Sunday, September 23, 2018

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Among scholars, there is a lively debate about when, precisely, childhood was invented.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, and the leading theories are quite convincing. This is largely a debate that concerns Western societies, and crosses lines between history, art, literature and social science. Class figures large in the debate, and the church plays an important role.

Where to begin? Philosopher John Locke, writing in the late 1600’s, suggested that children are born like a “blank slate” (tabula rasa) and should be instructed with correct ideas that might serve them as adults. Jean Jacques Rousseau took this further some years later, suggesting that children are—by nature—innocent and ought to be protected and treasured. This lead to a new style of portraiture, where artists presented an idealized version of childhood innocence and grace.

By the Victorian era this had blossomed into a full-fledged industry, when the so-called “golden age of children’s literature,” took hold. Books such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan portrayed a kind of perpetual childhood—and child’s desire to remain in this idealized state forever. But only of you were rich.

Across town, where most of our forebears lived, Locke, Rousseau and Lewis Carroll were largely unknown. Childhood meant labour, first on the farm or amid small craft industries, and later in the dark, satanic mills of the industrial revolution.

The evidence is in the laws passed that outlawed what was then the life of a working-class child. In 1833, the British parliament passed the 10 Hours Act, which forced woollen mills to no long employ children under nine, and further required that anyone under eighteen work no more that 58 hours a week. And these were the trades that were easy to regulate: chimney sweeps and coal miners proved much harder.

And what about education, the “job” we now assign to children? This is where the church first shines, with the invention of Sunday School at the beginning of the industrial revolution. There was some religious instruction: but mostly classes in literacy and numeracy for the children that worked six days a week in the mines and factories.

And the idea spread: congregations like Central were synonymous with their large Sunday schools, providing basic instruction in the period before governments undertook this role. In fact, it was one of our ministers, Egerton Ryerson, who promoted free and universal education, and went on to become the founder of public education in Ontario. With parents compelled to send their children to school, some might argue that the idea of childhood was fully formed.

Now that you have this five-minute history of childhood in the West firmly in your head, what do we make of Mark 9, and the little child that Jesus takes into his arms? This child becomes an object lesson for the kingdom, an example of a great reversal, and a welcome by proxy. Listen again:

“Anyone” Jesus said, “who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Before we try to understand this seemingly simple passage, it might help to do a wee survey of children in the Bible. Who are they and what do they represent? What can they teach us about the faith? The word “child” or “children” appears nearly a thousand times in the Bible, so how will we review all of them and still get home for lunch?

Luckily, they seem to fall into some general categories. Children begin, obviously enough, as a symbol of the future: the hope of generations, descendants “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” Sarah laughs when she is promised a child, and God keeps that promise.

The story takes an odd turn when God says to the child’s father “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Funny that just the mention of Mount Moriah and my son Isaac would smarten up—proving that scripture has a variety of uses.)

Scholars argue that the “sacrifice of Isaac” was God’s symbolic rejection of human sacrifice, but it still proves Abraham’s obedience and his trust in God’s promises. And this is echoed in another theme, that of dedication. Hannah thanks God for the gift of a child and then dedicates young Samuel—giving him to the High Priest Eli for instruction. God’s call to Samuel, and the back-in-forth with old Eli is perhaps the most delightful interaction with a child in scripture.

Far less delightful is the treatment of children in Proverbs, which serves up some sadly familiar ideas such as “spare the rod and spoil the child.” And while these exact words do not appear, they summarize a handful of passages including this “wisdom” in air quotes: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” It’s a bit of a shock that in 1976 the Good News Bible took this archaic advice and gave to an unhelpful, modern spin. They wrote, “Children just naturally do silly, careless things, but a good spanking will teach them how to behave.” As a rule, I don’t condemn Bible passages, but this one deserves to be forgotten.

By the time we get to the New Testament, the picture of children is mixed. St. Paul seems to represent the “silly, careless” view with familiar passages such as “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Childhood is a largely ignorant state for Paul, one that we must overcome to grow into a mature believer.

The contrast, then, is to Jesus, who seems to find children exactly when he needs to make a point. And in our passage, it’s about welcoming a child as a symbol of welcoming Jesus, and by welcoming Jesus you welcome God. It seems straightforward enough, but some of the first readers obviously disagreed. Chief among them was Matthew, who read (or remembered) the story by Mark’s telling, and decided to make it clearer. He wrote:

2 [Jesus] called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

In other words, set aside your petty argument about which among you is the greatest, and become humble like children. If you can become humble as this child is humble, only then can you be great in the kingdom. But there must be more to children than their humility, their lower rank in the estimation of the world. It’s not like Jesus to reinforce hierarchy, even if it’s big versus small.

I think this is why Jesus takes another try at explaining children, just one chapter later, with this passage from Matthew 19. I’m going to read from the King James to help understand:

13 Then were there brought unto [Jesus] little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. 15 And he laid his hands on them, and departed.

Suffer, of course, it just an archaic way of saying “permit, or let” them come unto me. We don’t use suffer in place of permit any more, but the King James writers made this choice, and I think the choice was intentional. They came from a time before the dark, satanic mills of industrial England, but child mortality was high, and the lot of children was difficult, and their situation had advanced little from the time of Jesus.

Nor has the worldwide picture really changed: Children still work, children are malnourished, children lack healthcare or even clean water to drink, children suffer abuse (in every society) and children are caught in war. Toronto is the child poverty capital of Canada* with one-in-four living in poverty, while in York South-Weston it’s one-in-three. It makes the drop-in and the community kitchen critical to the neighbourhood, and our support for the food bank more vital than ever.

Jesus, from the moment his ministry began, was healing children, feeding children, driving demons out of children, and even returning children from the dead. In our terms, he spend as much time in the Sunday School as he did with the big people. “Suffer little children to come unto me,” he said, “for such is the kingdom of heaven.” Amen.


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