Thursday, 15 October 2009

Mark 10 moral issues, riches and power

Many of the ethical issues that Jesus and his followers faced are no longer live issues: some of the issues the church faces today are not adequately dealt with in scripture. But it is clear that Jesus generally took a broad approach to ethics rather than a legalistic one. He tends towards compassion for the weak and is scathing towards those who exploit the law to gain advantage from it. Thus cleanliness rules which make it even more difficult for the hungry to eat, which make it easier for the rich farmers with good facilities to sell their produce and impossible for the poor to take their goods to market, are bad (whatever the scriptures may or may not say); and glosses on the law which enable people to wriggle out of responsibility to care for their elderly parents by making apparently generous donations to temple or synagogue are corrupt.

It appears that if a son made over to God that part of his possessions with which he would normally be expected to support his parents then he would be exempt from keeping them. However, the gift to God seems sometimes to have been a technicality, the son still receiving income from the property thus ensuring that scribes (who may have received a fee for the service) and sons did well out of it - but poor parents suffered. In some cases the son may have wished to be exonerated from the vow (Korban) but the scribes refused exemption (possibly for the benefit of the temple fund) and so they prevented him from making provision for his parents.

Later in the gospel Jesus similarly shows support both for children and for women: again siding with the weak against the strong. The Mosaic divorce law as practised was particularly hard on women. They had no right to divorce or even leave their husbands but the husband could divorce his wife for all kinds of reason: and whereas any affair the wife might have with another man was viewed as adultery, men could only commit adultery against another man by having an affair with his wife. An affair with a widow or an unmarried woman did not count as adultery. Moreover a woman whose husband had divorced her was left discarded, defenceless and impoverished; in a worse position socially even than widows.

Jesus is not prepared to enter into arcane disputes about what constitutes a serious enough reason for divorce. No excuse will ever be adequate to justify breaking apart those whom God has made one flesh. He recognises, however, that the law instituted by Moses was designed to make provision for human weakness; sometimes marriages will break down; when these breakdowns occur it is painful for all concerned and such breakdowns should never therefore be brought about on mere pretexts. Nor can they ever be justified by pulling Moses and divine law into the situation. God’s law is clear: marriage is intended to be for life and indissoluble. However when breakdowns occur, as they will from time to time, he asserts that women have the same rights as men; he maintains, despite the Jewish understanding of his times, that, when men have affairs with other women or divorce their wives to marry another, they commit adultery against their wives. He recognises that women can divorce their husbands - though in so doing they are committing adultery just as their husbands do if they divorce their wives. In other words if men accept the validity of divorce then that validity applies equally to women. In our culture Jesus’s teaching can seem unbending and harsh: but in a culture where men could treat their wives casually and claim to be keeping the law, his teaching safeguarded women and impressed upon both men and women the sacred nature of a marriage covenant. His firm stand on the sanctity of marriage primarily protected women and children: and his apparent equating of the rights of wives to obtain a divorce with those of their husbands protected them against abuse from their husbands.

In his teaching on children, Jesus similarly raises their status. When parents bring children to Jesus for him to bless them the disciples brush them aside. They have no time for such trivialities. Perhaps they were angry at the lingering superstition and folk religion that surrounded Jesus’s ministry: But Jesus has already placed a child at the very heart of his ministry. It has been pointed out that it later became traditional for parents to take their children to the rabbi for a blessing on the Day of Atonement. Throughout his gospel Mark seems only to deal with children as victims. Here once again they appear as victims of the disciples discrimination against them. Jesus, though, turns everything on its head: it is to these children that the kingdom of God belongs. The next two passages make clear that it is not the rich or those with ambitions to sit at the left and right hands of Jesus who will inherit the kingdom: rather it is those who have nothing. Here the children stand as examples of all little ones. And all people who would enter the kingdom must receive it with the faith of such little ones: those who are dependent and vulnerable; those who allow themselves to be lifted and loved; those obedient to the Father; those, hopefully, not yet vitiated with the power games and desire for status of the adult world. On that simple faith the atonement of the world might depend.

The next story provides the contrast that makes the meaning of the incident with the children stand out in sharp relief. A man comes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Once he has satisfied Jesus that he has kept all the commandments since his youth Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The man is unable to do this and goes away sorrowful. In explaining his treatment of the man to his disciples Jesus points out to his disciples how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It is not simply riches that prevent people from entering the kingdom, a whole set of values has to be turned on its head. The prevailing attitude in Jewish theology was that wealth was a sign of God’s favour. Yet this man seems not to have been totally satisfied with this complacent doctrine otherwise he would not have come to Jesus in the first place unless it was purely for reassurance. Those who argue that Jesus, in commanding the man to dispose of his possessions and help the poor was being specific only to this particular case have to wrestle with Jesus’s own explanation to the disciples afterwards. It is apposite to quote RH Grundy commenting on the parallel passage in Matthew: “That Jesus did not command all his followers to sell all their possessions gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command”. For children who own no property, who are totally dependent on their parents for everything they have, entry into the kingdom is easy: for the rich it is even more difficult than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, despite the fact that the man whose sad story gives rise to the teaching is the only one in Mark’s gospel who is marked out as a man Jesus loved.

Indeed this story is typical of many in the gospels in which everything is stacked up to reach a particular conclusion only to arrive at the opposite. There is no mention of the man being rich at the beginning of the story. He kneels before Jesus much as the leper had done. Uniquely in the gospel he identifies Jesus as “good”. He had the right priority for his own life - the desire for a life of eternal worth. He has kept the commandments. And Jesus looked at him with love. Then came the bombshell. As a man of property, he ends up going away devastated.

Ched Myers draws our attention to a number of interesting features within this story. It may well be that the man is trying to flatter Jesus and that explains Jesus’s sharp reply. He obviously not only thought Jesus was good but wanted to be told he was good in return. He had kept the commandments since his youth and wished for commendation. In Jewish tradition only Aaron and Moses had been credited with keeping the whole law. Jesus gives none. It is likely that the long, compassionate look of love Jesus gave him is meant to be in contrast with the man’s keeping of the law. Jesus’s love is people this man’s love is wealth. To begin with Jesus speaks to him as he did to the leper: “get up and go”. It is as if this man needs to be healed in the same way as the leper was. The last word to him, “come, follow me”, is the same call to discipleship as that offered to fisherman at the beginning of the gospel. It is the second and third orders that are exceptional: to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor and so exchange treasure on earth for treasure in heaven. This the only story in Mark’s gospel of discipleship rejection.

For the disciples with their traditional theology the inability of rich people (those patently enjoying God’s blessing) to enter the kingdom makes entry for anyone impossible. However, the lesson of the story of the sower and the seed still stands true. Despite all negative appearances the kingdom will come. And those prepared to let go of all their loves for the love of the kingdom will see their losses amply repaid in blessings of greater value, though those blessings may also come with persecution. For this turning on its head of all materialist life-styles cannot be achieved painlessly. Nevertheless the disciples are not to despair for what looks impossible in human terms is not impossible to God.

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