Unless You Become Like Children

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
September 23, 2018
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Proper 20B

Jeremiah 11:18–20
Psalm 54
James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a
Mark 9:30–37

My Friends:

Jesus with Children stained glassBy now, all of us have likely seen far too many images of Jesus Christ that I like to refer to as the “Swedish Jesus”: that is, Jesus portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes, surrounded by a crowd of adoring, happy children.  And yet, we know that such a depiction is both a complete and a literal misrepresentation of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century, Mediterranean Jewish artisan living under Roman occupation in the Roman province of Syria.  He was entirely embedded in his west Asian religion and culture, and his little world consisted of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, with occasional incursions into adjacent Greco-Roman cities, as we have heard over the last two weeks.  He lived, along with everyone else, in what we in the West now call the “Middle East.”  His cultural background included a system and hierarchy of honor at least as old as the patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible, and persisting to this very day in that part of our world.

In Jesus’ world, people were born into a specific social location according to their gender; wealth—often consisting of land and flocks rather than money—marital status; and age.  They owed complete and categorical allegiance to their tribe, their clan, and their family—in that order.  As a result, a person possessed a quantifiable amount of “honor” corresponding to these factors, and it was one’s duty in life to maintain and defend that honor from anyone or anything seeking to diminish it in any way or, worse, seeking to destroy it.  The remedies ranged from negotiated compensation to the infamous “blood-feud.”

In Jesus’ world, children, I regret to say, were at the very bottom of that rigid social hierarchy, along with widows, orphans, disgraced women, and the catch-all category of “the stranger,” the “ger,”  who was basically anyone not of your tribe, clan, or family.  This is the reason for God’s constant insistence in the Hebrew Bible that God has a special concern for the protection of these “outsiders.”  In a sense, they belong to God’s tribe and clan and family; therefore, God is the guardian and protector of their honor and wellbeing.

With all of this in mind, what at first glance may seem like a disjointed series of discrete vignettes in this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark is actually a very carefully crafted whole.  It is Jesus’ powerful teaching on that indispensible, yet very difficult, virtue of humility: the keystone virtue in the “kingdom of God.”  To see this, however, we must place ourselves in that “honor society” of Jesus’ Mediterranean world and remind ourselves of children’s place in that world in particular.

Gaza-poorNow, let me say at the outset that I have no doubt that Jesus did indeed love little children.  Yet, that is not the intended point of Jesus’ mandate to welcome the child in this morning’s Gospel.  And we realize this as soon as we recall the low status of children in the Middle East at the turn of the Common Era.  To begin with, infant mortality was 30% of live-births, and 60% of all children died before the age of sixteen.  A minor child had the social status of a slave, and only after reaching maturity did a male child become a legally free person with the right to inherit property.  The Hebrew Bible’s book of Proverbs and the Apocrypha’s Ben Sira both exhort fathers to punish their sons physically because these children were regarded as basically evil and in need of strong correction to insure their loyalty to parents in old age.  This did not mean that parents did not love their children, but, in Mediterranean cultures—even to this day—discipline, unfortunately, often fuses love with violence.  Children, especially sons, were regarded as a form of “social security” for their elderly parents, and they insured the continuity of the family name as well.  In fact, in many patriarchal cultures, women are still not fully accepted into the clan and tribe until they produce a male heir for their family.  Think of the early Abraham and Sarah saga in Genesis: Sarah, which means “Princess,” was previously called “Sarai,” which means “The Mockery,” before she conceived Isaac in her old age.  Even during the Mediterranean Middle Ages, Saint Thomas Aquinas  counsels that in a raging fire, a husband should save first, his father; then, his mother; next, his wife;  and last, his young children.  In theory, anyway, Mediterranean culture’s pecking order is very clear.

So, when Jesus places a young child in the midst of the Twelve in today’s Gospel to illustrate what he has just told them in clear and unequivocal terms: “If anyone would be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all,”  he was using the ultimate symbol of vulnerability and powerlessness in that world.  Only a slave might have better served Jesus’ purpose as the symbol of honor in the new “honor society” called “the Kingdom of God.”  In fact, Jesus likely had this morning’s same example in mind when he tells his disciples elsewhere in the Gospels: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”; or, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  “Last of all and servant of all”this is the radical teaching and summons of Jesus to his followers then and now.  And it is a complete contradiction of both the ethics and expectations of his Middle Eastern “honor society.”

