with Tony W. Cartledge
“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” — Mark 10:14b
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
Hard Words and a Soft Heart
We don’t live in an ideal world. That’s a fact. It may be a frustrating fact, but true nonetheless. For most of us, our vision of an ideal world would be one in which all people would live in peace and harmony, in which every marriage would last happily until death, in which every child would grow up healthy and happy and successful.
But we don’t live in that world, do we? We are all acquainted with brokenness and failure. Hopefully, we’ve known forgiveness, too.
In today’s text, wrong-spirited questions run into unexpected ideals, which then beg for interpretation in the face of reality.
Jesus and legalists(vv. 1-12)
The wrong-spirited question has to do with divorce. Mark tells us that Jesus has set out for Judea, one of several geographical notes in the gospel (see also 7:24, 31; 8:22, 27; and 9:30, 33).
Judea was centered in Jerusalem and occupied much of the southern part of what we typically think of as Israel. The province was ruled by Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great. Antipas had famously divorced his first wife – a Nabatean princess – sending her back to her father so he could marry a woman named Herodias. Herodias, meanwhile, had divorced Herod Antipas’s half-brother Herod Phillip so she could marry Antipas. John the baptizer had been harshly critical of the sordid affair, and lost his head because of it (Mark 6:14-29).
At some point a group of Pharisees approached Jesus, seeking to entrap him by asking him to take sides on the hotly debated topic of divorce: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (v. 2). Jesus exposed the Pharisees’ hypocrisy by requiring them to confess that they already knew what the law said (vv. 3-4). Deut. 24:1-4 clearly allowed a man to divorce his wife if she displeased him because he found “something objectionable about her” (NRSV). Wives did not have the same privilege, however. (For more on the Jewish law, see “The Hardest Question” online.)
Jesus went a step beyond their debates over what the law allowed by raising the discussion to the level of what God wished. The legal allowance for divorce was given only because the Israelites were too stubborn or hard-hearted to live up to the ideal of a permanent marriage, Jesus said (v. 5). He then combined two snippets from Genesis 1 and 2 to argue that God’s desire is for marriage to be permanent, adding “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate” (v. 9).
When the disciples pressed Jesus for a further word later on, he took the next logical step by declaring that divorce, whether initiated by the man or the woman, would lead to adultery against the first spouse if either remarried (vv. 10-12).
What do we do with a text like this? Are Jesus’ words to be taken as a law that Christians must follow? Are divorced persons who remarry condemned to a life of ongoing adultery?
We have several points to consider. Note first that the teaching reflects a new reality: Jewish law allowed only men to obtain a divorce, but Roman law allowed a woman to do the same. This teaching puts men and women on the same level.
Secondly, recall the background story of Herod Antipas and Herodias breaking up two separate marriages so they could be wed. This, and a popular interpretation of Deut. 24:1-4 that allowed men to enjoy serial polygamy through easy divorces, showed the negative side of divorce, which needed a corrective.
The Pharisees’ use of a serious question in a trivial way, combined with the conflicted approach to divorce among the legalists, led Jesus to leap past the quibbling of “what is permitted” to focus on God’s ideal desire that marriages be for good.
That much is clear. But where does that leave us? We know that many couples fail to live up to God’s ideal – indeed, to their own ideals. Does getting married automatically mean that God has sanctioned a couple’s union, that “God has joined them together”? Some marriages are ill advised and doomed from the beginning. Others begin well, but over the course of years, one or both partners change in ways that can make continuing the marriage more harmful than ending it.
We know this, and God understands this. In his ministry, Jesus was far more prone to utter words of compassion and forgiveness than of condemnation and judgment. We fail to live up to God’s ideal in many areas of life, not just in marriage. When we fall short, God offers forgiveness and the opportunity to start anew – including the area of marriage. Jesus’ confounding of the Pharisees by upholding God’s ideal over human legalisms does not condemn people in bad marriages to a life of misery, or sentence remarried persons to a life of adultery.
Jesus and children(vv. 13-16)
From a teaching on divorce, the narrative moves to a lesson from children. We can learn something from the parents involved in this story. “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them …” (10:13a). The children did not come to Jesus on their own; their parents brought them in hopes of a blessing.
We all know what it is like to want the best for our children. We want them to have better things than we had – a better house, better food, better toys, a better education, and a better job. None of these things matter, however, unless we can also provide for them inner security and spiritual nourishment. If we work to give our children a better education and better employment prospects, but give them no purpose in life, then we have failed.
Some denominational traditions use this text to support infant baptism, but Jesus’ acceptance of little children has nothing to do with whether they have been baptized. We cannot bring a baby for baptism and then assume that she is set for life. Nor can we relax our concern when one of our older children expresses faith and seeks baptism. Christian adults have a responsibility to continue bringing the children of this world to Jesus, and not only by bringing them to church, but also through living as appropriate examples.
From the disciples we learn a more negative lesson: the serious danger of keeping anyone from Christ. When the parents brought their children to Jesus, his self-appointed bodyguards tried to prevent them, and earned for themselves a stinging rebuke. Jesus became “indignant” – a word so strong that neither Matthew nor Luke repeats it in their version of the story (Matt. 19:13-15, Luke 18:15-17).
I have known deacons who stood guard at the church door to make sure none of the neighborhood’s black children tried to come in. I have known other adults who took a much less overt role in hindering children, but their general apathy and unwholesome lifestyles served to the same effect.
Jesus wanted his followers to know that those who keep children (or others) away from him are working against him, and not for him. This story is separated by only a few verses from Jesus’ earlier warning about the danger of being a stumbling block to children (9:42).
We also learn from the children in this story. Jesus used the occasion to teach that we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we enter it like children: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (v. 15). This suggests that there is something about the character of a child that enables someone to experience God now, and to share his kingdom life in eternity.
I once studied this passage in 30 commentaries written over the past 150 years. I discovered that the childlike characteristics mentioned most frequently by scholars writing 100 years ago included things like “purity,” “humility,” and “meekness.” Either children have changed, or modern writers are more observant, because current commentaries rarely describe children as pure, meek, or humble!
What childlike qualities did Jesus have in mind? Surely he knew that children have an innate openness and ability to trust that adults tend to lose along the way. They are not so cynical that they cannot believe, or so rational that everything has to be fully explained before they can accept it. Childlike faith must grow into a mature faith, but faith begins on a child’s level – in simple trust.
Children can accept being accepted. Adults who are aware of their sin often worry if they are “good enough” to be accepted by Christ. Children do not worry about such things. A healthy child does not think “Why should Jesus love me?” She knows that she is lovable.
We also learn, of course, from Jesus, whose angry rebuke to the disciples teaches an important lesson about value systems. People commonly grow angry from affronts to self, but Jesus’ ire was provoked when harm came to others.
Jesus’ response to the children also shows a love that goes beyond what we might expect of him. The parents in question had hoped that Jesus might simply touch their children (v. 13), but Jesus “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them” (v. 16). The word for “blessed” is actually a strengthened form of the usual term: he fervently blessed them.
Jesus truly cares for all of the children, no matter our age, and desires to bless us all. How great is that? BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for October 4, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Mark 10:1-16
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Students like to ask a lot of questions. Some intentions are pure, but some students ask questions for shock value or to try and catch us off guard. However you answer these questions, it is as important to know why the student is asking the question in the first place. If you can touch on the reasoning behind the question, the answer will be remembered.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Oh, God!” via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Mark 10:1-16