More Stubborn than Righteous

Mark 10: 2-16

The Pharisees came to Jesus to test him. Students in school have been tested, challenged, quizzed by their teachers since schools first opened. On one occasion a student burst into his professor’s office and said, “Professor Stigler, I don’t believe I deserve this F you’ve given me.” To which Stigler replied, “I agree, but unfortunately it is the lowest grade the university will allow me to award.” When he was in junior high, Stephen was asked by his English teacher to give her a sentence with an object. “You’re very pretty,” he answered. “What’s the object?” the teacher asked. Stephen replied, “To get an A in English.” The frantic football coach begged the math professor who had flunked his quarterback on the eve of the homecoming game to give the young man another chance. Moved by the coach’s sincerity, the professor agreed to give the athlete a special makeup exam. The next day the coach and the quarterback arrived at the professor’s office. The professor said to the player, “I’m going to ask you just one question. How much is seven times seven?” The young man thought for a minute and tentatively said, “Thirty-five?” “I’m sorry,” said the professor, “this is hopeless. I’ll have to flunk you.” “Come on, doc! Give him a break,” said the coach. “He only missed by one.”

There are several occasions in the gospels where someone like the Pharisees or a rich young ruler or a lawyer approached Jesus to inquire for an answer to a question they posed to him. This is one of those instances. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Maybe these particular Pharisees asked to test Jesus on his understanding of the law of Moses. As is his way,  he answered by first posing his own question in return, “What did the law of Moses command you?” They referenced what was found in Deuteronomy 24. Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal to divorce the wife. By virtue of the male ancestors’ hardness of heart, they were permitted to divorce. The Pharisees’ answer and Jesus’ follow up response unravels the true issue. Their hearts are hard, unyielding, inflexible, merciless.  A certificate of divorce reflects this. Jesus then shifted the topic away from divorce and toward marriage by quoting verses from Genesis – “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1: 27)” “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2: 24)” God’s act and God’s intent in marriage are not superseded by legal permissions. This exposed their hardness of heart all the more, and how their ancestors insisted that Moses write a law to accommodate their stubbornness. Moses bent to their pressure. The Pharisees’ consistent defense of the law of Moses reflected more stubbornness than righteousness. They were stubborn in the days of Moses, and they were stubborn in the days of Jesus. Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce because of their hardness of heart he wrote this commandment. Moses allowed it, but Jesus reminds the listener what the God-given tradition was, and he wasn’t one to eliminate the God-given traditions. God’s intent was for marriage to last a lifetime. It’s a shame it doesn’t, and divorce is the result of stubbornness on someone’s part. It’s not an unforgiveable sin. It’s best when both the male and female commit to what the word of God says about marriage, but Jesus isn’t leading a Marriage Encounter weekend.  He’s exposing the hard heartedness that remained among the Pharisees and to potentially expose any hard heartedness that remained among his disciples.

The tone changes to a degree with people bringing children to him in order that he might touch them and bless them. The disciples reacted with stern words to repel the people from bringing children to him. The disciples wanted to keep the children away from Jesus and them. This is the beginning of laws being written. Historically, laws were written after a circumstance caused harm or damage. For instance, In Natome, KS, it is illegal to practice knife throwing at someone wearing a striped suit. In New York City, you are not allowed to open an umbrella in front of a horse. In the Pine Island District of Minnesota, a man must tip his hat when passing a cow. Michigan law prohibits hitching a crocodile to a fire hydrant, and it is illegal in Massachusetts to eat peanuts in church. I believe Jesus was indignant toward his disciples’ effort to oppose those bringing children to him because, as a body of like-minded people, they were about to legislate against children. Jesus told them not to do it. They were more stubborn than righteous in Moses’ day. The Pharisees were more stubborn than righteous in confronting Jesus, and the disciples were prone to be more stubborn than righteous in an effort to defend Jesus from a waste of time in blessing children.

“Let the children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (9: 14)” A child can receive God’s Kingdom by grace through mere faith without offering, without claim or membership, without calculation or contribution. No labor, no proof, no drama. It’s a clear transaction of grace – divine, unmerited favor. Children are brought to receive Jesus’ blessing, and so are we every Sunday.

But, Jeff, what laws are we to live by? The law of love – love the Lord and love your neighbor. Your neighbor includes your spouse and your children. No law is meant to give you permission to not love your spouse or child, no law in the Kingdom of God anyway. And there’s no law or command in the word of God to legitimize our stubbornness to have what we want at the expense of others not being blessed or loved. 

(Preached at Lincoln UMC in Lincoln, AL, October 10, 2021)


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