the road again, we are told they are both amazed and afraid. This is not easy stuff to take. It wasn't any easier for the first disciples than it is for us.

This particular section comes at the beginning of Chapter 10. It is part of a section of teaching that all happens in one place, framed by Jesus and his disciples travelling. The story opens in verse 1 with Jesus arriving in Judea and teaching the crowds as was his custom. Immediately, the Pharisees turn up with their trick question about divorce. Jesus answers that, and then we have the incident with people bringing their children to him for a blessing. He is about to head off after that, when a young man runs up to him to ask how he could inherit eternal life. The incident ends with the saying that it is harder for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
This is the context in which those who are following Jesus are bemused and afraid. We can imagine that those who are not following him are even more confused, and when even his own followers are scared, it is less surprising that the Pharisees are out to get him.

The key theme of this episode is perfection. How do we achieve perfection, what sort of perfection does God demand of us. And I think the key to it is the central passage, the point at which Jesus takes that child and tells his disciples that unless they enter the kingdom like a child, they won't enter it at all.

Children in those days were the lowest of the low. They had no status, no rights. Under Roman law, a father had the right of life and death over his children. We might agonise about smacking children, but then a father could legally kill his child. Children had less legal protection than slaves, less than women.

But Jesus tells his disciples not just to let children take up his time and energy, but to become like them. In the context of this whole section, we have quite a dramatic structure here. The Pharisees ask about legal perfection regarding divorce and Jesus sets them a breathtakingly high standard. The young rich man, keen as mustard, asks how he can be saved, and told to obey the law he eagerly asserts that he has kept every word. Jesus looks at him, loves him, and says 'Well, if you want to be perfect, sell all you have and give it to the poor'. That's what terrifies the disciples . Who then can be saved? They ask, and Jesus replies 'for people it is impossible, but nothing is impossible with God.'

The pivot of this whole section is that small scene with the children. The desperate parents are thrusting them towards the celebrity preacher, hoping for some stardust to rub off, some blessing to be catching. And Jesus not only gives them what they want, but insists that the children are the role model for Christian discipleship.

The Pharisees are desperate for legal perfection. The rich young man is desperate for moral perfection. Both want to know that they are doing the right thing.And the vignette of Jesus and the children acts as the pivot, the hinge, between these two stories about seeking perfection, seeking assurance that we are in not out, wanting to know that we are doing the right thing.

It seems to me that what Jesus says when he puts the small child forward needs to be understood in this context. Perfection, though a great thing, is not the point. Seeking after perfection, whether for our own moral satisfaction or as something to impose on others, gets in the way of a simple desire for an encounter with Jesus. The parents haven't understood what Jesus is saying, but in thrusting their children forward to Jesus they have understood more of the heart of his message than the legal experts and the deeply moral young man.

It is so tempting to ask the test questions. It is so tempting to seek to define others, not just because we want to know whether they are in or out, but because at an even deeper level we want assurances about our own righteousness. We want the answers our politicians, our bishops give us to reinforce our own sense of being right. We want our fears that we might be wrong to be authoritatively answered.

And Jesus is sympathetic to that desire. He doesn't give the Pharisees and the young man wispy washy answers suggesting that you can do what you like. He answers their questions on their terms, and the answers are terrifying. They are clearly meant to be terrifying, to set a ridiculously high standard, to expose the absurdity of attempts to be perfect. A few moments later, when the disciples are astounded by the parable of the camel and the needle they ask 'who then can be saved?', and Jesus says it is impossible for us to be saved by our own efforts; but all things are possible for God.

But before that, he has shown them rather than told them what he means, with this encounter with the children. It is a vivid demonstration of his point that ultimately, our call to perfection is a distraction from what is simply a call to come. Our call to morality is secondary to our call to simply encounter Jesus. Our acceptability to God lies simply in our being prepared to come and meet God, just as we are.

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