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.”



“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

And She Began to Serve

Mark 1:29-39

“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Two simple sentences.  And like so much of Mark’s gospel, a surprising amount of action in surprisingly few words. 

After preaching with authority in the synagogue at Capernaum, then casting out an unclean spirit from a man who interrupted him, Jesus is ready for a break.  So he goes to the house of his new disciples, Peter and Andrew.  It happens that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick.  She’s in bed with a fever.  They tell Jesus about her right away and Jesus goes to her.

And here is where the translation maybe is not our friend.  “He took her by the hand” sounds much gentler than what it says in the original language.  Kratésas it says in the Greek.  Kratéo is the verb.  It’s not a tender word.  It means to grasp firmly or strongly.  

And then it says he “lifted her up.”  Which is fine.  But again, something is lost in translation.  The verb Mark used is egeiro.  It’s the same word Jesus will use when he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead and says, “Little girl, get up!”  It’s the same word the angel will use to tell the women that Jesus is not in the empty tomb because he is raised up—egeiro.  

So maybe this isn’t quite the gentle scene I had always imagined.  Maybe this is a scene full of strength and energy and power.  Jesus grasped her strongly, firmly by the hand and raised her.  

Then the fever left her.

And she began to serve them.

It’s tempting to get a little upset about that last part—she began to serve them.  After all, she’s just been sick with a fever.  And now here are all these guys who come traipsing into the house and because of the expectations of the society they live in, she jumps out of her sickbed to rustle up some dinner for them.  Oh, and by the way, does anybody care that it’s still the Sabbath?

Some commentators have pointed out that she would be happy to do this because in a culture where roles are clearly defined she could now resume her place as matriarch of the household along with all the social currency that comes with that.

But again, there’s something going on in the language that deserves a moment of attention.  It’s a little thing.  But, as I’ve been learning, Mark often uses these subtle little things to make big points.  In this case, it has to do with the word “serve.”  Here’s how Ched Myers explains it in his book, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship—

“Peter’s mother-in-law is the first woman to appear in Mark’s narrative.  We are told that upon being touched by Jesus, “she served him(1:31).  Most commentators, steeped in patriarchal theology, assume that this means she fixed Jesus dinner.  However the Greek verb “to serve” (from which we get our word “deacon”_ appears only two other times in Mark.  One is in 10:45—“The Human One came not to be served but to serve”—a context hardly suggesting meal preparation.

“Mark describes women ‘who, when Jesus was in Galilee, followed him, and served him, and…came up to Jerusalem with him’ (15:41).  This is a summary statement of discipleship:  from beginning (Galilee) to end (Jerusalem) these women were true followers who, unlike the men (see 10:32-45) practiced servanthood.”

So here is Peter’s mother-in-law—sadly we don’t have her name—but Mark identifies her service with a word that implies that there is a sacred aspect to her serving, a holiness that springs not from her sense of duty, but her faith.  She is a deacon.  

In Mark’s gospel, the men surrounding Jesus are often argumentative and a little dense.  But the women, though not mentioned often, are astute and faithful.  

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week.  This week we had a graveside service for Barbara, one of those astute and faithful women who have kept the ministry of Jesus alive and well in this world for more than 20 centuries.  As I conducted her service I was wearing one of the stoles she wove for me on her loom, and it made me think of Tabitha who we read about in the book of Acts.  She was much loved by her community in Joppa, and when they summoned Peter to pray for her, they showed him all the tunics and other clothing she had made for people.

I thought of the women mentioned in the Gospel of Luke who travelled with Jesus and supported Jesus and the disciples financially.  Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, Luke says, who provided for them out of their resources.  

These women came to be called the Myrrh Bearers because they were the ones who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body after the crucifixion, but found it empty.

