Two weeks ago I mentioned to you that, in Jesus’ culture, children had very little value to society. I made that statement in an explanation of Mark 9:30-37, the Gospel of the day. In that Gospel passage Jesus took a child, placed it in the midst of the disciples, and said, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)
Children were a marginalized class of society, and Jesus intended to shock the disciples by identifying with the marginalized. Although the disciples failed to understand the comparison, it was an expression of everything that Jesus had said and done in his ministry. He routinely reached out to lepers, sinners and outcasts in order to preach the Good News of reconciliation offered by God.
While children were valued very little in Jesus’ culture, there were some few things that adults saw as valuable in their children. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading we see a reference to one of those rare uses that Jesus’ culture had for children.
As I mentioned two weeks ago, young boys had little value until they were old enough to work, and young girls had little value until they were old enough to marry. The “little value” that children had was to spy on neighbors. As children didn’t count much they could roam freely in and out of the houses of neighbors; they were allowed even to enter into the private area of the house where no one was allowed except relatives. The free reign that children enjoyed in their play provided a certain advantage to their families; children could overhear private conversations, and report back to their parents.
Today, we worry about the NSA eavesdropping on our conversations. The same worry existed in Jesus’ culture, but it was based on a very low-tech threat: it was the neighbors’ children who were the eavesdroppers. For this reason, the disciples rebuked the people who had brought the children into the house. (Mark 10:13) The disciples were afraid that the neighbors might be trying to find something in Jesus’ private conversation that they could use against him.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading Jesus again behaves in a way that we tend to identify as the actions of a beloved uncle or favorite Little League coach, but our modern tendencies lead to misunderstanding the Scriptures. Jesus’ welcoming of the children crowding around the house of his host was an indication of fearlessness rather than affection or sentimentality. He was saying, by his actions, ‘I don’t care who hears what I have to say; I’m not afraid that someone might overhear what I say to my disciples in private.’
It was just as common in Jesus’ time to keep secrets as it is today. None of us want everyone to know everything that we think and say. Famous personalities are routinely shamed in the media when their inappropriate remarks made in private are published. The disciples tried to keep the children away from Jesus because they were afraid he would be misquoted.
Jesus, however, was not afraid. When he said, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them” (Mark 10:14), he was telling his disciples not to fear the spread of his preaching. He had made this same statement a little earlier, “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand? For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light.” (Mark 4:21-22)
Jesus had no fear about being overheard and quoted, precisely because he wanted as many people as possible to hear and understand his preaching. We, the disciples of Jesus, are responsible to continue the open, public proclamation of Jesus’ message of reconciliation.
Jesus’ society had some quirky ways of valuing people, but so does ours. Pope Francis has spoken numerous times about what he calls “throw-away culture.” Natural and manufactured resources are thrown away at an alarming rate; at the same time, there are an alarming number of people who lack the basic necessities of life. Even human life is treated as a “throw away” item; unemployment, unfair wage practices, discrimination, abortion, neglect and other injustices devalue human life to a scandalous degree. Our culture is no better at valuing people than Jesus’ culture was, and we believers have an obligation to speak against all injustice.
One of the primary means of opposing injustice is to live the just and righteous life described in the Scriptures. The Synod on the Family, which begins in Rome today, is an opportunity to renew our commitment to live as Jesus would have us live. The Synod doesn’t have the media appeal that Pope Francis’ visit to the United States had, but it is equally worthy of our attention.
The Synod on the Family will attempt to address a few issues raised fifty years ago at the Second Vatican Council, but left unresolved by the Council Fathers. Pope Francis has already given direction to the discussions that will be held this week. During his visit to the United States the Pope said, “Family is like a factory of hope.” The Pope provided us with a ready-made opportunity to give witness to the quirky, inadequate and sometimes scandalous way that our culture values human life. To make each family’s home a place where hope and forgiveness are produced on a predictable, repetitive basis, like a factory, proclaims Jesus’ message of Divine reconciliation offered to all.
Jesus was happy to be spied on while he was teaching his disciples about the Reign of God. He was quite content to be accused of preaching a message of reconciliation. Of all the things that we might be accused of, and of all the things that might be discovered about our lives, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be singled-out for making our families a public statement of hope and reconciliation?