Monday, May 18, 2020

Mark 10 13-45

and they brought young children to him
that he should touch them
and his disciples rebuked those that brought them
but when Jesus saw it,
he was much displeased,
and said unto them,
“suffer the little children to come unto me,
and forbid them not:
for of such is the kingdom of God.
verily I say unto you
whosoever shall not receiv
e the kingdom of God as a little child
he shall not enter therein"
and he took them up in his arms,
put his hands upon them,
and blessed them

Most of us first got to know the Bible by hearing it read out loud in church. I have probably heard this story more often than any other. It forms part of the baptism service in the Methodist prayer book — and very probably the Anglican one as well. The only passages that got read out more often were the various Christmas stories and Paul’s account of the Last Supper.

If we are looking for Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild, this is where we can find him. I remember Mrs Huber telling the story in Sunday School. The Mummies and Daddies have bring their children to Jesus. The disciples send them away. Jesus has been preaching all day. He’s hot and tired and needs a rest. Come back tomorrow, can’t you? But this makes Jesus angry. Of course I have time to talk to the children, he says. So it’s a message to famous and important people: don’t be one of those spoiled celebrities who hides away from his fans. Be like Jesus who could always make time to sign one more autograph. Or else it’s a message to us kids. Don’t think God doesn’t care about you just because you’re little. Don’t think God doesn’t hear your prayers. Jesus always has time to bless little children. First let me hear how the children stood round his knee and I shall fancy his blessing resting on me…

Am I the only one who spent decades not having the faintest idea what the word “bless” means? God was clearly a person whose main occupation was blessing people, but who had to be reminded to do it on frequent occasions, but exactly what this “blessing” activity involved, I was never quite sure.

Back in Galilee sick people mobbed Jesus wherever he went. They thought that if they even touched his clothes they would be cured. But these aren't sick kids. It has got to the point where even the healthy want Jesus to touch them. You can’t blame the disciples for wanting to get rid of them.

But Jesus is quite happy to see the children. They aren’t “just kids”: they are very important people; especially important people. The kind of people who will own the Kingdom of God. People who don’t receive the Kingdom in the same way as “those of this sort” won’t even be allowed in. 

He puts it that way round: not “people who are like children will be allowed into heaven” but “people who are not like children won’t be.” 

"Receiving" means something like “welcoming” — showing hospitality. If someone didn’t recieve the disciples during their missionary journey they were told to just turn their backs and walk away. Just before leaving Galilee the disciples were told that receiving a child was the same as receiving Jesus — and that welcoming Jesus was the same as welcoming God.

The word "suffer" in this context means "permit" and has nothing to do with cruelty or the Moors Murders. See also "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"

and when he was gone forth into the way
there came one running,
and kneeled to him,
and asked him,
“good master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
and Jesus said unto him,
“why callest thou me good?
there is none good but one,
that is, God.
thou knowest the commandments,
do not commit adultery,
do not kill,
do not steal,
do not bear false witness,
defraud not,
honour thy father and mother”

and he answered and said unto him,
“master, all these have I observed from my youth.”
then Jesus beholding him loved him,
and said unto him,
“one thing thou lackest
go thy way,
sell whatsoever thou hast,
and give to the poor,
and thou shalt have treasure in heaven
and come,
take up the cross,
and follow me”

and he was sad at that saying,
and went away grieved:
for he had great possessions.
and Jesus looked round about,
and saith unto his disciples,
“how hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!”
and the disciples were astonished at his words.
but Jesus answereth again,
and saith unto them,
“children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!
it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,
than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”

Point 1: The guy who runs after Jesus is definitely rich; but there is no reason to think that he is either young or a ruler. He claims to have led a moral life since he was a young man: if anything that suggests that he is getting on a bit. Maybe that is why he is starting to think about mortality.

Point 2: There is absolutely no reason to think that The Needle’s Eye was a gate in Jerusalem. It’s a nice bit of homiletics, but it isn’t what the passage says. Jesus is talking about the possible and the impossible. It is really, really hard for camels to squeeze through narrow gates. It is physically impossible for them to squeeze through needle's eyes.

Point 3: The Greek word for rope is kamelos.

There are lots of clever ways of misreading this passage.

You could point out that the man claims to have kept the Ten Commandments, plus that extra one about defrauding that came in from somewhere — but doesn't mention the other six hundred provisions of the Jewish law. He may be righteous, but he isn’t religious.

