People As Things

Mark 10:2-16 

Martin Luther defined sin as being “curved in upon the self.”  That’s a really good and useful definition.  It covers just about all the bases.  But a few years ago I read another terrific definition of sin, this one from my favorite author of fiction, the late Sir Terry Pratchett.  In his book Carpe Jugulum, Granny Weatherwax, the wise witch of the hill country, defines sin in her own acerbic way while talking to a young theology student named Mightily Oats:  

“…And that’s what your holy men discuss, is it?” asked Granny Weatherwax.

“Not usually. There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin, for example,” answered Mightily Oats.

“And what do they think? Against it, are they?”

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”

“Nope.”

“Pardon?”

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that–“

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes–“

“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

Sin is when you treat people like things.

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, and to test him—treating him a bit like a thing—they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  It’s interesting that this the question they use to test him.  The easy answer, and one that probably wasn’t open to debate in their minds, is yes.  It is lawful.  It says so pretty clearly in Deuteronomy.  Chapter 24 verse 1.  

Jesus understands that they’re really asking something else, though.  What they really want is his opinion on when it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife.  What are the acceptable grounds for divorce?  

Oh, and pay attention to that language.  It’s all about a man divorcing his wife.  Not the other way around.

Deuteronomy does not specify that a man needs any particular reason to divorce his wife.  It simply says, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.”

Deuteronomy seems to simply assume that divorce is going to happen and doesn’t offer any real commentary on it.  In Jesus’ time, though, there was a big debate going on between the followers of two very influential rabbis, the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai, about what constituted just cause for divorce.  What kinds of things made it okay.  Hillel argued that, since Deuteronomy didn’t specify that a reason was needed except that she doesn’t please him, then anything she does that he finds objectionable—that’s the language in the statute—is acceptable grounds for the divorce.  It could be as simple as “she burned the bread” he argues.  Shammai and his followers, on the other hand, argued that divorce is only acceptable in the case of adultery.  

Jesus ties adultery to his answer, too, and at first glance, it looks like he’s siding with Shammai, but his response is more nuanced than that.  He’s actually refusing to get involved in their debate over the law itself.  Instead, he wants the Pharisees to see that just by arguing about this statute from Deuteronomy they are lending legitimacy to the already established practice of divorce instead of seeing it as a sad example of human brokenness in general, an example of men in particular being curved in upon themselves and treating women as things that they can take up or discard at will.  Jesus wants them to see that there is a huge problem built into the statute itself and that this law rests on assumptions that are hugely problematic.

“Moses gave you this law because you’re so hard-hearted,” said Jesus.  So right there at the beginning he is challenging them to look at why this law is even on their books.  It’s because the men are so hard-hearted.  They act as if it is their natural right to have control over the woman’s fate.  The very language of the statute seems to assume that.  It’s all about a man divorcing his wife.  

But Jesus reminds them that before there was this questionable law, there was the world as God had made it.  Both male and female were created in the image and likeness of the divine.  Male and female were equal.  That was God’s original vision and intent.  Jesus yanks them out of their debate over when and how it’s okay to destroy a relationship, and reminds them of the original intention of the relationship as it is defined in Genesis: “For this reason ‘a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,  and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

You may not catch it right away, but Jesus is actually taking on patriarchy here.  In her ground-breaking book In Memory of Her, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza describes it this way:

Divorce is necessary because of the male’s hardness of heart, that is, because of men’s patriarchal mind-set and reality…However, Jesus insists, God did not intend patriarchy but created persons as male and female human beings.  It is not woman who is given into the power of man in order to continue “his” house and family line, but it is man who shall sever connections with his own patriarchal family and “the two persons shall become one sarx (body/flesh)”… The [Genesis] passage is best translated as “the two persons—man and woman—enter into a common human life and social relationship because they are created as equals.”[1]

Jesus is protesting the way that patriarchal privilege has so casually and easily driven a wedge into the unity and equality originally intended for men and women and for marriage. 

He is not intending to create an absolute prohibition of divorce.  He acknowledges that it is an unfortunate fact of life.  But he wants to level the playing field.  And he also wants to make sure that no one enters into divorce lightly or with unrealistic expectations.  

He makes it clear that those who remarry after divorcing will bring a certain amount of spiritual and emotional baggage to their new relationship whether they realize it or not. They will be “committing adultery” in the sense that they are no longer remaining faithful to the original relationship, and some part of their mind and heart will always know that.  

I don’t think Jesus is so much describing a continuous state of sin here as he is acknowledging the reality of the pain of broken relationships.  He applies this understanding to both men and women.  And it’s important to note that he doesn’t tell people to stay in relationships where they are being abused or broken or even simply neglected.  It’s important to remember, too, that Jesus is the one who can heal the brokenness, ease the pain and forgive the sin that every divorce brings with it.

Jesus is trying to make it clear to both the Pharisees and his disciples that, in God’s eyes, the central problem with their understanding of the divorce law in Deuteronomy is that the whole thing is based on men treating women as objects, and that even if you restore equality to the relationship and level the power dynamics, treating people as things will always drive a wedge into the relationship.

Having said what needed to be said about treating people as if they were disposable, Mark’s gospel now turns Jesus’ focus to another group of persons whom their culture tended to treat as objects.  Children.  Only this time it’s the disciples who are failing to see the basic humanity of these smaller persons.

Mark tells us, “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.”  Jesus was indignant. “Let the little children come to me,” he said, “It’s people like these who make up the Kingdom of God!”  That was a huge thing to say in a world where children had no stature whatsoever.  But Jesus wasn’t finished.  “Listen.  Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

This is where a lot of commentators rhapsodize about the innocence of children.  I always wonder when I read those commentaries if the writer has any actual experience with real children.  So if Jesus isn’t referring to “the innocence of children” here, what does he mean when he says we need to receive the kingdom as a little child? 

One thing almost all children have is curiosity.  Richard Rohr calls it “a beginner’s mind of a curious child…what some would call ‘constantly renewed immediacy.”[2]  This is the state of mind which Rohr says makes it easier for us to enter into real spiritual growth.  This is the state of mind we need in order to not make assumptions that we know everything.  This is the state of mind that enables us to see everyone else and ourselves as children of God, and not as objects.  Things. 

When we are able to see each other as children of God, when we are able to receive the Kingdom of God as a present reality and immerse ourselves in it with a beginner’s mind, a constantly renewed sense of immediacy, when we stop treating people as things, then we will be able to begin healing ourselves and the world.  Then we will be taken up in the arms of Christ and blessed.  And by the power and presence of Christ within us, we will embrace and bless the world around us.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins; Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, p.143

[2] Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality; Richard Rohr, p. 8