A Homily for the Fifth Wednesday in Lent
Text: St. Mark 10:1-16
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who came to make us children of God. Amen.
The end of tonight’s Gospel reading is one of those that we just sort of let roll over us without ever really thinking about. It’s pretty self-explanatory, right?
You can almost hear the studio audience say, “Awwwwww” when our Lord “took the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” It’s like something out of a Precious Moments figurine, those round-faced and doe-eyed ceramic figures that seem to be on sale at every Christian book store. Jesus cares about children, and we should include them in the ministry of the Church.
To that end, this verse pops up all over the place when you look at ministry with youth and children. There’s an academic text called Let the Children Come which focuses on raising children in the Church. There’s an evangelical publisher called “Let the Little Children Come” that prints tracts for children. Our denominational publishing house has a text on infant baptism for parents called “Let the Children Come.” One Lutheran church in Saint Paul introduces their children sermon with these same words, and we have an older translation emblazoned on the side of our education wing: “Suffer the Children to Come.”
To be certain, ministry with children is important. Not only should we minister to kids, but we should allow them to join in the Church’s ministry as acolytes and assisting ministers and lectors and through service projects. Anyone who works in youth and children ministry will tell you that our young people are also capable of ministering to us as well. This is most certainly true.
But the relationship with children is more complicated than we imagine.
In our culture, children are usually cherished. We work hard to make sure that they stay safe, that they have opportunities afforded to them from an early age. One of the driving questions right now in this congregation is how we can attract families with children because we so value their presence. We have child safety laws and free public education to invest in our children, and a big part of development work in impoverished areas both in the US and abroad is to institute early childhood education programs.
This was simply not the case in the ancient world. Synagogues and temples didn’t have a “children’s sermon” or “children’s church.” Only the wealthy received formal education. Adoption was about passing on your name and estate rather than caring for an orphan, and it was usually older teens or adults who were adopted. (You might recall that Julius Caesar adopted the adult Octavius Augustus to pass on his position within the Roman Empire.) Infant and child mortality rates were extremely high. Surviving to age five was a coin-toss. In a world defined by scarcity, where resources were hard to come by, children were valued but not in the same way we understand today. They were both a blessing but also a large burden; they were, like the women who gave birth to them, viewed as second-class humans.
Christ’s command to let the children come that he might bless them, then, is far more radical than we imagine. It’s not the sweet moment that makes the parents around him go “Awwww.”
Rather, it probably caused a few people to look around nervously – people like our Lord’s own disciples. Only a few verses before, the disciples were arguing about who was greater – because of course they were. Jesus told them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and then, placing a child among them, told them to welcome even children. Fast forward a few days and the disciples are turning away parents seeking a blessing for their children: not serving the least of all, not welcoming “one such child” in Jesus’ name.
Christ’s ministry among the children is the same as it was to all the second-class people in the world: to welcome them into the Kingdom of God as heirs.
Just like the sick, the demon-possessed, the injured, women, and slaves, our Lord sees them for who they really are: people to be loved and served, to be welcomed in. Jesus, who was born and lived as an infant, who lived and ministered among the outcast, is calling us, to quote our neighbors the United Methodist Children’s Home, to strive for “a world where every child is raised in a loving, compassionate, and nurturing” community.
Adopted as beloved children of God through our Baptism in Christ Jesus, we are being called to welcome the least of these, to feed the hungry and visit the sick and imprisoned, to care for the widow and orphan.