Those who study the gospels sometimes debate whether a particular event or saying is completely authentic, or has perhaps been added by the gospel writer or even by a later hand. This is because the gospels as we have them were not written down as it all happened, but much later. The four gospels we have differ from each other in style, and sometimes in content too. All of them though were based on, perhaps some earlier written records, but certainly also oral records - stories and teachings passed on by word of mouth.
When these sorts of academic debates take place, one rule of thumb often applied is that the more difficult teachings are more likely to be genuine. That means something hard to understand - because if something’s hard to understand, it’s more likely to be changed to make it easier to understand than the other way round. And also things that are hard to take, the tough sayings, because surely the natural instinct might be to soften them.
If that rule of thumb works - and of course the professors argue about that too - but if it does, then the teaching in today’s gospel is very likely to be straight from the mouth of our Lord. It’s tough and uncompromising, and quite possibly hard to take.
Over the years the Church has interpreted these words of Jesus as allowing and encouraging it to take a very firm and hard view of marriage, as indissoluble; so that those who had had a marriage end in divorce, or even, like my aunt, having been widowed and having then met and married a man whose own previous marriage had ended in divorce, were (a) told that they could not marry in church, and (b) in my aunt’s case, might well be told that they could no longer receive communion in church. As a good Catholic, my aunt, who died two years ago at the age of 99, for many years attended church regularly which for her meant daily, and always had to remain in her seat when others went forward to receive communion. Until her second husband died, when as a respectable widow she was allowed back into full communion.
While I have nothing but praise for my aunt’s faith and obedience, I can’t find it in me to praise or even sympathize with the Church. The Church had got it wrong. The Church was, I consider, being quite un-Christlike. And indeed the Church was, and often still is, misunderstanding the reason why Jesus gave this hard teaching on marriage (and indeed on other things too).
Jesus loved sinners. In fact it would seem that a lot of the time he got on much better with sinners than he did with good and holy people. Now that’s not to say that he didn’t take sin seriously. He took it very seriously indeed. Sin is fatal; sin, to be clear, will be the death of you. And me.
But Jesus also took forgiveness seriously; and grace, which is love without strings, loved offered to us without our needing to merit it. That’s what he preached to the sinners, and they listened and responded. That’s what he wanted to preach to the good and godly folk too - but they didn’t think they needed to hear him.
So think of the response of Jesus to that question about marriage as shock tactics. He wanted to break through that shell of self-righteousness that was preventing the Pharisees and folk like that from hearing his message. They didn’t hear because they didn’t think they needed to hear. They were all right.
“I live a good life,” people say to me, more often than you’d think. It’s a defence mechanism, I think, in case I might otherwise seek to convert them or persuade them to come to church. They sometimes go on to tell me that they don’t need to come to church because they can be quite good enough without it, and anyway church is full of people who think they’re good enough when they’re not really, or at least no better than the rest of us. No, it’s not full, I’m tempted to reply - we’ve still got room. But anyway, that’s the wrong idea about what church is for, and probably the wrong idea about what goodness is, as well.
We don’t come to church because it looks good, I hope not anyway. We don’t come to church because we feel we’re good enough to be here. I come to church because I’m not good enough - I’ll come back to that thought in a minute. We certainly don’t come to church in order to rack up celestial Brownie points that will help us slip more easily into heaven.
No. We’re here to say thank you, especially at this service of the Eucharist, because that’s what Eucharist means - thanksgiving. We’re here because we’re not good enough, and yet although we’re not good enough, God still loves us and calls us his children. We’re here because though we sin, we have a forgiving and healing Father. And we’re here to commit ourselves to take that forgiving love to heart, and to make it part of our own lives, and as a thank offering to share with our neighbours something of what we have received from God.
To his questioners Jesus was saying this: God’s law cannot be watered down: what’s wrong is wrong is wrong. And, as we’re reminded elsewhere in the New Testament, to break one small piece of God’s law is to break all of it. It all belongs together: you take it all, or you take none of it. Jesus didn’t want to belittle or condemn the Pharisees and their like - but he did want to convince them that they too, even they, were sinners. We all stand under God’s judgement, we’re all in need of his grace. Until they accepted and understood that, he couldn’t reach them.
Historically we in the Church have interpreted today’s gospel as implying God’s special condemnation of those who happen to make a bad marriage. And following that line we end up saying to those who’ve made a good marriage second time round that that doesn’t count, for God still rules you out of his favour because you’ve broken the rules. But does that really sound to you like what Jesus would say? Not to me it doesn’t. What Jesus is saying is this: Yes, you’ve sinned. All kinds of people, even people trying hard to be good, end up sinning, in all kinds of ways.
To sin is to miss the mark, to fall short, to break the rules. And somewhere or other, we all do it. We all fail to be what we could be, or should be. But, Jesus goes on to say: God loves sinners; he meets their failure with his grace; he cancels out our wrong with his love. That’s why we’re marked with the sign of the cross. That cross says: I’m not worthy, but Jesus has made me worthy, by his love, by his sacrifice, by his cross.
And so Jesus places a child in front of his disciples, and he tells them, “You can’t enter the kingdom of God unless you come like a small child.” What in particular about a small child is so important? The innocence of a small child, perhaps? But no, we’ve grown up, we know about the world, we’ve been there, done that. We’re not innocent, like it or not. Can’t go back there.
But I believe what Jesus is pointing to is dependence. A child knows it needs someone to care for it, someone to look after it, someone to give it a name and a place. It can’t cope on its own. I say “it” by the way not just to be gender inclusive, but because in the Greek of the New Testament teknon, meaning a child, is a neuter word. In the thinking of the time, a child did not exist as a separate entity, not until adulthood. A child belonged to its parents, was the possession of its parents, far more completely than in today’s thinking.
So to come to the kingdom like a child is to come knowing we are nothing without God. We are his possession, we belong to him. Without what he alone can give us, we are nowhere; we have no name, no purpose, no destiny. But God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. And with Christ and in Christ and through Christ, to borrow a phrase from the communion prayer, all that we need is ours.