Or you could say sticking to the rules by itself isn’t; what matters; what matters is wanting to stick to them; following them on the inside. There’s not much good saying “I have never cheated on my wife” if you are adding “more’s the pity” under your breath.

Or you could say that the problem is self-righteousness. It’s better to be bad and know that you are bad than to be good and tell people you are good. You’ve stuck to the whole of the law for your whole life? That’s wonderful. And how’s the humility coming along?

But those kinds of reading go against the plain meaning of the words. A few years ago, John the Baptist stood somewhere near here and told people that they needed to turn their lives around and clean themselves up so the Lord’s road would be ready for him when he arrived. Well here is a man whose life is just about as turned around as anyone’s could be; and the Lord is literally walking down the road. The Pharisees once asked why Jesus spent so much time with bad people; and Jesus said for the same reason that a doctor spends so much time with sick people. Here is a man who quite definitely doesn’t need a physician. If this guy can’t get into the kingdom of heaven, no-one can.

And that’s the moral of the story, apparently. No-one can.

If you really want to live forever, says Jesus, give away your money. All of it. Moral behaviour is neither here nor there. If you’re rich, you can’t come in.

The man goes away. The disciples look at Jesus, waiting for the spiritual explanation. They are expecting him to say that when he said possessions he didn’t really mean possessions, any more than when he talked about bread he really meant bread. 

But there is no trick or parable or double meaning. When Jesus said that it’s very hard for rich people to get into heaven, that’s what he meant. And by “hard”, he doesn’t mean big-guy-going-through-a-small-doorway hard. He means elephant-going-through-a-keyhole hard

and they were astonished out of measure, 
saying among themselves,
“who then can be saved?"
and Jesus looking upon them saith, 

"with men it is impossible, 

but not with God: 

for with God all things are possible”
then Peter began to say unto him, 
“lo, we have left all, 
and have followed thee”
and Jesus answered and said,
“verily I say unto you, 
there is no man that hath left 
house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, 
for my sake, and the gospel's,
but he shall receive an hundredfold
now in this time
houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; 
and in the world to come eternal life.
but many that are first shall be last
and the last first”

It is impossible for rich people to go to heaven. So if they can’t, who can? Again, the disciples are probably expecting Jesus to say “poor people, obviously”. But Jesus says “No-one. It is impossible.” So there is no hope: apart from one thing. God is quite capable of doing the impossible. He can thread camels through needle’s eyes if he so chooses.

We all know about the nasty “prosperity” theologians who say that believing in God will make you rich. And we all like to throw the story of the rich man in their faces. Jesus was either a communist or an ascetic, or both. Either he wanted the rich man to sell all his possessions because the poor needed them more than he did; or else he thought that possessions were bad for the soul.

But then Jesus goes and talks to the disciples. And what he tells them seems to be very much on the prosperity theologians side. If you give your stuff away, you’ll get even more stuff back. Like Job. Bad things may happen if you follow Jesus — people may hate you. But good things will happen as well.

C.S. Lewis thought this was an example of Jesus cracking a joke — using humour to make a serious point. “Come and follow me and you can have it all: happy families, fast cars, hot showers, steak on the barbecue, persecution….”

“But Andrew…Jesus was talking in a spiritual sense. He meant that the spiritual rewards of following him in abject poverty will make you much happier than the big house and the big car could possibly have done.”

If that is what he meant, then he expressed it in a very odd way. Why talk about “houses, land and family” if what you mean is “spiritual happiness”? And if we are entitled to say that he meant houses, lands and family only in a spiritual sense; why are we not permitted to say that he told the rich man to sell his possessions only in a spiritual sense?

This is not the first time that Jesus has given two apparently contradictory teachings in consecutive sentences. In my kingdom, everyone will be poor. In my kingdom, everyone will be rich. These two things are the same.

and they were in the way going up to Jerusalem;
and Jesus went before them:
and they were amazed;
and as they followed,
they were afraid
and he took again the twelve,
and began to tell them what things should happen unto him,

