A Provocation: Third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6 (11): June 13, 2021: Mark 4:26-34

26And he was saying:
	Thus is the dominion of God:
		Suppose a person should dump seed on the ground, 
			27and then sleep and get up, 
				night after night
				day after day. 
		The seed sprouts and grows, 
	                who knows how? 
		28The soil produces automatically, 
			first the shoot, 
			then the stalk, 
			then full grain in the head. 
		29But when the grain is ripe, 
		BANG he sends the sickle, 
			because the harvest is standing ready.
30And he was saying:
	How shall we compare the dominion of God, 
	or in what parable shall we put it?  
		31It is as a seed of mustard, which, 
			whenever it is sown upon the soil, 
		is smaller than all the seeds sown on earth, 
		32and whenever it is sown, 
		it goes up and becomes bigger than all shrubs, 
			and makes great branches, 
			so that under its shade 
                                the birds of heaven can make nests.
33And in many parables of this sort he was speaking to them the word, 
	just as they were able to hear.
34Apart from parables he said nothing to them, 
but alone with his own disciples he explained everything.

A Question or Two:

  • Why mustard?
  • Why parables?
  • Why did he have to explain them if he told them “just as they were able to hear?”

Some Longer Reflections:

Mustard is not the smallest seed in the world. That doesn’t really matter. Jesus is not making a point about botany.

What does matter is that mustard was, for Jews in the 1st century, a weed. Ancient Jews used mustard in their cooking, but observant Jews did not plant it in their fields. Mustard is aggressive and invasive. Ask any farmer: it is impossible to have “just a little” mustard in your field.

It was this trait that made it not just a weed, but a religious weed. Observant Jews in any century do Torah so that their lives point to a God who is stable and orderly, a God who loves Creation and who saves people from the chaos that could kill them. That is the point of the highly-patterned lives that faithful Jews live. You observe Sabbath so that exhausted people can see evidence that God knows we need rest if we are to recover. You keep kosher not because God hates pork chops, but in order to learn self-control. Mustard breaks all boundaries, destroys orderliness, and weakens the witness of the community to God’s love. That’s why Jews in the 1st century did not plant it.

“The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard.”

That’s what parables do: they seem so simple at the outset, and then they cause problems that simply don’t let you go.

“The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard.” It grows and burgeons. It erupts where and when you’d least expect it.

“The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard.” It is destructive to its own ends. It undercuts itself even as it grows. It is chaos and it is life and it is hope and it dissipates its own hopefulness.

The question with a parable is not “What does this mean?,” but “What does this do?” What does this make you think about?

These days, this parable makes me think of conversations about incremental and revolutionary change. There are many such conversations going on. Everyone in every conversation appears to agree that change is essential. It is long past time to take seriously the continuing effects of our imposition of race-based slavery. We are long overdue in our recognizing that many of the people who have given us life, many people among our close friends and family, have had to hide deep truths about their identity, their gender, their way of living and loving in the world. There are more conversations of this sort. You know them because you are in them.

In those conversations are people whom I deeply respect who point out that incremental change is the favorite tool of the forces that hope to prevent all change. They quote, quite properly, Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. People who are comfortable always urge moderation. As Dr. King rightly said:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

In those conversations that are other people, people who I also deeply respect, who note that some of the necessary changes will pull communities apart.

It is easy to dismiss their concerns, as long as you think of them only in the abstract. From sufficient moral distance, it is clear that institutional self-preservation is a particularly distasteful form of cowardice. If you stand far enough away from real people in actual communities, it is easy to see that this is true. But people in actual communities live with the basic truths of life together: we need each other and we are stuck with each other. Members of rural congregations are tied together by bonds of family and history, and those bonds are often cemented by the fact that there are few, if any, other communities to join, should their congregation be torn apart.

The parable makes it clear: those who urge moderation are correct; the dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard: it may bring hope, but it surely brings chaos.

This parable is only incidentally about how the dominion of God brings BIG things out of little things. More significantly, it makes it clear that the big things that God’s dominion brings will always shake anything that has (so far) passed for stability and safety. To read it otherwise is to tame it, and comfortable people will try anything to tame the dominion of God. If they succeed, this parable becomes a religious affirmation of their own stability.

And that is one thing the dominion of God never brings.

