10/7/12, Let the Little Children Come

Genesis 2:18-25, Hebrews 2:9-12, Mark 10:1-16

The Genesis reading and the Gospel reading for today make it pretty clear that what the lectionary intends ministers to do is to clarify the Church’s teaching on marriage and divorce.   But as Catholics, we are already pretty familiar with that teaching.  We are also familiar with the many situations in today’s world that complicate that teaching.  So I’ll save that homily for another time… or not.

What really snagged my attention this week was how the end of today’s passage from Mark was so similar to the gospel we read two weeks ago.  Remember how the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant by a certain teaching?  In order to cover up their ignorance, they engaged an argument about who among them was greatest.  After  Jesus had called them to task on this self-centered argument, he brought a little child into their midst and said, “Whoever welcomes a child such as this for my sake welcomes me… and the one who sent me.”  We were reminded that one of the characteristics of children is to be genuinely open and unembarrassed about asking questions when they don’t know or understand.  Seeing that Jesus received children in all their simplicity gives us freedom to ask our questions too.

In today’s passage, it is the Pharisees who bring Jesus a question.  Unlike the disciples who were embarrassed to ask what about they didn’t understand, these religious leaders bring their question from a place of pride.  They already know Moses’ teaching on the subject of divorce, but as usual they are hoping to trip Jesus up.   Jesus patiently goes through the teaching again.  And then on the heels of this scene, at least as Mark tells it, people brought their children to Jesus so he could touch them.  Jesus says,  “Let the little children come… do not stop them…whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it.” 

 I wonder if we really understand what it meant for children to be allowed to come to Jesus in that day.  Most of us when we hear this passage have the Sunday School picture of Jesus come into our minds.  Jesus is a Caucasian-looking, clean man with darling little clean children sitting sweetly on his lap.  But let’s be realistic. The children being brought to Jesus were probably from the peasant class of families:  poor, dirty, and hungry.  They might have looked much more like the following pictures of contemporary poverty-stricken, ill-used children of our day.

 Children in the first century had no standing of honor in society.  They weren’t worth much until they could do enough work to pull their own weight in family and social life.  In general, we have much more respect and care for a child today, but even this is a view of children that only emerged in the last few centuries  of human history.  

So when we think of Jesus welcoming and blessing the children, it is likely that those children who sat on his lap were grungy and smelly and ill-mannered.  Since it was common practice in those days to lay hands on people when praying for their healing, the mothers bringing to children to Jesus for a touch may have been requesting healing of some sort.  These children weren’t the cute, clean, healthy ones that are brought to our churches today. When Jesus welcomes the children, it is really something quite radical he is doing: something from which we can take lessons about our life.

There are several ways to look at these passages about children.  Maybe the “children” that Jesus welcomes represent those in our society who are on the margins of community because they are in some way repulsive to us.  Maybe they are literally sick, or hungry or dirty or lacking in manners.  These people need to be welcomed with the same open arms of hospitality that Jesus offers to the children.  Remember how Jesus said that whoever welcomes one of these welcomes not only him, but God who sent him.  This is one of the foundational tenets of Lumen Christi: to welcome the marginalized.

But on the other hand, these “children” may represent me- or you.  At times we’ve all recognized our own need for healing or our need for being received into a place of forgiveness and acceptance. What would Jesus want these children to teach us as we seek healing and wholeness in our adult lives?  I think he’d say, “Don’t be afraid to come. Don’t be afraid to ask.”

 We might be reminded of the characteristics of a child’s original nature.  These are the characteristics that mark true citizens of God’s kin-dom.  Every child starts out being simple and vulnerable and dependent on others.  A child asks questions easily, trusts easily, laughs easily, loves easily… until the harsh experiences of life  and the  socialization processes humans impose shape us into the kind of people that Jesus says find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven.   

In today’s Gospel, Jesus addressed the Pharisees and their intellectually and religiously proud question about divorce.  Then he received children and said that unless we become like them, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  While to the disciples he said don’t be afraid to ask questions, to the religious leaders he said, don’t play these games of superiority with God. 

As I grow older along with my aging friends, the meaning of what Jesus might have meant by saying we must become as children to enter the kingdom begins to become clearer to me.  No wonder these are called the wisdom years! 

We begin to see that it’s all about letting go of adult tendencies to be proud of our accomplishments and intelligence. Many of us find ourselves longing for simplicity in our lives, not to be burdened by so much stuff and so many responsibilities.  We want to love and be loved, to trust and be trusted, to laugh and enjoy the simple and good things of life.  This is all summed up in a piece written some years ago by Robert Fulghum:

Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday school.

These are the things I learned:

Share everything.
Play fair.
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life -
Learn some and think some
And draw and paint and sing and dance
And play and work everyday some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world,
Watch out for traffic,
Hold hands and stick together.
Be aware of wonder.

That’s the simplicity of a child’s life.  This week, as you go about your daily tasks, ask yourself if you are living with the childlike perspective of a Kingdom citizen.  What would it be like to take a more childlike approach to your life of faith? 

One more observation:  Just after this passage about receiving the children, next week’s gospel reading has a young man asking Jesus what it takes to be assured of everlasting life.  Jesus answers in this way: “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor.”  

Come back next week to be challenged again as Jesus affirms how hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven.  (Mark 10:17-30)

By Sandi DeMaster