Red Letter Year: 2/7

Mark 10:1-16

10 Then Jesus left Capernaum and went down to the region of Judea and into the area east of the Jordan River. Once again crowds gathered around him, and as usual he was teaching them.

Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?”

Jesus answered them with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?”

“Well, he permitted it,” they replied. “He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away.”

But Jesus responded, “He wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”

10 Later, when he was alone with his disciples in the house, they brought up the subject again. 11 He told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. 12 And if a woman divorces her husband and marries someone else, she commits adultery.”

Jesus Blesses the Children

13 One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him.

14 When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. 15 I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” 16 Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.


If we’re going to do this thing all year – read through the Gospels slowly and completely, we are going to have days like this, where at least part of what we read makes (at least some of) us uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable because I don’t know who all will see this, what all you have been through, what hurt you have been subjected to by people purporting to teach you how to live based on the Bible. Divorce affects so many people in our day, many of whom have been further hurt by churches and Christians shunning them, condemning them, making them feel like they are forever damaged, forever second class. If we took the first part of today’s reading alone, we might see how some come to view this issue so rigidly.

But for days and days now we have seen Jesus consistently breaking down the clean/unclean distinction, the acceptable/unacceptable, the insider/outsider, the righteous/sinner. If he is now suddenly shifting toward a condemning posture that would mark a serious break from everything we have read so far. It also wouldn’t fit well with the very next story where Jesus goes out of his way to welcome children. This probably doesn’t seem as radical to us in a culture that values youth and children so highly (which is a good thing!). In his day, children were not valued so highly. The disciples thought they were doing a good, right, and very practical thing in filtering the children out. Jesus surely didn’t have time for them. I’ve speculated about Jesus’ mood in these stories since we started, but here at last Mark tells us directly – Jesus got angry. The disciples have failed to unterstand the most basic part of the Gospel – that all are included, that no one is excluded based on any criteria. Jesus sees them turning away the most vulnerable of all and he gets mad. So mad, he threatens them with missing the kingdom altogether.

So we have to go back and understand the divorce part in light of this kingdom-for-all posture Jesus is consistently taking. Divorce is bad. Divorce involves sin (often on multiple parties). But it is no more a criterion for exclusion from Jesus and his kingdom than anything else. He doesn’t argue for a stricter standard than Moses so he can condemn people Moses would let through, he holds to the original standard because it is the ideal, it is the only good way, and because anything short of the ideal is covered by his grace, not Moses’ legal exemptions.

One other thing to note: the law Jesus is referring to is found in Deut. 24.1-4. This is part of the Law, given to Israel by God through Moses. That is how it is explained in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Not as something Moses wrote or came up with, but as the very Law of God. Psalm 119 spends an incredible 176 verses eloquently making this very point. And yet, Jesus demotes the law in this case as something less binding than how things were made to begin with, as though the entire law were a concession, a stop-gap measure. Jesus feels perfectly free to put the law in dialogue with the creation narratives and find the narrative more authoritative. In short, Jesus claims the authority to interpret Scripture and adjudicate when different passages are in contention. As we have seen, the crowds recognized this authority early on; it was part of what attracted them to his teaching. As in all other things, the authority Jesus claimed for himself and exercised is the same authority he passed on to his followers.

New Living Translation (NLT)

Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Red Letter Year: 1/29

Mark 7:1-23

One day some Pharisees and teachers of religious law arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples failed to follow the Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to—such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.”

Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips,

    but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition. You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. 10 For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ 12 In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. 13 And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.”

14 Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. “All of you listen,” he said, “and try to understand. 15 It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.”

17 Then Jesus went into a house to get away from the crowd, and his disciples asked him what he meant by the parable he had just used. 18 “Don’t you understand either?” he asked. “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? 19 Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.)

20 And then he added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. 21 For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.”


Things ratchet up a notch in this passage. Jesus is more direct than he has been to this point, both with the Pharisees and religious leaders and also with his disciples. The core issue here is how the Jewish law (Torah) should be interpreted and lived out. The Jewish religious leaders had a certain way of doing this (later codified in the Talmud – the religious leaders call them “age-old” in v.5, but that claim is rather suspect at the time it was made), instructing people how to apply the commands and wisdom for their own lives. This still goes on today (a friend the other day was amused that his refrigerator had a “Sabbath mode” – that feature helps orthodox Jews live out their interpretation of Torah in the modern world). My point here is not to discuss the merits of various interpretations, but simply to point out that interpretation is always involved.

Both Jesus and the religious leaders are interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures (later called the Old Testament in the Christian Bible). There are two differences between them here that bear noticing. First, Jesus (or at the very least Mark) is open and direct about his teaching being an interpretation of Torah. His point about how the body processes food owes as much to the observation of nature as it does a study of Scripture. For Jesus, an interpretation of Scripture that does not make sense with what we know of how the world works is faulty. The Pharisees and religious leaders don’t approach this as a discussion of different interpretations. They think theirs is the only way to read Torah, they deem their interpretation to be no interpretation at all, but a literal keeping of God’s law. It’s hard to tell who they are working harder to convince of their certainty, others or themselves. In the same way, our own readings always involve interpretation. To think otherwise is foolish and dangerous.

Second, the interpretation that Jesus offers is one that focuses on what is more essential, what will make the biggest difference in changing a person’s life from one characterized by vice to one of virtue, from sickness to healing, from death to life. His opponents regularly ignore or dismiss all the good Jesus does to focus on the small ways he is breaking their customs. (You may remember, we noticed before that Jesus seemed to go out of his way to do this on occasion.) Their interpretation places further restrictions on people, but are not capable of growing people into spiritual maturity, only suppressing them. Both Jesus and the religious leaders are out to create certain habits in their followers. Jesus argues that his are life-giving. They are, so long as we don’t misinterpret Jesus and make his way just another ritual of suppression.

New Living Translation (NLT)

Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.