“behold, we go up to Jerusalem;

and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests,

and unto the scribes; 
and they shall condemn him to death
and shall deliver him to the Gentiles:
and they shall mock him
and shall scourge him
and shall spit upon him, 
and shall kill him: 
and the third day he shall rise again”
and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, 
come unto him, saying,
“master, we would that thou shouldest do for us 
whatsoever we shall desire”
and he said unto them 
“what would ye that I should do for you?”
they said unto him, 
“grant unto us that we may sit, 
one on thy right hand, 
and the other on thy left hand, 
in thy glory”
but Jesus said unto them, 
“ye know not what ye ask: 
can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? 
and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"
and they said unto him
“we can” 
and Jesus said unto them, 
“ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; 
and with the baptism that I am baptized withal 
shall ye be baptized:
but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; 
but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.”
and when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased with James and John.
but Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, 
“ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles 
exercise lordship over them; 
and their great ones exercise authority upon them.
but so shall it not be among you:
but whosoever will be great among you, 
shall be your minister:
and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, 
shall be servant of all.
for even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, 
but to minister, 
and to give his life a ransom for many”

The York Mystery Play was a great pageant, depicting the history of the world from creation to apocalypse in a single day. The final play, staged at great expense by the Merchants Guild, depicted the Last Judgement: actors representing angels and demons welcome the saved into heaven and the damned into hell. Jesus is enthroned in glory at the centre of the stage; to his right sits Mary, newly crowned Queen of Heaven; on his left sits Peter, holder of the keys of heaven and the power of binding and loosing.

Jesus says that James and John are not going to have the best seats in heaven: the medieval playwright decided that they would go to his chief disciple and his mother. If he had thought to invite the apostle to the Gentiles they could have formed a folk band. 

But the York Merchants' play misses the point on a cosmic scale. 

When Jesus chose the Twelve disciples, he singled out James and John and nicknamed them the Thunder-Brothers. Along with Peter, they form an inner circle within the Twelve. The Three went up the mountain to see the metamorphosis of Jesus; they witnessed the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter. But this is the only time they get a scene to themselves.

There has clearly been some jockeying for position going on. Before they left Galilee there was an argument about who the most important disciple was. Now James and John are lobbying for the top jobs. Maybe there is already a faction who think Peter should be boss and a faction who think the brothers should be boss? 

Jesus has left Perea and started to walk towards Jerusalem. The mood in the band is one of amazement and terror. Jesus is walking into his enemies’ centre of power. I think it is probably over-subtle to say that the ones in the front were surprised and the ones at the back were scared. Everyone was probably feeling mixed emotions. You join the army knowing that sooner or later you are going to see front line combat; but that doesn’t mean that being told that you are going over the top first thing tomorrow doesn’t concentrate your mind.

Jesus doesn’t do much to steady their nerves. He has now foreseen his death three times. Each time he is more specific about it. In Galilee he said that the Son of Man was going to be handed over; now he says that he is going to be handed over to the Jewish leaders; and that they in turn are going to hand him over to the Romans; and its them who are going to beat him up and spit at him and kill him.

So how can James and John still be thinking in terms of glory? Perhaps they still don’t understand that Jesus is talking about himself. “Yes, very distressing for this Son of Man chap. But on a completely different matter, when you are king, we would like to volunteer to be your second and third in command?” Or have they understood him a bit to easily? “So there is nothing to worry about. You are going to die and rise from the dead. When that happens can we have the best seats?”

Jesus says (surprisingly) that he can’t promise this because it isn’t his decision. And the he starts talking about the whole idea of greatness. If you want to be big, you need to be a servant. If you want to be the most important of all, you need to become everyone’s slave. (He makes that distinction: between diakanos, a servant, and doulas, a slave.)

He has said almost these exact same words before. When they were all arguing about greatness back in Galilee. If you want to be the first, you will have to be the last, he said. And he illustrated the point by picking up a child.

A lot of sentimental rubbish has been talked about the story of Jesus blessing the children. We are told that children own the kingdom of heaven because they are innocent or spontaneous or trusting. There was supposedly an order of monks who made playing tag and hide and seek part of their spiritual practice in order to be more child-like. But what Jesus must really be talking about is status. Children are important because they are unimportant. Rich, holy people wont even get through the door. The most impressive seats in the kingdom will go to the ones who wait at table and sweep up after the party.

And that is the final piece of the puzzle. What everything has been building up to. Kids are the real grown-ups. The poor are the real rich. The slaves are at the top of the pecking order. The last are literally first and the first are literally last. 

Jesus doesn’t exclude himself from this. If anything, he's mostly talking about himself. He is going to be beaten up and spat on and tortured. Status doesn't get any lower than that. James and John don’t yet understand what Jesus takes “glory” to mean.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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James Kabala said...

And also (not my idea - stolen from a homily I heard once) when he is crucified, he will have one on his right and one on his left.

James Kabala said...

That is obviously a different conclusion, but I think both interpretations are compatible.

Andrew Rilstone said...