August 19, 2012
I came across this blog post in the Huffingpost the other day by John Ortberg. The title for the entry was Six Surprising Ways Jesus Changed the World. One of them was that Jesus showed us that children are people.
That may not seem all that surprising us, but it was sure a surprise to “the twelve” and the others that day when Jesus got angry about the disciples rejecting the children. Children hold such a different place in our society today than they did back in Jesus’ time. Ortberg points out that in the ancient world of Jesus, children were “routinely left to die of exposure…and often sold into slavery.” In a commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Pheme Perkins writes, “The shocking element in this episode cannot be appreciated by modern readers. Our social conventions have exalted childhood as a privileged time of innocence, this romantic view is usually imported into these passages. However, the child in antiquity was a non-person (cf. Gal 4:1-2). Children should have been with the women, not hanging around the teacher and his students….to insist that receiving a child might have some value for male disciples is almost inconceivable. Roman authors convey little information about children prior to adolescence. There appears to have been little interest in children as such, even among medical writers. Childless Romans who needed heirs commonly adopted adults rather than children.”
So this whole thing of Jesus receiving children and even blessing them, many commentators say, began a new way of viewing children in this world. We’ve been talking about the books we are reading. Another one that sounds interesting is When Children Became People: the Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, written in 2005 by O.M. Baake.
We have been here with Santiago and his family this morning, not having to convince anyone that children are people, too. But some of what it took for children to become regarded as people was for Jesus to be taken seriously in the Western world.
Jesus, was always doing that, though. He kept drawing attention to those who were regarded as non-people; children, the gentiles, women, tax-collectors, the unclean. He showed that they had not simply become people when he pointed out God’s love for them, but that they had always been people. Always people that God loved. And it always left his listeners shocked. And there is even a twofer in this story. Children spent all their time with their mothers. The apocryphal book of Sirach even tells fathers they should not play with their children. All interactions, except discipline, were between children and their mothers. So when Jesus welcomed the children, he welcomed the women who raised them.
We are celebrating today the gift that children are. But we are also making promises to Santiago and all children that we will care for them and help them to understand what it means to follow Jesus.
Along the way, Santiago is going to realize that not all people are treated equally, not all children are treated equally. He will be told that some of them are not to be regarded as people at all. Our job will be to show Santiago and all the children how wrong that is. There are so many ways to dehumanize people who are regarded as the enemy of our country, our race, our social class, or our family. But we are followers of Jesus, who welcomed all and showed us the humanity of all people. And the practical stuff of raising children in a Christian home is to be the welcoming kind of people Jesus was.
When Jesus looked at those children and said the dominion or kingdom of God belongs to them he was not simply saying children have some innate understanding of the ways of God that we adults need to relearn. There is a lot to learn from children. But also a lot that maybe we don’t want to imitate. Jesus was also reminding us that God works in the most surprising of ways, in the most surprising of people, including children, which sounded so crazy to his listeners.
Jesus wanted us to understand how the dominion of God belongs to the children and all the others who are ignored, neglected, or even despised by the adult, religious, respectable, males who think they alone hold the keys to the dominion of God, and pretty much everything else.
If Jesus were to try to make this point today, I don’t think he would do it with children. He would draw our attention to others who have had their personhood taken away from them. It might be undocumented workers, indigenous people, gay and lesbian people, homeless people, prisoners, or older folk who sit in wheel chairs all day at a Nursing Home. He would tell us that the dominion of God is theirs, and we need to receive it like they do.
If we were Protestants in Northern Ireland Jesus would look at some Catholics and tell us the dominion of God is theirs. If we were Shiites in Iraq, he would tell us that we need to look to the Sunis for the dominion of God, and that the Sunis need to look to us. If we were segregationists in the deep South of the United States he would show us how the dominion of God belongs to the sharecroppers. If we lived in the big cities of the North he would tell us the dominion of God belongs to those who live in the ghetto. And many of us would be as shocked as the disciples were that day when Jesus welcomed those children and their mothers to his side and said the dominion of God is theirs.
We can make Santiago proud of the Church by the ways we discover the dominion of God in those who have become non-people in the eyes of so many. There is no greater ministry for the church in the years to come than to learn how to welcome all people, how to stand with all people, how to open our lives to all people for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We aren’t here this morning because we simply want things to go well for Santiago and his family. We do want him and all of the to know the blessing of God. But that’s also what we want for all children, even in this country where budgets cuts and political stances are showing we don’t care for our children as much as we say we do.
I hope the day will come when we don’t have to keep seeing that children are people, but realize that they are among those who possess the domain of God. If we want to find that dominion for ourselves, seek that kingdom, which Jesus said that should be our first priority in life, then we need to go looking with them and everybody else.