Millstones and lobbed-off limbs: Jesus on child sexual abuse (and more from Mark)
So I’ve got your attention by the subject of this sermon. But before we get to the millstones and lobbed-off limbs, we have to remember where we are in Mark if we’re going to grasp greater meaning in this story and address this deadly issue from within its Biblical context.
Tonight’s gospel reading is part of what scholars call a Markan sandwich; some of you have heard me mention before that in Mark’s gospel, stories are frequently inserted within other stories. We all know that this frequently happens in real life to us, we’re in the middle of doing something or talking about something when we get interrupted. And, indeed, this would undoubtedly have happened to Jesus a lot. But scholars have long noted that the parts of a Markan sandwich are not just related temporally as part of the narrative, but theologically, thematically, in some way, mutually interpreting each other –which often happens to me in real life, too: the interruption colors whatever I was already engaged in and vice-versa. For example, if Ito from Tarmilat comes to visit me while I am working on my sermon, my having been thinking about the sermon shapes my conversation with her, and my encounter with her then shapes my sermon). I say all this simply to note that these so-called literary devices are not just artificially imposed, but relate to our lives.
So, in any case, what we have here is the middle of the sandwich and the bottom slice of bread. The top of the sandwich is the text we read last week, where the disciples were discussing greatness and Jesus draws a small child into their midst and invites them to abandon dreams of greatness and welcome small children. If you skip verses 38-41, the narrative reads much more smoothly, with Jesus continuing to talk about “these little ones”. And because I am so struck with verses 42-48, I am tempted to do just that. But I’m going to resist that temptation in order to honor the whole of Mark’s sandwich; am I making you hungry, especially since we also just read the text about the Israelites longing for meat?
So then, setting aside food metaphors, we begin with the story about John’s concern over the outsider exorcist. It’s interesting that Mark identifies John as the one who asked the question, John the son of Zebedee who will later be caught arguing along with his brother James about who should get to sit in the highest places of honor when Jesus is glorified. (Makes you wonder if they were not at the heart of the discussion of greatness earlier, though they aren’t named there.) It seems, you see, that John enjoyed being one of Jesus’ closest disciple friends (part of the inner circle within the 12 that included Peter and James). John seems very aware of his privilege and position close to Jesus and the authority that brings. And it seems that John is rather possessive about this authority. It is telling, is it not, that John’s concern about the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name is that “he was not following US”? WE are the insiders, and this guy is an outsider. And John wants Jesus to support that clear distinction.
But as is so often the case, Jesus refuses to accept this distinction, this dividing line. “Do not forbid him”, Jesus responds, using the language of the conversation between Moses and Joshua son of Nun so many centuries before. The question Moses asked is also, therefore, evoked if not spoken aloud: Are you jealous, John? I imagine John’s cheeks coloring. This is all the more embarrassing given the fact that Jesus’ own disciples, Mark says, have recently proven themselves incapable of casting out a demon.
John discovers, as William Loeder notes, that “Jesus is not an egotist obsessed with protecting his reputation, but someone who cares about people.” It does not matter if healing and love come from his hand or the hand of another. What matters is that healing and love come. The insider/outsider boundary simply does not apply. Love observes no such boundaries. And to try to impose them is a mistake. Richard Jensen remarks, “Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line. Jesus is always with the outsiders.”
So Jesus words in verse 41 are a reminder to his disciples who might want insider privilege that the time will come when they will be grateful for the mercy and generosity of so-called outsiders. When “outsiders” care for them in even the smallest ways, through a cup of cold water, for example, God sees that and honors it. Would we want God to do anything less? Should we not also likewise honor such mercy and generosity which reflects the spirit of God in Christ no matter where it comes from?
Now we might be tempted to just stop here with the middle part of Mark’s sandwich and apply it to our situation here, the necessity of our being open to the spirit moving wherever it will, for example. But I really want to go on and do this in relation to the rest of the text. You note that the strength of Jesus’ exhortatory language is increasing here in verse 41: That “Amen” (Truly I tell you) adds emphasis. And the language only gets stronger in the verses that follow.
If the first part of this reading is about not obsessing over outside dangers to the community’s authority, integrity, and identity , the second part of the reading is a dire warning to look out for dangers to the community’s integrity and identity within. I think this is such an important warning to hear at so many levels. As individuals, communities, and even nations, we focus on threats coming to us from without and spend unceasing energy and resources to counter those, when what is much more likely to undo us is within – our own destructive patterns of being and doing that suck the life out of us and others.
There are so many destructive patterns of being and doing we might note: addictions of all kinds which break our bodies and destroy our relationships, our societal materialist obsession which leads us to exploit the earth and its peoples for cheap luxury, our immense personal and social capacities to ignore destructive realities until we arrive at ruin. But what Jesus speaks to here, in the strongest possible language, is what we do to children.
