I practiced family law in California for many years. I know the anguish of the breakup of a marriage. Often one spouse would come to me to try to untangle the legal mess of a marital relationship. What I noticed was how much ambivalence went into the process. So many wished that they could salvage the marriage but for a myriad of reasons it was not possible. Sometimes there were situations of domestic violence, impossible economic pressures, and a host of other impossible hurdles. And more often than not, my clients felt judged and ostracized from their church and circle of friends. It was a lonely road to try to find a way beyond the harsh judgments.
The Mark 10 text is a challenging gospel in our society that has a high divorce rate. But I have a hunch that there is a deeper truth that Jesus was trying to get at. First the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus so Jesus responds by tweaking the Pharisees. The Pharisees were playing a game of “gotcha” where they could claim the high ground and discredit this revered teacher. Jesus says in that context that marriage is about love and unity, commitment and engagement. The Pharisees want Jesus to draw the clear bright line that all can easily judge. But life is not so simple.
It makes me think of Pope Francis and his recent visit to the United States. Some of our leaders wanted him to scold or chastise those who do not live the exact letter of the law. Some leaders wanted him to be all about the rules, the divides, the right and wrong. They, like the Pharisees, wanted to use law against people. They wanted to claim that they were right, but the “others” were wrong. Pope Francis, like Jesus, did not fall into this trap. It is the next section of today’s scripture that shows us the real way forward.
Pope Francis, like Jesus, responds to the children. Pope Francis literally lit up every time he was in proximity to children. One story really touched my heart. I talked with Seanta who was visiting Philadelphia from South Carolina for the meeting on the family. On the parade route, she stood next to a family holding their baby. Much to her surprise, the Pope-mobile stopped by them and a security man asked the parents if he could take their baby to the Pope for a blessing. They quickly said a resounding yes! While they and everyone around them watched Pope Francis embrace this small child they all teared up. The Pope blessed this small baby and by extension blessed them. The security man gave her back to her parents who were in stunned silence. Seanta, in awe, asked if she could hold the baby for a just moment. Holding that small child, Seanta said that she felt that she had been blessed by extension just holding this baby. Don’t we all want to be blessed by this innocence and hope? Jesus says that is what the reign of God is like.
During our recent Nuns on the Bus trip around the country, the 6th graders at St. Thomas Aquinas parish school in Indianapolis cooked dinner for us (with the help of their parents). I spoke with George and Sully about their 6th grade views of the needs that exist in their community. They were keenly aware that there are children who do not have enough to eat and are left out of many opportunities in our nation. They were concerned that some neighborhoods did not have a playground as good as theirs nor did they have a chance for science field trips. They told me that they thought our nation should do better by giving all children a chance to thrive. It’s to these that the Kingdom of God belongs.
I believe that maybe these two seemingly disparate sections of scripture are put together because the first is about the rules and regulations and the second is about the reign of God that nourishes us all. We can get trapped like the Pharisees in judging others and ourselves. We can become scrupulous about rules and regulations. But these only lead to an accountant like sense of living the Gospel. We then think in comparisons about how much better am I than someone else.
Our lives are not ledgers. We are all called to live beyond the letter of the law. Jesus’ challenge is to know that joy and eagerness of children. If we are to live the Gospel then we need to live with exuberance beyond the rules. Gospel living is the rough and tumble eagerness to be close to the vibrant life in our midst. This is what Jesus says is the core of the reign of God.
So let us be less preoccupied with the rigidity of rules and “gotcha” politics. Let us rather live wide eyed with curiosity and joy. Then Jesus can embrace us too and place his hands on us. For such is the kingdom of God.