A Provocation: Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 26 (31): October 31, 2021: Mark 12:28-34

18 And they came, 
toward him, 
     (those who say there is no resurrection), 
and they kept asking him; 
     they said: 
          19 Teacher, 
          Moses wrote to us: 
               If someone’s brother should die 
                    and leave a wife 
                    and should not discharge a  child, 
               his brother should take the wife 
                    and raise seed to his brother.  
               20 Seven brothers there were.  
                    And the first took a wife. 
                         He died;
                         he did not discharge seed.  
                    21 And the second took her,
                         and died without leaving seed, 
                    and the third the same way
                         22  None of the seven discharged seed.  
                    Last of all, also the woman died.  
                    23 In the resurrection 
                         (whenever it is that they would rise) 
                    of which of them will she be wife?  
                         for the seven had the same wife. 
      24 Jesus said to them: 
          Isn’t it on account of this you are deceived:
               you know neither the scripture nor the power of God?  
          25 For “whenever it is that they would rise” out of death 
               neither will they marry or be given in marriage.  
                    But they are like angels in the heavens.  
          26 Concerning the dead, 
               that they are raised, 
          don’t you read in the book of Moses 
               (the part about the bush) 
          how God said to him: 
               I AM the God of Abraham 
                    and the God of Isaac 
                    and the God of Jacob?
                         27 God is not God of the dead but of the living.  
          You are very much deceived.  
28 One of the scribes approached. 
He heard them arguing;
he saw how beautifully he answered them; 
     he asked him: 
          Which is the commandment, 
               the first of all?  
     29 Jesus answered: 
          First is: 
               Hear Israel: 
               The LORD your God, the LORD is One, 
                    30 and you will love the LORD your God 
                         out of the whole of your heart
                         and out of the whole of your life 
                         and out of the whole of your mind, 
                         and out of the whole of your strength.  
          31 Second, this: 
               You will love your neighbor as yourself.  
          There can exist no commandment greater than these.
     32 He said to him 
     the scribe did: 
          Beautifully done, Teacher, 
          based on truth you spoke: 
               “One there is, 
               and there cannot be another 
                    except God,” 
          33 and 
               “to love God 
                    out of the whole of the heart 
                    and out of the whole of the understanding 
                    and out of the whole of the strength…”
               “to love the neighbor as oneself…”
          This exceeds all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.  
34 Jesus, 
seeing that he answered rationally, 
     said to him: 
          Not far you are, 
          not far from the dominion of God.  
And no one any longer dared to question him.  

A Question or Two:

  • So, was Jesus a Pharisee?
  • He surely is NOT a Sadducee.

Some Longer Reflections:

For a longer exploration, see my Provocation on Mark 12:28-34 from 2018: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/a-provocation-twenty-fourth-sunday-after-pentecost-november-4-2018-mark-1228-34/

Just one thing catches my eye this year.

               Hear Israel: 
               The LORD your God, the LORD is One,

Observant Jews recite the Shema every morning and every evening, and hope to speak these words again at the moment of death. And it all starts with the words that Jesus says in answer to a question about Torah. This is not surprising since, as Paul Fredriksen notes, Jesus is himself an observant Jew.

Of course, behind the word “LORD” is the Divine Name, which is used to indicate the activity of the Mercy Attribute, that key aspect of God that calls, chooses, nurtures, and forgives. The first phrase in this affirmation makes it clear: for Jewish faith, the God that regulates the world is a God whose Name is Mercy.

And then comes the part that catches my eye: The God whose Name is Mercy is One.

Read this carefully. This does NOT mean that only the chosen few have access to God’s Mercy, no matter how often this is asserted by narrow ideologues (many of them Christians). The Oneness of God reveals God’s centrality, not exclusivity. The Jewish affirmation of God’s Oneness makes the point that God is a Singularity. Think of the attractive power of a black hole. All matter and all energy is drawn to the singularity. The Shema says that God is the same: for all the differences in the ways we speak of God (even among just Jews!), still God is One, and that Oneness consists in Mercy.

This understanding has deep roots in Jewish faith. The Noachide Covenant (made between God and Noah) does not expect people who are not Jewish to convert. This Covenant simply expects non-Jews not to act like idiots: no idolatry, no cursing God, no murdering, marital unfaithfulness, no stealing, and don’t eat meat torn from a living animal. And, while you’re at it, establish courts of justice. These are sensible and accessible requirements for people who have no real idea what keeping kosher might entail. And the hopes rising out of the work of Second Isaiah point to the gathering of all people, Jews and non-Jews, all of us together gathered by the Mercy of God. This is even the substance of the song sung by the sky-ful of angels at the birth of Jesus (gospel of Luke):

Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ 

καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας. 

