Women and Children: The Center of Our Concern in the Reign of God
“Some Pharisees approached Jesus and, as a test, asked, ‘Is it permissible for husbands to divorce wives?’” This question is a test, or better, a trap. Legislating morality was tricky business then and it still is today. Defining things like marriage, advocating regulation for things like fertility and justifying things like poverty leads into a quagmire that can get a prophet, a politician or even a homilist into big trouble.
The Pharisees do indeed seek to lay this kind of trap for Jesus. Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, we are told of the beheading of John the Baptist. “For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’” John the Baptist is executed because of his prophetic criticism against Herod for divorcing his wife so that he could marry his brother’s former wife. The Pharisees are setting Jesus up and hoping for a similar outcome.
So what does Jesus do? He shifts the conversation from commandments and the law to a remembering of the wholeness of creation. “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. This is why a person leaves home and cleaves to another, and the two become one flesh. They are no longer two, but one flesh. What God has united, therefore, let no one divide.” The book of Genesis tells us that women and men are formed from the same flesh. And so when we read the Letter to the Hebrews, we can say that it is not just men but also women who are created just a little less than the angels and are brought to glory in God by the actions and teaching of Jesus. Women, no less than men, no less than Jesus, all united by their common humanity, are a reflection of God’s glory. Commandments and the law are not Jesus’ concern. The glory of God is his focus. The wholeness of creation as the present and the future reign of God are his purpose and his passion.
In the Greco Roman world of the 1st century of the Common Era, the relationship between men and women was a matter of law and men by law were more fully human than women. Divorce laws served the interests of men and impoverished women and children. Across the Gospel of Mark, Jesus enacts and calls his followers toward the alternative and transforming vision of the Reign of God. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus listens to a father and a mother who plead for the life and healing of their daughters. Jesus raises up the charity of a marginalized widow and admonishes members of society to honor her and take care of her. The woman with a hemorrhage actively seeks out healing and the Syrophoenician woman challenges Jesus and unjust social conditions. It is a woman who anoints and announces Jesus as the Messiah. And it is women who bear witness to the reality of the death of Jesus on the cross. Taken literally and out of context, Jesus teachings on divorce have been used as a justification for commandments and laws that facilitate the oppression of women and children. But read in the context of Mark’s larger story, Jesus’ teachings on divorce—punctuated by his embrace of a child and his proclamations of the Reign of God—are a declaration of the full humanity of women and children. “’Let the little children come to me: do not stop them. It is to just such as these that the reign of God belongs. The truth is whoever does not welcome the Reign of God as a little child will not enter it.’ And Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”
For the author of the Gospel of Mark, the Reign of God is not just a future hope; it is a present demand. It arrives not because Pharisees or disciples negotiate and follow commandments about divorce but because Jesus takes a child into his arms. The Reign of God arrives as women and children take their place as the center of human concern. In today’s gospel, Jesus challenges his followers to take a stand for the least of these; for women who are scandalized, for the prostitute, for the widow, for those who are hungry and sick and for the children who depend on them.
In truth, this challenge is as relevant today as it was in the Greco Roman world of the 1st century. In today’s world, woman and children remain the least of these. Here are just a few facts:
- Between 75 and 80 per cent of the world’s 27 million refugees are women and children.
- Of the world’s nearly one billion illiterate adults, two-thirds are women.
- Six million children under the age of five die every single year as a result of hunger.
- 134 million children between the ages of 7 to 18 have never been to school and girls are three times more likely than boys to be denied education.
- In the last decade, more than 2 million children have died as a direct result of armed conflict and more than 300,000 child soldiers have been used in these wars.
- 2 million children are believed to be exploited through commercial sex trade industry each year.
To be transformed by Jesus’ vision of the Reign of God is to turn around, to take in these cold hard facts and make the flesh and blood they represent the center of our own concern. In 1990, the United Nations held the World Summit for Children, gathering the then largest ever assembly of heads of state and government to commit to a set of goals to improve the well-being of children worldwide by the year 2000. Ten years later not much had changed. Nelson Mandela said that empty rhetoric from world leaders is not enough—that we, the people, have to “turn this world around, for the children!”
The image of a child in the arms of Jesus tugs at our hearts. We take our child, our friend’s child, the child at our neighborhood school or our local hospital into our arms and we know the Reign of God. But across the millennia, we have, at the societal level, most often failed to take the rights and needs of the least of these—economically disadvantaged women and children—into account.
In 2002, UNICEF issued a call to members of society to take up the unfulfilled promises of the World Summit for Children in order to build “a world fit for children”. This call asks us to put children first by investing in the nutrition, the health and the education of all children. It asks us to protect children from acts of war, exploitation and discrimination. We are called to attend to the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS especially in Africa. And we are called to protect the earth—its diversity, its beauty and its resources—for future generations. This is a work of the heart that is visionary, cooperative and definitely not partisan. Building a “world fit for children” is the hope for a present and future Reign of God.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges us, by example, to turn from the trap of divisive, debilitating and dangerous arguments over commandments and law, over definitions of marriage, the regulation of fertility and the justification of poverty, to a remembering of our unity in creation. Turned and transformed, we enact the glory of God. If we heed the call of prophets like Nelson Mandela to work toward a world where the last are first, the Reign of God might be realized as a world fit for all people— children, women and men.