Homily preached by the Reverend Malinda Johnson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Ninteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 7, 2012
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it.
Anyone remember that old commercial for a certain margarine that supposedly tasted so much like butter, like the real artery-clogging thing, that it ended with an enraged Mother Nature saying imperiously, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”
I’m inclined to say much the same thing after reading today’s gospel from Mark. It’s not nice to fool Jesus Christ…or try to anyway! Yet this is just one gospel story among many in which we see the Pharisees – the religious “experts” of the day – trying desperately to trip up Jesus. The most familiar one, probably, is when the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it’s lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Rome, and Jesus shrewdly answers, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
So in today’s lesson, when these religious leaders similarly ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they already think they know the answer. According to Mosaic Law, yes, it’s permitted. But their interest isn’t conjugal relations; their interest is entrapment — putting Jesus in the awkward position of contradicting Moses.
Jesus is onto them, however – he knows their game — and he simply points out in response that Moses allowed husbands to divorce wives not because he thought it was right, but because he was making the best of a bad situation. “Because of your hardness of heart”, Jesus asserts “[Moses] wrote this commandment for you.” And then he cleverly uses Holy Scripture to confound the Pharisees further, reminding them, “…from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” In other words, men and women –human beings — were made for each other; and whether it’s lawful or not, we were not made as antagonists, then or now.
While it may not be nice to try and fool Jesus Christ, here’s one takeaway from this lesson, a spiritual rule-of-thumb, let’s say: whenever we are looking for loopholes to soothe our conscience; or whenever we, like the Pharisees, find ourselves trying to out-maneuver or out-smart God, not to mention ourselves; we’re already plunged headlong into trouble.
There’s an important and very stark contrast drawn in today’s gospel between the fast-talking Pharisees and the barely-talking children. One group is all about power and prestige, while the other is all about relative want and need. The Pharisees see in Jesus a threat to the status quo, while the children just see him, and the welcome of his open arms.
During his own lifetime, Jesus called into question Jewish purity laws and traditional teachings about things like the Sabbath – all those rules and accepted practices that in effect separated the vast majority from the knowledge and love of God. Like it or not, the Gospel consistently rejects “business as usual” in favor of the littlest and least, those who are too often neglected and abused by the prevailing system.
Jesus says emphatically in today’s lesson, “Let the little children come to me. Do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” As for the rest of us, he then says, “…I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
So what exactly does the child know that we don’t, or what exactly does the child know that we tend to forget? Well, children know nothing so much as vulnerability and dependence. While we may rely on our competence or money or beauty and charm to get what we want, a child must rely on the kindness and caring of others. And it’s this ability to receive more than give that finally ushers in the kingdom of God.
There’s a lovely poem by the Persian poet Rumi called “Cry out in your Weakness”, that goes in part like this:
Crying out loud and weeping are great resources./ A nursing mother, all she does is/ wait to hear her child./ Just a little beginning-whimper, and she’s there./ God created the child, that is, your wanting/ so that it might cry out, so that the milk might come./ Cry out! Don’t be stolid and silent/ with your pain. Lament! And let the milk/ of loving pour into you.
The kingdom of God is for those who need it. And know they need it. Amen.