Is there any good thing to be found in the law of the Lord?
Before we are moved too quickly through Mark’s Gospel, it would be good to recall a previous narrative hanging in the background of this passage: the death of John the Baptist. (Mk 6:14-30) As we remember, John’s murder was arranged by King Herod’s sister-in-law and wife, Herodias, on account of her anger for John’s teaching on marital faithfulness. (6:19) John had taught that it was not lawful for Herod to marry his brother’s wife (6:18) and as difficult as this saying was for Herod, there was something compelling about the ministry of John. The king was drawn beyond the principle of moral behavior toward the compelling nature of the Gospel.
Yes, King Herod may have cringed at the teachings of John, but Herod knew in his heart there was a beauty that went beyond his selfish desire for satisfaction. Often, the truth is hard to hear, and we may grow discomforted by its propositions. But when truth turns toward us and encounters us person to person, it reveals righteous life and ripe fruit. To this, we return time and again, to its authority yearning for liberation and longing for the infilling of peace.
I ask again, what is it that is so good about the law of the Lord?
Often the law of the Lord is used as legal defense to determine correct behavior and belief. In the passage for this week, the law of the Lord makes another appearance as a legal commodity and leaves us to wonder if there is any good life left in the words of God to Israel. The context of John’s death looms over the Pharisees’ question to Jesus on the law of divorce. Don’t be fooled: this is a trap. If Jesus says the same thing as John the Baptist, they could cite Herodias’s grudge and send Jesus off to the same violent fate as John. Jesus asks for commands, but the Pharisees answer with permissions. Jesus wants to know about the nature of God, but the Pharisees aren’t interested in the “being” of God. They intend to trap Jesus and don’t have much interest in who they are becoming or who they have become.
Jesus brings the Pharisees beyond the surface of words to expose the essence and character of God’s speech to Israel. It’s not just what God says but what God means when God speaks. Jesus doesn’t deal with isolated words; he deals with the Nature and Essence that speaks the word. Thus, in Jesus’s response, he dodges the Pharisees’ trap by running the question back to the religious leaders, revealing obstinate and resistant hearts to God’s designed order for the world. This is true, both in the question on divorce (vv. 2-12) and the blessing of the little children. (vv. 13-16)
On the question of divorce, It was common practice in those days to interpret Jewish law as a formality for reckless behavior by exposing loopholes in what the law would allow. The power of such permissions rested favorably in the corner of men and was often used in irresponsible ways for the detriment and oppression of women. The question on divorce looks more like a play to protect privilege and power.
Likewise, at that time, the mortality rate for children below the age of 16 was 60%. Six in ten children died. Mothers bringing their children to Jesus was for more than a children’s sermon; it was a desperate plea for life and salvation. The unnecessary death of children was too common. In defying the attempt to maintain order, Jesus allows the vulnerable and dying to sit upon the lap of the law, which is life for all.
In this passage, Jesus brings our memory back to “the beginning of creation” (v. 6), beyond mere permissions and loopholes manipulated from law. Jesus raises the uncomfortable truth about how God’s people have ordered their lives. Jesus re-narrates scripture to blow the dust off Genesis. In His reverting to the first words of God’s story, He counters stubborn hearts with what is the essence of God’s character and intention for humankind: flourishing, faithful, and righteous lives. This sheds light on the motivations of both King Herod and the religious leaders who accepted morality in public view over pure and contrite hearts. It is not the execution of the law that God desires; instead, it is images that look like and talk like and act like the beginning.
What good can come from the Lord’s law?
Jesus emerges from Israel’s history carrying in his flesh the very order of the Father’s law. A new reign is emerging, founded on the principles of promise from years ago and wearing the very skin of those who have been discredited by religious leaders and disenfranchised though fancy talk around God’s law. To those in desperate need of truthful words, Jesus puts them on and wears them in his flesh.
The hope of the Gospel is that Jesus binds the nature of God to the nature of human beings. In his speech and actions, the essence and nature of God is revealed and put on display. All of God for the least of these. All of God for the unheard, for the unbelieved, for the voiceless, the broken, the contrite, the desperate, the little child, the vulnerable, the woman, the oppressed, the abused, the dejected, the neglected, the ignored, and the patronized.
Though it might feel elementary, I believe it is crucial for us to consider this: what do we learn about God, that God’s heart and nature is fully revealed in a person like Jesus? What do we learn about ourselves when so much of our religious speech does not match the life of the Son of God? What do we learn about the ways in which we have ordered our lives? Are we living by words or in the heart of the Word?
To be clear, I am not referring to using words from scripture as a defense for our point, like words have been used from the New Testament to keep women from preaching. I am speaking about the Word who was with God in the beginning. How does the heart of God’s Word compare to our knowledge of God’s word? Unless our lives match God’s heart, the use of God’s word is in vain.
Jesus’s embodiment of God’s law leads us to step beyond a conceptual faith controlled by rigid interpretations into a realm with far more freedom – a place where God’s nature is law and whose command produces love. Where the person of God is shared with the person of humanity. God will not stop until a full unity has taken place. God’s intention is to be unified, not to find an easy way out. God’s intention is to bless the vulnerable and abused, not to protect the powerful.
There is something true about God lying beneath the letters of this law that compels us to learn more. A type of truth that is hard to understand but appealing to the nature of our heart. It is as if we were made for this, made in the image of this truth. When this type of existential truth is presented, we cannot help but turn our ear toward the genesis of good news. We are dying to know who this “other” is and who we are in return.
What good news can come from law? In Jesus, WE can.