In Mark 10:2-16, Jesus moves to protect and embrace two more types of "little (powerless) ones": Children, and wives, who in that society easily became victims of one-sided divorce laws. Jesus makes two powerful changes in the divorce discussions of his day. First, he counters the "right" of divorce (a connection to human hard-heartedness, exercisable only by the husband) with the clear intent of God: "But from the beginning…" He further emphasizes the depth of God's intent by broadening the concept of "adultery" to include the divorce of one's spouse to marry another. Second, he sets husband and wife on a level of equality, the same charge applying to both partners alike. The children in Jesus' day held no rights at all. Jesus welcomes them with hugs and blesses them. He says that the kingdom belongs only to these and those who are like them. Jesus reminds us in this Gospel lesson, that God's intent for our relationships is goodness and fulfillment. God intends that we experience unity and oneness. The reality, as we all know, is that often times relationships falter. They are broken as a result of sinfulness. The Pharisees would have the story end at this point and say, "that is the law." For those who fall short of the law, all is lost, they would say. Jesus, however, says that God's intent is that we should all know that no matter how we might fall short of fulfilling the law, we are always welcomed to him. Instead of clinging to the law that Jesus knows we will fall short of fulfilling, he promises us hope. Jesus calls the lost, the least, and the last, and welcomes them into his arms. Jesus says to those who have troubled hearts, "Believe in me." Out of broken relationships and broken hearts, we find not a law that condemns us, but we are offered a love that frees us. Take heart. Our Lord offers us hope.
Throughout Mark's Gospel the disciples are often portrayed as clueless, confused or downright resistant. In verses 38-50 Jesus moves into specific and graphic teachings that clarify precisely what is expected of a disciple of Jesus so that one does not become a stumbling block to others (v. 42-48). The Gospel begins with the disciples complaining to Jesus about an exorcist whom they tried to stop. While they are eager to bring judgment on this outsider, Jesus himself wants the disciples to pay attention instead to their own behavior. In verse 42 Jesus immediately turns the tables on the disciples, warning them that they are the ones in danger of doing harm. It's as though Jesus says, "The problem is not the folks outside our group. Don't worry about others -- they are not the problem. Rather, look to yourselves. How are you getting in the way of the gospel? How are you a stumbling block?" Jesus warns that finger pointing at others can distract us so that we do harm and cause others to stumble. Sometimes, even our best intentions to correct others can have unintended consequences for innocent bystanders. Great damage is done to the gospel when Christians are preoccupied with infighting and self-righteous proclamations about others. Jesus returns the focus back to our own behaviors, the ways we speak and live good news, and the ways we place obstacles in the way of that good news. The Greek word skandalon is used in each verse from 42-47. A skandalon is an obstacle that people trip over, and is usually translated "stumbling block." Jesus could not be more clear: he is talking about the danger that his own followers can do, and he uses the dire image of drowning to get his point across. This week's gospel lesson invites us to examine the stumbling blocks we place, often unknowingly, often in faithful enthusiasm, in front of the most vulnerable among us.
This week's Gospel comes after the transfiguration of Jesus, witnessed by Peter, James and John (mk 9:2-8). Jesus is now travelling through Galilee but Mark tells us that he does not want people to know because he is instructing his disciples. He will tell them again about his coming suffering, death and resurrection which they miss completely once again and he will have to take time to instruct them about what it means to be first in the Kingdom of God and how they should welcome him, the messenger of the Kingdom. While Jesus speaks about suffering, dying and rising, the disciples are arguing among themselves about who among them will fill the first place. They have certainly not understood the implications of being disciples of Jesus. In the face of such great failure to understand what he is speaking about, Jesus sets a child in front of them, and invites them to understand what he is talking about. Unlike adults, the child's struggle is not for first place but for life. In order to live the child accepts the necessity of receiving everything from its parents. The fundamental attitude of the child is one of trust in its parents. The affection with which Jesus embraced the child was meant to teach them a lesson. We have a living parable before our eyes as we look at Jesus' loving embrace of the child. Just as he lived simply, poorly and trusting always in the Father who had sent him, even in the face of opposition, the disciples too should be ready to embrace his Gospel in all simplicity, poverty and trust. In the struggle for position, we can easily forget that the thing that counts most is to recognize that we are children of the same Father and that we must trust him alone if we are to live in his Kingdom.
In today's Gospel, it is Peter who answers on behalf of the other eleven disciples. Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, that is, the one who has been anointed by God and sent as the Messiah. The popular conception of the Messiah at the time of Jesus was that he would be a political leader who would help the people regain the political independence they had lost to the Romans in 63 B.C. Peter is accurate when he says that Jesus is the Messiah, but he still has to understand that his image of Messiah, which is largely influenced by the political expectations of the time, does not correspond to the type of Messiah Jesus really is. After reprimanding Peter, Jesus addresses his followers and states clearly what is demanded of all who want to be his disciples. He does not attempt to make things easier, to smooth things over; he sets three standards by which to judge how firm is the disciple's purpose: "renounce yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. ”Renounce yourself" means: "stop thinking about yourself!" stop making yourself the center of all your interests, forgetting the others. If one wants to follow Christ one must, first of all, reject this selfishness and stop assessing one's options in the light of one's interests. The second categorical injunction: "Take up your cross" does not mean the need to bear patiently with all the tribulations in life, and even less does it present pain and sorrow as a means to please God. The Christian does not seek pain but love. The cross is the sign of love and self-giving. To carry one's cross after Christ means to join him as he gives the greatest proof of his love. The third: "Follow me" does not stand for "take me as a model" but "share my choice," take part in my plan, live your life for love of people with me.