A week ago, ahead of the arrival of our daughter and son-in-law and their two small children for an extended visit, I could be found busily cleaning the house, polishing every surface and making the place sparkle.
I don’t know why I bothered.
Honestly. How could I have forgotten, having had four of my own? Young children, cute as buttons and oh so delightful, are also inexhaustible instruments of chaos waging unflagging guerrilla warfare with the household gods of Order and Cleanliness.
People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
There’s a pattern going on in the Gospel of Mark, chapters 9 and 10. Three times now Jesus has had some consequential things to say to his students and then his teaching is immediately followed up by references to small children.
To begin with the writer of Mark ties Jesus’ short discourse about expecting to suffer and be killed to a private debate among his students about which of them is the greatest. It’s obvious, even in the face of Jesus’ clear suggestion that “this will not end well, my friends”, that the students themselves still believe they are on some kind of glory road (cue: Jesus Christ Superstar, “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle…”). In response Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first among them must be the servant of all, and he brings a child into their circle to emphasize the point.
Next, one of the students named John complains that they have seen other religious teachers in the area who don’t belong to their group but who none-the-less have co-opted the name of Jesus to do miracles. In reply Jesus takes the opposite tack from that made famous by George W. Bush; “Whoever is not against us is for us,” Jesus says. And again he moves the conversation to focus on the little ones (presumably still standing there), warning the students not to “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me”.
The narrative moves on and, in chapter ten, Jesus is queried about his view of marital divorce. He makes it clear that marital relations were always meant to be honourable and enduring. And again the writer of Mark moves us right back to the subject of children: people were bringing children to Jesus so he could bless them; the students didn’t like this and tried to stop them; Jesus rebukes them and says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
Q: What is my rank, my position in the group? A: Consider the children.
Q: What do we do about competition from those who do not belong to our group? A: Consider the children.
Q: What about abuse in an unequal relationship? A: Consider the children.
What was that old Arabic proverb in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist? “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.” In other words, this weaving that Mark does of adult social issues with the acceptance of and goodwill toward children is not a mistake; it is purposed.
Throughout the Gospel of Mark we find Jesus interacting with children and making the case that the reign of God is linked to something about them. In the first world culture in which they lived children had no status, no property, no “rights” as we know them. They were vulnerable and inferior. Like the unclean, the poor and women in general, they are in a position of powerlessness, dominated by those in their environment who have status and authority.
It is from their position of weakness that children are an example to us of participation in the reign of God. It is in our weakness that God’s reign can be made evident within us.
A prayer, by Joy Cowley*:
Dear God, I would like to become a little child and rest my soul in you. I’m tired of the loneliness, tired of the struggle, I want to surrender but I don’t know how. You see, I have this problem of being an adult. I belong to the generation which makes decisions, plans, works, accepts responsibility, takes pride in being independent. Adults are supposed to manage their lives. They are concerned with owning things and making things happen, and they don’t like to look small or foolish. Dear God, for a long time I have been living in the centre of a world which has prevented me from entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
Father God, Mother God, show me how to become your child. I am aware of the advice that Jesus gives. He does not say that we should remain in infancy. He says that we should become as little children. This tells me that I need to know the futility of independence before I can let go of it. It is the letting go which is difficult. I know you are there, waiting to give yourself to me, but I’m afraid to commit myself. Please help me to loosen the grip on my pride so that I can hold out my arms to you and be enfolded in your love.
* The SPCK Book of Christian Prayer, p. 216