Glory in the highest [places] to God; and on earth peace among people who are either characterized by good will or who approved by God. Or it could be both, and that would make sense, given the Noachide Covenant: people of good will don’t act like idiots and are thus approved by God. The angels do not expect that this peace will only come to some small group. The angels sing peace to all people of good will. Their song, by the way, also replicates Jesus’ words about Torah: both God and neighbor are included.

But if the God who is One is a Singularity, a power of Mercy that attracts all of Creation, then our task as people of faith is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the God whose Name is Mercy. It seems I have heard that somewhere before.

A Provocation: Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25 (30): October 24, 2021: Jeremiah 31:7-9

7For thus says the LORD: 
     Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, 
     and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; 
     proclaim, give praise, and say, 
          "Save, O LORD, your people, 
               the remnant of Israel."
          8See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, 
          and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, 
               among them the blind and the lame, 
               those with child 
               and those in labor, 
          together; a great company, they shall return here.
               9With weeping they shall come, 
               and with consolations I will lead them back, 
                    I will let them walk by brooks of water, 
                    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; 
               for I have become a father to Israel, 
                    and Ephraim is my firstborn.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is Jacob mentioned?
  • Yes, I know that Jacob and Israel are the same narrative character, and I know that this is poetry so I should expect such renaming, but what does bringing Jacob in contribute to the statement of prophecy?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jeremiah and Isaiah are the prophets that always have names. The other prophets get allusions, or even quotations, but they aren’t named. I do not remember a single instance where Paul or any gospel storyteller says, “As it stands written in the prophet, Habakkuk….” And when Jesus asks who people say that he is, no one says, “Zephaniah.” At best, he shows up in the catch-all term “one of the prophets of old.”

Jeremiah, like Isaiah, was a prophet from the Babylonian period, when “Judah [had] gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude” (Lamentations 1:3). And that is why we have to notice that Jeremiah is talking about Jacob, about Israel, about the Northern Kingdom that had been scattered in exile by Assyria nearly 200 years before Jeremiah spoke these words.

Why bring in Jacob?

It is an important question. It means that Jeremiah and his audience have raised their eyes higher than their own predicament. They are together looking for something bigger than the easing of their pain. They are together remembering the earlier disaster, the Assyrian onslaught that obliterated 10/12s of the Jewish people. When I read such passages with my students, they notice that the Babylonian Exile was not the first rupture in the history of the Jewish people, nor was it the last. They notice, also, that trauma has left deep marks on the Jewish faith, and by extension on the Christian faith as well.

This might be a week to remember that. We misunderstand the problems of the present when we forget the traumas of the past that have marked us and shaped our lives and our hopes. Jeremiah’s words make it clear that healing in the present moment will require the healing of past losses. The relatives scattered by the Assyrians will have to be returned.

This, of course, would be impossible. Two centuries of dispersion would have made those people untraceable. Other ancient Jewish texts imagine that the voice of Messiah would call all these lost and scattered relatives home to Mount Zion. Some even imagine that God would use birds to send out the call to return. The birds would find the descendants of the exiles just like the doves in the old Aschenputtel (Cinderella) story picked the lentils out of the ashes. But returning all those who had been lost would have been impossible, and this impossibility is part of the prophecy. Jeremiah and his audience knew that very well.

Life leaves marks. If we forget that, we misunderstand our reactions to pain and disruption. People (and peoples) who have experienced trauma cannot just “get over it.” It continues the trauma to demand that they do. When we demand that people “just get over it” we are making it clear that what we want, what we demand, is that we not be disturbed. And when other people remind us of the event that changed everything, that damaged everything, we are annoyed. We don’t think of it as annoyance. We think of it as realism, as tough love, as good advice. But what we really want is to avoid any disruption in our world. “After all,” we say, “everybody has troubles. You’re no different.”

But my trouble does not cancel out your trouble. The fact that my relatives left Sweden because the economic system collapsed on top of them does not cancel out the trouble that was caused when they settled on the hereditary land of the Anishinaabe in northern Minnesota. The Anishinaabe live there still, and the dominant culture created by my relatives and their descendants is a reminder of the loss of their relatives and the loss of their hereditary land.

