RCL Year B, Proper 22 (Alternate Readings)
Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4 and 2:5-12, Saint Mark 10:2-16

In this week’s Gospel, the Pharisees, not the disciples, have something to learn. Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees are important, because Jesus stakes out an utterly different construction of the Law and the Prophets. The Pharisees represent a part of tradition that includes 613 commandments including the ten given to Moses. You might think the Pharisees need some deregulation. The Pharisees continually attempt to entangle Jesus in questions about the 613 commandments.

This is what they do in the question today about divorce. Moses permitted divorce, but Jesus makes clear that Moses’ permission to divorce is not the ideal. It falls short of God’s perfect will, as Jesus explains drawing from today’s First Lesson. Moses’ permission to divorce falls plainly within God’s permissive will.

The distinction between God’s perfect will and God’s permissive will is helpful to bear in mind. In the gift of freedom that God gives to us, we may easily find that God permits us to do many things that are not in our best interests. God permits us to waste our time. God permits us to disobey him. God permits us to do murder. God permits us to sacrifice to the Canaanite gods. God permits us to ignore our health. The 613 commandments, for the most part, were about the relaxation of God’s perfect will and about the commandments to do or not to do things that don’t really matter.

Jesus’ answer clearly shows that he affirms and does not relax God’s perfect will. It remains the standard. The children Jesus affirms by declaring that the kingdom of God belongs to them will, as they grow, begin to give themselves passes. They will begin to want the things that are not in their best interests. They will begin, as all of us do, to rely on God’s permissive will. The more we give ourselves passes and the more we want the things that are not in our best interests, the more we wander from the kingdom.

Every one of us could wander a little less. Every one of us has the freedom to do the right thing in all instances. In the Psalm, we see that we are made “but little lower than the angels.”[1] The Epistle to the Hebrews picks up this idea and adds to it that the Son “might taste death for everyone.”[2] With all these possibilities, I suppose we could just take our chances in the eternal courtroom. But I am determined, especially as I grow older, to exercise my agency to stay as close to the kingdom as I can. God’s perfect will is a surer safety net than God’s permissive will. This, I think, is what Jesus wanted the Pharisees to take home.


[1] Psalm 8:6.

[2] Hebrews 2:9.