Mary Magdalen was known to be particularly close to Jesus and was regarded as an Apostle by many in the early church until patriarchy asserted itself, suppressed her influence, and sullied her reputation by spreading the story that she had been a prostitute.  But it was Mary Magdalen, according to the Gospel of John, who first encountered the risen Jesus.  It was Mary Magdalen who first proclaimed his resurrection, making her the first evangelist.

Another Mary who was part of this group of women disciples, was Mary, the wife of  Cleopas.  If tradition is correct, her husband was the brother of Joseph, Jesus’ foster father, so she was the sister-in-law of Jesus’ mother, Mary.  She, too, was a Myrrh Bearer and is probably the unidentified person traveling with Cleopas on the road to Emmaus in chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel, making her one of the first witnesses to the resurrection.

Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza is someone we know a little more about.  We see her later identified in the letters of the Apostle Paul where he uses her Roman name, Junia.  Paul says she is prominent among the Apostles and that she knew Christ before he did (Romans 16:7).   In Junia we see someone remarkable, a woman disciple of Jesus who travelled with him in his ministry,  and continued in ministry as an Apostle, travelling as far as Rome for the cause of the gospel.

Priscilla and her husband Aquila are mentioned six times in the New Testament.  Priscilla is mentioned first four of those times, and it’s clear that she is a full partner in their work together for the sake of the gospel.  Tradition includes them among the 70 that Jesus sent out on a mission in the Gospel of Luke.  Priscilla, also called Prisca, her more formal name, has always been considered one of the first women preachers in the church.  We read in Acts 18:24-28 that she, along with Aquila, instructed Apollos in the faith.  There is even a theory that she is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Phoebe was an overseer and deacon in the Church at Cenchreae.   St. Paul referred to her in Romans 16 as a deacon and a patron of many.  This is the only place in the New Testament where a woman was referred to with both those titles. Diakonos kai prostateis.  A chief, a leader, a guardian, a protector.  St. Paul had such trust in her that he provided her with credentials so that she could serve as his emissary to Rome, and deliver his letter to them—that letter we know as the Epistle to the Romans.

Lydia of Thyatira, was a wealthy merchant of purple cloth, who welcomed St. Paul and his companions into her home at Phillipi and became a convert.  In doing so, she helped to establish the church at Phillipi, the first church in continental Europe.

In that church at Philippi were two women, Euodia and Syntyche who were serving in positions of pastoral leadership.  At some point they got into a disagreement. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges them to “be of the same mind in the Lord” so that their disagreement doesn’t split the church.  In calling them to unity, he notes that they have “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”

Jesus took Peter’s mother-in-law in his firm grip and raised her up.  And she began to serve.  She became a deacon.  She began making sure things got done.  Making sure ministry happened.  And it’s the women who have been making sure things get done and ministry happens ever since.

Fifty years ago, our denomination began to ordain women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  To be pastors.  On the one hand, it seemed then—and to some people it still seems—like a bold and progressive thing to do.  But when you look at the witness of the New Testament itself and what we have learned about the roles that women played in the earliest years of the church…well let’s just say that it was shamefully long overdue.

I think of the women I’m indebted to in my ministry.  I think of all the women teachers I’ve had, like Dr. Martha Ellen “Marty” Stortz, professor of Church history who opened my eyes to the rich goldmine of our heritage.  I think of the women scholars and writers I turn to for thought-provoking insights in theology and biblical studies.  Women like Debi Thomas, Barbara Brown Taylor, Rachel Held Evans, Roberta Bondi, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Amy-Jill Levine.  I think of my women clergy colleagues who are so amazing and indispensable as we puzzle our way through the week’s texts and the week’s issues, and life in the church.

I think of the women in our congregation who make things happen.  Without whom things would not happen.  The Tabithas, the Junias, the Priscillas, the Marys, the Pheobes. The Myrrh Bearers.  The Apostles in our midst.

I think of them all.  And I am so grateful.

Jesus has grasped them by the hand and raised them up.  And they have served.  Showing the presence of Christ and proclaiming the kin-dom of God.  And we are all richer for it.