In the late 19th century the Ghost Dance emerged among Native Americans, beginning with the Northern Paiutes and spreading widely. People performed the Dance hoping that it would bring about the return of the bison, the return of all the relatives lost, and the return of the sacred hereditary land. These hopes were crushed at Wounded Knee when Spotted Elk and the people following him were massacred. James Mooney spoke with Lakota people after this catastrophe and they told him that they would no longer speak of the Ghost Dance to him or to any other European. (see Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion). Trauma upon trauma left indelible marks.

Jeremiah’s words remind me of the hopes expressed in the Ghost Dance. Jeremiah’s words remind me of the marks left by trauma. Jeremiah’s words make me wonder if his audience also resolved never to speak of their hopes to the Babylonians. And then I remember Psalm 137, and I realize that the trauma of lost relatives and lost land may be the same in any century.

May all those who must remember losses become God’s firstborn.

A Provocation of the Gospel of Luke: October 19, 26; November 2, 9: A Collaborative Workshop: The Gospel of Luke: We had hoped…

Pam Faro (an incredible professional storyteller) and I are doing a workshop focused on the gospel of Luke. The details are on the flyer (below). We will be gathering on Zoom, so no airfare, no hotel, just four sessions of collaborative exploration of a fascinating story. Please join us!

A Provocation: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25 (29): October 17, 2021: Mark 10:35-45

32 They were on the road,
	they were going up to Jerusalem. 
	Jesus was leading them.  
		They were amazed.  
		Those who followed were afraid.  
He took the twelve aside;
	he began to tell them the things that were about to happen.  
33 Look, 
he said, 
		we are going up to Jerusalem.
		The son of adam will be handed over 
			to the high priests 
			and the scribes, 				
			They will condemn him to death, 
			and they will hand him over to the Gentiles.  
				34 The Gentiles will mock him 
						and spit on him 
						and flog him 
						and kill him.
				After three days he will rise.  
	35. Then James and John walked up to him 
		(they’re the two sons of Zebedee), 
	they walked up and said: 
		Teacher?  Okay: whatever we ask, you have to do it, okay?.  
36 He said to them:
		What do you want me to do for you?  
	37 They said to him: 
		Give us this: 
			in your glory 
			one of us sits on your right, 
			one of us on your left, 
	38. Jesus said to them: 
		You don’t know what you are asking.  
			Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?  
			Or the baptism I undergo, are you able to take that, too?  
	39 They said to him: 
		We can do that, no problem.  
	Jesus said to them: 
		The cup I drink, you will drink.  
		The baptism I undergo, you will undergo.  
		40 But sitting at my right or my left?16  
			That isn’t mine to give.  
			It belongs to those for which it was prepared.  
41 When the ten heard about this, 
	they began to be angry with James and John.  
42 Jesus called them,
he says to them: 
	You know: 
		the ones who seem to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them.  	
	You know: 
		their “Great Ones” push them around.  
	43 It is not to be that way with you.  
		On the contrary: 
			You want to be great?  
				Wait tables.  
			44 You want to be in first place?  
				Become everyone’s slave.  
		45 The son of adam, after all, 
			did not come to be served, 
			but to serve, 
			and to give his life, 
				a ransom worth many people.

A Question or Two:

  • Is this a comic scene, or a tragic scene?

A Few Longer Reflections:

			You want to be great?  
				Wait tables.  
			You want to be in first place?  
				Become everyone’s slave. 

The risk with this set of sayings is that we will imagine that we are being encouraged to wait on one table. Or maybe even to work an entire shift as a server in a fast food restaurant. One whole shift!

But masquerading as a service worker is likely to teach us nothing. We may have lovely nostalgic thoughts about back when we had to work such jobs. We might tell great stories about how little we earned in those days, and how hard it was to make ends meet. (I occasionally tell people about the week in grad school when we had 18 cents in our checking account. True story.)

But of course when we do this, we are not paid for our efforts. Such stunts are recreational. Were I to work a shift in a grocery store, hoping to express solidarity with people who live on wages like that, I would do it for free because I have a job and salary that lets me flex my schedule and work for free.

And that is precisely not the point in this scene.

My salary and my “status” have gone up from what they were in those days.

Jesus is aware that people with privilege and power need to remember that “essential workers” are, in fact, essential. And they are poorly paid. But he is not directing us to pose as people who wait table. Posing solves nothing. He is saying that only people who live on the wages of a fast food server have the credentials of greatness. Only people held as slaves can qualify as the true “elites.”

We do not believe that.