So, just as he did in last Sunday’s reading from St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is once again relentless about reminding his disciples that he will not be a Messiah after their own imaginings and expectations.  He will not be a Judean tribal warlord who will drive the Romans from their eastern province of Syria and restore the glory days of David and Solomon with the Jerusalem Temple at its center.  As the Gospel according to John succinctly puts it, Jesus’ “kingdom” is “not of this world” of empire and power-politics won through violence and war.  The “kingdom of God” will come only at the divine initiative, and with the cooperation of human kind, to restore the world and humanity to God’s best intentions for God’s “very good” Creation.  So, in Jesus’ words, this Messiah will be the complete antithesis of the highest ideal of his Mediterranean “honor society.”  He will “be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again”a vivid reminder that a Christian life is always lived beneath the sign of the Cross.  Divine vindication of the Christ will come, but not in the way that even Jesus’ closest disciples expect.  Small wonder, then, that, according to Saint Mark, Jesus is not yet quite ready to reveal this shocking truth to the public at large in Galilee.  If the select Twelve cannot handle this truth, then neither will the general public accept it.  And, as we know from our knowledge of the whole story, Jesus was quite right in his expectation.

Now, all of this is most definitely not “good news” to Jesus’ little band of very obtuse disciples.  They really do not get it, and worse, they “were afraid to ask him.”  So, instead of asking the “Light of the world” to enlighten their darkness, they immediately descend into an argument among themselves about their own honor and status in the uncertain times and circumstances just predicted by Jesus.  So fearful are they about their own futures as followers of this suddenly very unpromising Messiah that they begin to quarrel among themselves about who “was the greatest” among them.  As they make their way to the village of Kafar Naum, the temporary, Galilean headquarters of the itinerant sage destined to die by Roman crucifixion on trumped up charges of sedition outside the city-gates of Jerusalem, they may well have recalled that ominous passage from the Torah’s Book of Deuteronomy about “the accursed man hung from a tree.”  Jesus may be destined for the Torah’s ultimate dishonor, but his followers will have none of it.  They are still convinced that, come what may for Jesus, they are still “bound for glory.”

Well, they really can’t fool Jesus—who always knows both the heights and depths of the human heart—and neither can we.  Ever the master-teacher, Jesus calls the Twelve for an object lesson concerning just what it means to be a follower of this “Christ crucified.”  If the Twelve are to take up their own Cross to follow Jesus, they must be prepared to witness, like Jesus, to the presence of God in the midst of suffering and dishonor, even the ultimate dishonor.  Ironically, they must, like Jesus, make themselves nothing to become something in the “kingdom of God.”  So, in a scene beloved by so many western visual artists for all of the wrong reasons, Jesus takes a child, “put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’”  Jesus undoubtedly did love the little children, but his “honor society” didn’t think much of them before their maturity, and that’s the point of Jesus’ prophetic object lesson!

Jesus comforting the childrenSo, what does this all mean for us here this morning, guests of the risen Christ at the Holy Eucharist, this foretaste of the “heavenly banquet” and harbinger of the “kingdom of God”?  Jesus is asking the Twelve, together with you and me, to opt for a higher and different ethic drawn from his unusual “honor society”: the radical and unconditional hospitality, protection, and welcoming of the “stranger,” also famous in the Middle East to this very day.  This was the ultimate display of honor in such a culture because a person’s whole reputation was based upon his willingness and success in welcoming and protecting “the stranger.”  Recall the Hebrew Bible’s story of Lot and his guests before the destruction of Sodom.  And one did this not out of warm and fuzzy sentimentality, but because, in antiquity, the stranger might very well be a god, even the God, in disguise.  Again, think of the famous incident in Genesis when Abraham offers extravagant hospitality to the three strangers in his tent at Mamre on a hot afternoon—strangers who turn out to be messengers of God and, later, in Christian interpretation, the Hebrew Bible’s foreshadowing of the Holy Trinity itself.  And Jesus seems to have all this in mind when he tells the Twelve: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me; whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  And when, Lord, do we feed and water and welcome and clothe and heal and visit you?  “Truly I tell you,” Jesus states in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  And, at the risk of sounding a political note, we would do well to bear this in mind as we in the affluent, developed world consider the issue of immigration reform and the treatment of migrants and refugees fleeing war and violence during the still unfolding tragedy of the greatest crisis of displaced persons since World War II.

My friends, Saint Benedict was right when he wrote in his Rule that we can only ascend by first descending.  We only enter into the honor and glory of the “kingdom of God” by the royal road of extreme humility and suffering love after the example of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.  This is the paradox and the “scandal,” the “stumbling block,” of the little “Way” of Jesus Christ, which is always the Way of the Cross.  So, let us pray this morning—as we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus by receiving his Body and Blood in the holy sacrament of the altar—for the help and the grace to continue the truly endless struggle against pride in all its various guises and for the virtue of humility.  Then, as Jesus tells us at the conclusion of his parable of the “Good Samaritan” in Saint Luke’s Gospel, let us “Go, and do likewise.”  AMEN.

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