Oct 7, 2018

“Theirs Is the Kingdom” 10-7-18

Mark 10:1-16
20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 7th, 2018

Mark chapter 10 narrates Jesus’ final season of ministry in Judea prior to his triumphal entry.  We can note then, that as a matter of proportion, Mark 1-10 covers the two+ years of Jesus public ministry, while chapters 11-16 cover the final week of his earthly life.  So, Chapter 10 marks a transition as Jesus heads south from Galilee into the territory of Judea where those who seek to remove him from the scene have their seat of power and influence.

In Mark chapter 10 there are three conversations in which the theme of the kingdom of God is central.  The first of these—today's text--concerns to whom the kingdom belongs, and children in particular.  The second talks about entering the kingdom and the third returns to the persistent issue of greatness in the kingdom.  As we go through these, I urge you to observe the verbs Jesus uses to describe our relationship to the kingdom.  The kingdom is something we inherit.  It is a gift we receive.   The kingdom is something we enter.  Both of these relationships are in today’s text.   Farther afield, we learn from the Sermon on the Mount that the kingdom is something we are to seek.  I point this out because it is a popular Christian convention to say that we are building the kingdom or advancing the kingdom.  However, there is no analogy for speaking this way from the gospels and it may be a case of taking credit for more than what is properly ours.

In today’s text Jesus is involved in two exchanges—one with the Pharisees about divorce and one with the disciples about children.  Though these exchanges are different, several considerations hold them together.  The first, of course, is the very natural connection between marriage and children.  The second is the matter of testing.  Mark tells us that the Pharisees were deliberately testing Jesus with their question about divorce.  Yet we cannot read his exchange with disciples about the children without realizing that the disciples were also clearly, albeit unintentionally, testing his patience.  This is the only place in Scripture where Jesus is specifically said to be indignant.  Though he elsewhere manifests indignation, this is the only place where indignation is expressly described as his response.    A third unifying consideration is simply that of normative standards for deciding what is important, or perhaps even pleasing to God.

The Pharisee’s standard, of course, was one of legalism.  I will explore this in more detail in due course.  The disciple’s standard, on the other hand, could be described—somewhat unremarkably—as prioritizing the outlook of adulthood.   Now there is obviously a necessity for this.  For adults to act and think like adults is generally a good thing.  The problem, though, is that the disciples brought this outlook to bear on the kingdom; however, it is precisely here that the kingdom turns things upside down.  The disciples saw the kingdom as a realm of “grown up” issues and “grown up” priorities and “grown up” projects—particularly their own.  Children could only get in the way of these things. So, they rebuked the people trying to bring children to Jesus. 

Jesus’ indignation is understandable given what had recently transpired in Mark 9 in Capernaum.  He had corrected the disciple’s misdirected ambition by taking a little child in his arms and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child...welcomes me.”  Then he had warned them about setting stumbling blocks in the path of the “little ones.”   Apparently, this made no impact whatsoever on their understanding of the kingdom and kingdom priorities.  Shortly after arriving in Judea, the disciples are rebuking people who want Jesus to take their children in his arms and bless them.

So, here in Chapter 10, Jesus teaches the same lesson in greater detail.  The kingdom belongs to "the likes of them”--that is, the little children.   "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  Children receive and enter the kingdom.  “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Now there is a tradition of interpreting these words to mean that the kingdom of God is really still just for grownups, but for grownups who have a childlike-faith.  It is denied, though, that little children receive and enter the kingdom.  This tradition simply maintains the view of the disciples.

The kingdom can only belong to adults with a child-like stance if the kingdom actually belongs to little children.  A child-like stance is what makes it possible for adults to receive the kingdom.  However, there is no one with a more child-like stance than a child.  If this is what opens the door of the kingdom to adults, it is a profound contradiction to say that children cannot receive the kingdom because they are just children!

This is especially important in view of the conversation that follows in Mark 10:17ff.  Here a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Remember that the kingdom is something that we inherit.  After the man, deeply disappointed with Jesus’ answer, leaves in dismay, Jesus observes to his disciples, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.”  Here is the nearest approach to a simple, straightforward definition of the kingdom in the gospels.  The kingdom of God is eternal life.  We could express it theologically as God’s sovereign, saving power brought to bear in the world.  To say “kingdom of God” is to say “God saves.”

Jesus says of the little children, “Let them come!”  Now it is clear from the text that the children were not coming of their own initiative.  Mark tells us that people were bringing little children to Jesus.  His words, though, indicate that people bringing the little children counts as the little children coming to him!  He makes it abundantly plain that his salvation belongs to them.

These little children are not used by Jesus as a mere object lesson for a grownup world.  They are children of the kingdom.  Jesus takes them in his arms and blesses them.  This is a picture of receiving the kingdom.  The kingdom is God’s salvation, not a human achievement.  The children are willing to be taken into Jesus’ arms.  They are content to rest there and receive the blessing of Jesus, the seed of Abraham.  He is manifestly a savior to “such as these.”  As we sing in the hymn, “… he will wash away my sin; let his little child come in.”