We find ways to read those words as somehow metaphorical, somehow a suggestion, not a directive. And sometimes people who see themselves as “servant leaders” do things that are useful and good. It is good that such things happen.

But Jesus’ words have a sharper edge than that. The reign of God (the “kin-dom” of God, or even the “kid-dom” of God) makes sense to people who are working two jobs just to make rent.

Maybe that is why the followers of Jesus included outcasts and sex-workers. I do not know many people who have been sex-workers, but I do know some. I do not know anyone who has been held as a slave, but I do know people who know they will never pay off their educational loans, people who work multiple jobs and still come up short some months. We all know people who face bankruptcy because of medical bills.

What would it mean to be led by these people?

A Provocation: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23 (28): October 10, 2021: Mark 10:17-31

17 When he went out on a journey,
     one man ran up, 
          fell on his knees.
          He asked him: 
               Noble teacher, 
               What ought I do so that I inherit life of the messianic age?
          18 Jesus said to him: 
               Why are you saying that I am noble?  
                    No one is noble except one, 
               19  You know the commandments: 
                    do not kill, 
                    do not commit adultery, 
                    do not steal, 
                    do not witness falsely, 
                    do not refuse to return deposits, 
                    honor your father and mother.  
          20 The man said to him: 
                    all these things I guarded from early adulthood.
          21 Jesus looked at him;
          he was pleased with him. 
          He said to him: 
               One thing alone is lacking for you: 
                    whatever you have 
                         and give to the poor 
                              and you will have treasure in heaven 
                                   and come follow me.  
          22 He became sad because of the word.
          He went away full of sorrow: 
          He used to have many possessions.  
          23 Jesus looked around, 
          he says to his disciples: 
               How peevishly 
                    those who have what they need 
               will go into the dominion of God.
          24 The disciples were amazed because of his words, 
          so Jesus again answered, 
          he says to them: 
               how unpleasant it is to go into the dominion of God.
                    25 Easier it is that a camel go through the eye of a needle 
                         than that a rich man go into the dominion of God.  
          26 Those standing by were driven out of their minds. 
          They said to themselves: 
               So who is able to be rescued?  
          27 He looked at them,
          Jesus says: 
               By humans:
                    can’t be done.
               but not by God.
                    Indeed by God all things can be done.  
          28 Peter began to say to him: 
                         WE left everything.
                         WE have followed you. 
          29  Jesus said:
               I tell you the truth:
                    There is no one who left a house 
                         or brothers 
                         or sisters 
                         or mother 
                         or father 
                         or children 
                         or fields 
                              on account of me 
                              and on account of the good news, 
                    30 if they should not receive a hundred-fold now 
                         in this, the right time 
                              and brothers 
                              and sisters 
                              and mothers 
                              and children 
                              and fields 
                                   with persecutions, 
                         and in the messianic age coming, 
                              the life of the messianic age.  
                                   31 Many will be first who are last, 
                                        and last first. 

Translation from my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller's Commentary (The Pilgrim Press, 2005)

A Question or Two:

  • What is all this talk about rich people?

Some Longer Reflections:

“How peevishly….” There is a word I bet you have not said aloud, maybe ever.

The usual translation is “How hard….” That is a good translation. Mostly. But the word in Greek spends its energy thinking about picky eaters. Seriously. The word does not imply hard work and real difficulty. The word is as serious as my dislike for kale. Or some people’s distaste for broccoli. That’s it. That’s all of it. This isn’t even gluten intolerance. This is just some people, for some unknown reason, do not like oatmeal.

At first look, this seems to be a flimsy word for this situation. From one side, it is flimsy because we are talking about “going into the dominion of God.” No matter what this exactly means, it is a serious matter. Peevish? And from another side, we are talking here about “selling whatever you have” and giving it to the poor. The man is reluctant. Jesus uses a word he would use if the man had said, “But I just don’t LIKE kale.”

Stop and think about that. As I write this, I am sitting in the living room of our home, which we have paid off. Across the room is the rocking chair that belonged to my mother’s father, the chair that he painted with glossy black lacquer and traced oak leaves from the trees across from his house in Jamestown, NY, onto the arms, painting them gold. Behind the chair I see my trombone, a King 4B that I bought with my own money about 50 years ago. It is a good instrument, one that we almost sold once when we were very short of money while in grad school. Behind my trombone is the antique commode that was given to us by my wife’s great uncle who chose it specially for her out of a barn full of antiques and old stuff. And on the wall to my left are two small watercolors that my sister painted about a year before she was diagnosed with ALS.