Yes, we are back to that little child in the middle of the circle, the child Jesus holds, the one he says we should welcome if we want to welcome him, to welcome God. All of a sudden, Jesus’s voice is trembling with emotion, with anger. It’s hard to catch the force of it in English, related to this powerful verb scandalizo, Whoever scandalizé one of these little ones – it means whoever ensares, traps, seduces one of these little ones “who trusts in me”. Can you see him now, with the children in his lap, trusting him? Whoever ensnares, entraps, seduces, one of these trusting little ones, it would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were drowned in the sea. God takes seriously what we do to trusting children.
And then you can see him looking around at these men who considered themselves spiritual insiders and warns them about their own eye, hand, foot – and you remember what foot is a euphemism for in the Biblical text right, you say foot when you mean the male sexual organ! Do you feel the progressive sexual engagement there: seeing, touching, violating. If your body parts are leading you to this, by God, cut them off. That’s what Jesus says.
You’ve got to wonder what had been going on. Had there been a situation of child sexual abuse or molestation brought to Jesus? What did he know about that was going on in Capernaum, maybe had been going on for years, maybe in the synagogue itself? And though he was undoubtedly fiercely protected by his mother and step-father as a child, what had he seen and experienced as a child himself, what had happened to his playmates and childhood friends? Who among us does not have someone we love who is deeply wounded from childhood sexual abuse? And the vast majority of the time, the abuser is an insider, family or friend, and the place of abuse is inside the home, inside the church, inside the school, all places that should be safe, but so often aren’t.
Jesus could not be more seriously about the hellish deadliness of this sin. And that’s encouraging to me. I wish all Christian institutitions would be as uncompromising as Jesus himself when dealing with child abuse and molestation. So often, the institution puts a priority on forgiving the perpetrator and addressing his needs, hushing up the offense to protect the reputation of the perpetrator and the institution. The wounded child is encouraged to forgive and forget, to not dwell on it, to get over it (at best, with counseling). And while I am all for redemption for all transgressors, all sinners, from what I can tell, the family or institutional covering up results in little redemption for anyone – the offender or the victim. That is NOT what the Bible means by love covering a multitude of sins. The most gracious, loving, redeeming thing that one can do for all parties involved is to get the offender away from children definitively. For his sake, and most importantly, for the sake of the children.
The final words of this section, while rather strange and puzzling, are very important in moving toward hopefulness and healing. All the talk of the fires of hell, lead Jesus to reflect on fire and salt. It’s clearly an allusion to the Biblical custom of offering salt with every sacrifice (which was burned you know). Salt was essential for the purification of the sacrifice. And so Jesus is holding out hope for purification. And it’s related to the community. Don’t lose your saltiness (which happens when salt is corrupted with impure additions), but have salt in yourselves, Jesus says. These are all plural yous. He doesn’t mean just take responsibility for yourself alone and get as pure as you can (that’s much more the pharisaic approach). Jesus call for his community to be salt for one another as well as the world toward the goal of real peace (shalom) with all its implications – right relationship with each other, with the world, with God.
Jesus puts responsibility for being salt not on a few chosen insider leaders, but on everybody. In this spirit, James will say pray for one another, confess your sins to one another, bring one another back from the brink of destruction, don’t just let your brother, your sister get trapped, get stuck. Keep your eyes and your hearts open and work for changes that help keep people out of traps – changes in our institutions, changes in our society, changes in our world.
This weekend, some churches around the world are responding to the gospel text by drawing attention to child trafficking and asking Christian communities to speak out against it. Here in Morocco, the most commonly accepted version of child trafficking, which often leads to molestation and sexual abuse is the practice of having child maids. Nouzha Skalli, the Moroccan minister of development, leads the official campaign against child maids (illegal, by the way, in Morocco – no child under 15 can work), a campaign called Inqad, which means rescue. Apart from simply raising awareness of the issue, she emphasizes that the campaign is pushing for greater emphasis on girls’ schooling and formation, keeping them out of the maid market.
I can’t help but think of a girl at Tarmilat I know who was sent away at the age of nine to be a child maid. She came back a couple of years ago at the age of13, which is when I met her, and had herpes. She has some serious psychological issues now. And it breaks my heart. But I’d like to think this will not happen to others now. And although we are the “outsiders” here in many ways, I’d like to think we’ve been a part of helping stop this destructive pattern in one community through our support of girls’ education in Tarmilat and continuing education programs for the older teenage girls who never had the change to go to school. I found out this week that we now have the first child from Tarmilat to ever attend university – Samira, the daughter of Aicha Rehiwi. The offering we take tonight will go toward the Tarmilat education program, paying for books for four girls in middle school and high school and for Samira’s university books. It’s a small thing, but it’s something that we can do as Christ’s community to be salt for one another and for the earth where, ultimately, we are none of us outsiders, but all in this together.
So brothers and sisters, let us open our hearts to welcome and be welcomed, to exhort and to protect, so that we might create a community of peace where we don’t have to lose our limbs or our integrity, but may find wholeness and hope. Alleluia. Alhumdullillah. Amen.
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