I thought about our Church Canons, the rules of the Episcopal Church, this week, as I read today’s gospel lesson. Because of Safe Church practices, if I did as Jesus did, if I just picked up a random child in my arms, I would probably be subject to ecclesiastical trial. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one, as modern America does more than any culture in the history of mankind to protect children.
“In antiquity, childhood was a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent of live births. Sixty percent were dead by the age of sixteen. These figures reflect not only the ravages of unconquered diseases but also the outcomes of poor hygiene.
“Moreover, while Western cultures tend to place children first and risk everything to save the child above all, ancient Middle Eastern cultures would place the child last…Thomas Aquinas taught that in a raging fire a husband was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his young child. When a famine came upon the land, children would be fed last, after the adults. Such priorities are still common in many non-Western cultures.”1
The Biblical books of “Proverbs and Sirach exhort fathers to punish sons physically because they are considered basically evil and need strong correction if the father does not want to suffer neglect and abuse later in life. This does not mean that children were not loved or appreciated. Mediterranean discipline fuses love with violence as parents explain: “We only do this because we love them.” Even God disciplines “him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives”.2
The disciples received some chastisement in today’s episode from Mark. They had been disputing among themselves, arguing about who amongst them would be the greatest, the guy that Jesus makes His second in command. They were arguing over honor, and once again, as He so often did, Jesus flips the script.
The Lord (strangely) didn’t restrain their desire for preeminent honor; indeed he wished for them to aspire to the most exalted rank. He did not, however, wish them to seize the first place, but rather to win the highest honor by humility.
He stood a child among them because he wanted them to become childlike, after a manner of speaking. A child has no desire for honor; he is not jealous, and she does not remember injuries. And Jesus said: “If you become like that, you will receive a great reward, and if, moreover, for my sake, you honor others who are like that, you will receive the kingdom of heaven; for you will be receiving me, and in receiving me you receive the one who sent me.”3
Becoming childlike is no easier now than it was then. To become childlike is to give up the willful side of personal agency, to forget about chasing the admiration of others, to put away the cynicism acquired in adulthood. To become childlike is to simplify, to be present to the others around you, to take joy in the joy of others.
But mostly, Jesus is telling us today to be humble, the kind of humble that allows love to flourish. We’re nine months into 2015 and in the national conversation, it’s been nine months of watching people being anything but humble. The presidential race has started, and so we’ve been watching twenty or so of the least humble people in America argue over who has all the answers. We’ve watched as divisions based on race, wealth, and power widen, and we’ve watched religious zealots, never the humble amongst us, wage actual war in the Middle East.
Jesus tells us today to be humble, because it is only in humility and love that we can tackle this world we live in. That’s not easy for us adults to do, and so Jesus reminds us of His own humility, the kind of humility that allowed Him to leave His throne in Heaven and dwell with His creation. It seems that the only way to receive a God this humble is to practice the humility of God.
1John J. Pilch, http://liturgy.slu.edu/25OrdB092015/theword_cultural.html
3After the commentary of Theophylact: http://liturgy.slu.edu/25OrdB092015/theword_journey.html