“Sell whatever you have, and give to the poor.”

It seems to me that this goes beyond broccoli and oatmeal and pineapple on pizza.. This even goes beyond kale.

One key to this odd scene is found in the way the next line is usually translated. Mostly they have Jesus say that it is hard for “those who have wealth” to enter the kingdom. The Greek is more interesting than that. The phrase in Greek is οἱ τὰ χρήματα ἔχοντες: those having τὰ χρήματα. The word could refer to riches, but the stem refers to things that are needed, not things that are excessive. That means that even though I am astonished at the size of the Bezos fortune (if you can give away many millions of dollars and still have billions, astonishment is in order), Jesus is not talking about Jeff Bezos (at least not only him).

Jesus is talking about people who have what they need.

This is odd.

My friends who are Lakota might disagree. They tell me stories about the practice of give-away. After a death in the family, people give away “whatever they have.” Because I am not Lakota, I understand this only in part, but my friends have told me that what is crucial about give-away is that it makes it clear that the bereaved family must now depend on the community if they are to eat or have chairs to sit on. In the aftermath of the death of a mother or a child, we need the people around us to hold us up because we do not have what we need. This was surely true when ALS killed my sister. She is present in my earliest memories and therefore I had always imagined myself as her brother. When she died, I lost something that I needed. Any social system that emphasizes “rugged individualism” will misunderstand grief. Bereavement teaches us that we need more than just ourselves. Give-away makes this internal truth visible.

If that is true, then give-away reveals an essential quality of the dominion of God: we have to depend on each other. And by calling us “peevish” when we object to the idea of give-away, Jesus makes it clear that we have not only misunderstood theology, we have misunderstood our life together. We need each other. And maybe that is part of what Jesus meant when he said we are to receive the dominion of God the way children do. Children must depend on the community to live. That is true for all of us.

A Provocation: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22 (27): October 3, 2021: Mark 10:2-16

1He got up from there;
     he comes into the territory of Judea across the Jordan, 
    Again a crowd comes together;
        again it comes to him. 
            As he had been accustomed,
            again he was teaching them.  
            2When Pharisees came to him, 
                they kept asking:
                    Since it is allowed to a husband 
                        to release his wife… 
                            (They were testing him.)  
                3He answered,
                he said to them: 
                    What to you did Moses command?
                4They said: 
                    Moses permitted that we write a book of separation 
                        and that we release.
                5Jesus said to them: 
                    With an eye to your hardened hearts 
                    he wrote you this commandment.
                        6But from the beginning of creation:
                            “male and female he made them…”, 
                            7“On account of this a person leaves his father and mother…”
                            “the two will be one flesh…”, 
                                so that there is no longer two, 
                                    but one body.  
                    9Therefore that which God yokes together 
                        let no one separate. 
                10Back in his house, 
                the disciples kept asking him about this. 
                11He says to them: 
                    Whoever would release his wife 
                        and marry another 
                    commits adultery against her.  
                    12And if ever a woman should release her husband
                        in order to marry another 
                    she commits adultery.
    13They kept bringing to him children 
    in order that he would touch them, 
        but the disciples scolded them 
        14But when Jesus saw he was angry.
            He said to them: 
                Permit the children to come to me,  
                Stop hindering them.  
                    Indeed of such as these is the dominion of God.  
                15I tell you the truth:
                Whoever should not receive the dominion of God 
                the way a child does 
                    will surely not go into it.  
    16And hugging them, 
    he kept blessing them, 
    placing his hands upon them.  

Translation from my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller's Commentary (The Pilgrim Press, 2005)

I just now read my Provocation from three years ago, and I like it pretty well. You might want to start out by reading that one, even though it is old. You can find it at https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/10/01/a-provocation-twentieth-sunday-after-pentecost-october-7-2018-mark-102-16/

A Question or Two:

  • Why are there kids in this scene?

Some Longer Reflections:

Whatever you do, do not make Jesus into a baby-kissing politician. Ish. He is not making nice with the kids to impress the crowd. And the storyteller is not bringing in the kids to humanize Jesus. Whatever the storyteller might be doing, it’s not that. So the question remains: why are there kids in this scene?

The storyteller, who knows that she just concluded a scene about families, might possibly have brought in the children as a consequence. Maybe she is addressing any patriarch who feels his freedumb is limited by Jesus’ words about not turning “the little woman” out on the street, thus going over patriarchy’s head to remind the audience that kids matter even if they don’t get a vote in such situations.

