Mark 9: 30-37
The story of Jesus taking a little child in his arms is one of the most quoted in the gospels. It is also a favourite for stained glass windows – we have one, just behind the reserved sacrament.
It’s such a lovely image, it seems so immediate, that we can be forgiven for overlooking the 2,000 years between then and now. So with a mix of affection and scepticism, I have been looking into the role of children in Biblical times and what the story might have signified when it took place.
There is a school of thought, that childhood as we know it is a modern invention, that children in ancient times were not a separate category of people. With up to half of all children dying as infants, loving them too much was dangerous – so they were left to run around the streets - until the age of 9 or 10, when girls were put to work alongside their mothers and boys their fathers. Only the very rich went to school or had tutors.
But more recent archaeology hints at a different picture. First of all, there are the toys. Strange circular objects with holes, which experts now believe were a range of different kinds of spinning tops. And then some rough clay figures, which under close examination reveal finger marks of young children. Clay does not survive unless it is fired in a furnace, so perhaps the children, having made these toys, persuaded a parent to take them to the local potter’s workshop and have them fired? So, children played! And were encouraged to do so.
Children’s graves have also been found, in and around family homes, and this is where some of these toys were found. We can imply from this that they were loved and mourned enough that their parents wanted them buried close by, perhaps also as a gesture of protection.
And new research suggests children were looked after, supervised. A typical home in biblical times would have been arranged around a courtyard. Brothers would have lived together in one of these compounds, each with their wives and children and, if they were still alive, their parents. The courtyard in the middle was where the children played, cousins together, under the eye of their mothers.
In those large family homes, the women would have worked and lived in the rooms towards the back, largely apart from the men, who, when they were not out in the fields, met at the front, nearer the door, ready to challenge anyone who came visiting. Only young children were allowed to roam freely through the whole house. Apparently, this led to the saying that children were carriers of secrets – and adults should be careful what they said in front of them, as they might wander into other parts of the house and repeat what they’d heard!
This, then is how I imagine the scene in today’s gospel. Jesus and his friends sitting in one of the men’s rooms at the front of a house, forming a circle. And a child wanders in, or perhaps several children have been playing, in the background. Whatever the importance of their discussion, it seems no parent has seen fit to hurry the children out of the room and close the door. Incidentally, this it seems to me is reason enough for us to allow children to wander or crawl around freely during our services!
And so Jesus takes a child and places it in the centre of the circle. And then brings it into his arms. A living, visual parable: this is how you must be.
So then we come to the big question, what did he mean? What was it about being a child he wanted to show them, these disciples who had been arguing amongst themselves, about who would be the greatest?
Well, we can say that it was not some of the words we use today about children – not gentle, innocent, naïve, vulnerable, trusting. All of these things of course are both true and not true of children – as I am learning all over again with our new grandchild, Harry!
The version of this story in Matthew’s gospel makes Jesus’ meaning clear:
“Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5
Here the word humble has the force of becoming nothing. It is very much about status, in social terms and also in religious terms – in both cases children then had none, they had no claim, no rights, no voice.
So this is the grain of truth preserved, for us to reflect on. Status, so called, means nothing in the eyes of God. Knowledge, ability, experience, authority, title, mean nothing, all the ways in which we are ranked in the eyes of the world, including by the church, mean nothing. All the ways also, in which we are publicly diminished.
Our meaning, our value, is as children of God, made in God’s image, brought to life - and sustained each day - by God’s everlasting love. Just that.
As we come to gather round the Lord’s table, let us then see ourselves in this way, as children of God, nothing more, nothing less, and receive from our infinitely generous God, who includes all people, all of creation, in the arms of his love.
Richard Young (Rector)