We are in the season of tough questions. We don’t really like having to face tough questions ourselves but so often when the tide of public opinion is turning or we want to see a public figure exposed, then we tune in to Newsnight or Question Time, and listen in. There will be tricky, ambiguous questions designed to make the person feel hunted and haunted, even humiliated, as we wait hopefully for them to trip themselves up in their answer.
This is what is happening to Jesus. Those around are asking tricky questions. Mark’s Gospel has placed a sequence of events together, and we have a sequence of audiences who are listening to Jesus’ answers. I wonder how each of the different groups felt as they listened and experienced what was happening that day? For there were men and women and children around. There were enemies of Jesus, but there were also supporters. There were happy families, and struggling families. Down the centuries since there have been millions of readers, trying to make sense of these verses, wondering what they mean today, for me and for you.
For many of the men listening Jesus has replied to the tricky question with a radical new idea, so new that the disciples need to talk to him afterwards in private to grasp more of this thinking. The idea that men and women might be equal in relationship, both of them responsible for making it work, and both responsible if it goes wrong goes back to the heart of creation. For the women too, this would have been a surprise, used as they were to living under different expectations and accountability.
It’s interesting that immediately after the teaching about adult relationships, we have the more familiar, perhaps comfortable verses about children. The disciples still don’t understand the radical message of equality and inclusion. The unspoken tough question in verses 13-16 is whether the women and children really have the same access to Jesus as the men. They haven’t realised that God’s unconditional love is truly going to embrace everyone. Jesus not only teaches in words, he demonstrates in action, gathering children in his arms, and blessing them.
Each of those listening would have different memories of that day. For some, the tough answer to the tough question, sent them away trying to find another angle to trip up Jesus. For others, their own thinking about relationships was challenged, and they might have to behave differently. For the children and their mums, it was simply that once again Jesus had transformed rejection into acceptance, judgment into welcome, strangers into friends. I bet they remembered that.
Revd. Canon Dr Sandra Millar