The children might appear in this scene because the storyteller wanted the audience to notice that parents wanted to connect their children with the one whose task it was to turn the world right-side-up. They didn’t bring them because Jesus was a rock star. He was not some sort of ancient Elvis (to pick a rock star who was ancient even for me). Becoming responsible for children makes you powerfully aware of the ways the world is upside-down. Part of this awareness comes from the panic that parents feel when they realize (often at 3 in the morning) that this child needs protecting. Part of it comes, I think, from the fact that well-raised children see things that are not fair, and they protest. Yes, I know that some parents use such occasions to teach kids that they have to be tough and that they have to take what they want any way they can. We did not raise our children that way. In my opinion, kids raised like that grow up to be jerks. Even if they get elected to office sometimes. Jerks are jerks. These parents want to link their children to the project and process of turning the world round right.

I am intrigued by the way Jesus links the children to the reign of God. Translators have gone all around his words, looking for a way to translate them helpfully. The Greek is nicely ambiguous. It reads, first of all: τῶν γὰρ τοιούτων ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. (“For of this sort is the reign of God.”). Whatever that means. And then it says that whoever does not receive the reign of God ὡς παιδίον will never enter it. Whatever that means.

Some translators, for good reason, make the first bit to say that the reign of God “belongs to” children. And therefore some interpreters speak of the “kin-dom” of God, or even the “kid-dom.” That works, and I like the implications, though the notion that the reign of God “belongs” to anyone is complicated. The Greek does not exactly say that, either. If the Greek was to be read unambiguously as being about “belonging to,” the phrase would probably be in the dative. It is in the genitive case, and genitives express relationship or origin (and about a dozen other things). With this in mind, the saying could mean something like: “When you think ‘reign of God,’ think kids.” Or: “The reign of God flows out from kids.” I’m not sure this clears anything up, exactly, but it does aim your eyes at children.

I like that as long as I am not expected to sentimentalize them. Kids are people: complex, lovely, petty, hopeful, talented, awkward, bold, timid, generous. And many more complicated things.

  • Maybe what matters is that children are the mystery that makes us into parents: children re-create us as protectors and dreamers.
  • Maybe what matters is that children change continually. Maybe that’s why so many pictures of our kids are blurred. Even when they stand still they don’t stand still.

If any of this is the point of reference for the reign of God, then the identifying sign of God’s reign is change and development that spur dreaming and require tender care.

So what might it mean to receive all this ὡς παιδίον? I do not know. The ὡς in the phrase would not naturally suggest a temporal referent. (Huh? I mean it does not mean that the receiving has to happen before a kid’s 3rd birthday.) The ὡς would naturally suggest that there is something implied about the manner of receiving. Read that way, ὡς παιδίον means that Jesus is talking about receiving (or even welcoming) the reign of God the way a child does.

So, how does a child welcome all this? Again, no sentimentality, please. In my experience, children do not believe more easily or more passionately than adults. Such notions (when they are not simply trivial and sentimental) may well arise from the experience of catastrophic disillusionment. Things happen, horrifying things, and people are changed. And people think of those experiences as marking the dividing line between childhood and adulthood. What concerns me is that we avoid misconstruing these catastrophes. Catastrophe is not the price of admission to adulthood, though any “adult” who does not recognize the reality of devastating damage seems immature in dangerous ways. Catastrophe is the reality that makes us realize our responsibility to care for each other. We are fragile. We need protecting. (And children are often the occasion for us to discover this as a visceral truth.).

But how might a child welcome the reign of God? Maybe it’s just the children in my extended family, but in my experience children welcome any new thing with probing questions, sometimes questions impossible to answer. Children welcome new things skeptically and gladly. They eye them carefully and then they play with them. And the play is both goofy and serious. This seriously goofy play is how children learn to live and work in the world. They practice the roles they will have to play: mother, teacher, physician, welder, truck driver. They experiment with the qualities they will need to exhibit: courage, honor, honesty, craftiness, diligence. They try out different ways of being themselves, looking always for new ways that help them become people of quality.

Maybe that is why the reign of God flows out from children: they teach us to think beyond the things we know so far. That is to say, they teach us this if we watch them. Maybe the reign of God involves experimental play with new ways of being, new ways of living together, new ways of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly and goofily with God.

That might be worth a try.