Let’s turn now to the first test of Jesus in Chapter 10, the intentional testing by the Pharisees.  Here we see how normative legalism functions in human hearts.  Jesus will characterize their legalistic spirit as a symptom of hard-heartedness.
The Pharisees present themselves as serious students of the word, seeking to correctly understand the nuances of the law.  So, they approach Jesus with a question about a sensitive area of biblical ethics.  What about divorce?  Is it lawful?  Jesus, however, will not discuss the question apart from connecting the law with the human heart.  In his characteristic way, he asks the Pharisees how they read the scriptures.  (He is not one to fall into someone else’s trap!)  We are reminded of Jesus’ answer to the teacher of the law in Luke 10:25 who asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus said, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  Here also Jesus asks the Pharisees the same basic question: “What did Moses command you?”  In other words, What was God seeking from you, really?  It is a question like Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you?” 

The Pharisees discerningly answer that divorce was a matter of permission and not command.  Jesus, though, presses them to what lies behind the permission.  The Pharisees are interested only in the letter but Jesus insists that they reflect on the purpose of the commands.  Ultimately, he brings the discussion back to the 7th commandment—to what Moses commanded.  The end of the conversation for Jesus is about what drives divorce and where divorce leads. 

Here, let me stop and point out the great gulf between legalism and the love of God’s law.  Legalism is a corruption of one of God’s greatest gifts.  The law, the Torah, is God’s instruction.  Torah comes from a verb that means to “point the way.”  This is beautifully illustrated for us in Isaiah 30 in words of comfort to Jerusalem:  “Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes will see your Teacher.  And when you to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”   This is the way!  The law points the way to life. 

So the prayer book of the Old Testament, the book of Psalms begins the blessedness of the one who does not go to the wicked for direction, but who delights in God’s law and meditates on it day and night.  Psalm 19 part 2 begins, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul!”  The law does not contemplate perfectly obedient people, but broken people who need to find the way of life!  In other words, the law, the Torah, is God’s revelation of his own holy character such that, by meditating on it, we might come to understand ourselves in our brokenness and our hope in God as the one who loves us and promises to give us grace—to help us find the way.  This, of course, reaches its fullness in Jesus Christ.  It is good to remember that when Jesus says, “I am the way,” in John 14:6, he is in effect saying, “I am the living Torah.” 

The way of the Pharisees is not the way to the Father.   They read the law and just asked, What is forbidden? What is permitted?  What is “lawful”?  They apparently were not driven by the law to ask the deeper questions, “Why is my heart the way it is?  Why am I so quick to condemn others and justify myself?  “What would help me be a more loving husband?  What would help me become a better next-door neighbor?” “What could I do to mend fences with the people who have nothing to do with me?”

Jesus explains that the permission for divorce is a concession to the hardness of human hearts.  Divorce does not reflect the will of God.   Instead, divorce is permitted to mitigate the consequences of sin in a fallen world.  However, it is clearly only meant to be a last resort and certainly not a normative pattern for dealing with unhappiness in marriage.  The Pharisees often used divorce, in the hardness of their hearts, as a way to find a more satisfactory partner, in violation of the prohibition against adultery.  As Jesus pointed out, they were using the provision of divorce as a selfish step toward adultery.

In pointing this out I certainly do not intend to point the finger or to give offense to those who have gone through the heartbreak and brokenness of divorce.  We are all saved by grace and what is past is past.  Our Westminster Confession of Faith expresses this well, applying Jesus’ teaching with grace and wisdom:  “The remarriage of divorced persons may be sanctioned by the church in keeping with the redemptive gospel of Christ, when sufficient penitence for sin and failure is evident, and a firm purpose of and endeavor after Christian marriage is manifested.  Divorced persons should give prayerful thought to discover if God’s vocation for them is to remain unmarried, since one failure in this realm raises serious questions as to the rightness and wisdom of undertaking another union.”  However, I believe it is important to attend well to the teaching of our Lord in this area because it has implications for other areas related to human sexuality.

Jesus understood the creation narratives in Genesis to reflect God’s will, or design, for humankind.  He challenged the Pharisee’s permissive view of divorce by appealing to the creation.  “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female…”  God’s design was to establish “one flesh” of the complementary male and female.   Jesus viewed the Bible as the word of God and the creation narrative as foundational to how we view our sexuality.

In our own time, challenges to the Biblical view go far beyond a permissive attitude toward divorce.  In our time, the very notion of gender is viewed as an abstract human preference which is not necessarily related to our biology.  Moreover, our very language now reflects the triumph of this view, reflected in   phrases like “heterosexual orientation.”  That the “sexual orientation” of most people aligns with their biology is now viewed as coincidence.  Michael Hanby, a professor of religion and philosophy of science at the Catholic University of America, summarizes the situation well:

“The words of the creation account, ‘male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27), no longer apply.
No, what applies now is this: It was not God who created them male and female—hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist… From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be.”

The words of our Lord Jesus are an anchor for our lives in this world.  Over against a legalistic approach like the Pharisees, or the self-important approach of the first disciples, we are invited to live out of faith in the words of the savior.  There are times when his uncompromising standards seem unrealistic and hard to embrace.  Yet he chose the most difficult paths for himself so that, in following him in faith, we might find the path to life.   Long ago he said to the children, “Come to me.”  Today he says to us, “Come to the table.”  And we say again, “Your kingdom come. Yes, come, Lord Jesus!”  Amen.

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906