When I was growing up, there was a picture that hung in the Sunday School rooms. I’m sure you’ve seen the picture. It showed a blond, blue-eyed Jesus, with several children around him. If my memory serves, many of the children were also blond. There was a hint of a city wall in the background, probably supposed to be Jerusalem. Jesus was smiling, and all the children were smiling.
I say I’m sure you’ve seen the picture, because it was hanging in the Sunday School rooms at churches where I have served as rector. I haven’t seen it here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it had hung here at some point.
When we hear this passage from Mark we probably picture something like that painting. Jesus takes a clean, well-groomed, well-behaved child, and sets it in the midst of his disciples. It is a fascinating aspect of modern culture that we have idealized, and even idyll-ized childhood. Our picture of the nuclear family with the children gathered around the table is a quite recent occurrence.
My trips to Africa have disabused me of that picture of Jesus with the little children gathered around. Childhood in Africa probably bears more resemblance to childhood in Jesus’ time than our modern picture. In South Sudan, the childhood mortality rate is about 50% before 5 years old. Parents don’t invest a lot of emotional energy in their children until they have some confidence that the child will live past infancy.
Most children in South Sunday weren’t really named until they had lived several years. They might be called by the day of the week on which they were born. Sometimes that name stuck with them even after their official naming ceremony and baptism. We met Bishop Monday of the Diocese of Mundri. Or they might be named for a particular trait. One of my favorite people in South Sudan is called Manyagugu, which means, “Walks with a limp.” At his baptism, he was named Darius, but few people call him that. And, he no longer walks with a limp. That was a childhood thing.
Everywhere we went, there was a constantly moving sea of children, and because we were white, and therefore really interesting, that knee-high sea was always moving around us, raising dust. Parents were nowhere in sight. And the children were without exception dirty. I suspect they got baths once a week if lucky – water was so scarce. And their clothes were nearly always in tatters. Infants too young to walk would be carried by an older sibling, or simply left to sit on the ground and cry until an adult could be bothered to intervene. Any nearby adult had permission to discipline the whole roiling mess of children, sometimes with a switch.
It is one such as these that Jesus sets in the middle of his disciple and takes in his arms. I have to confess I would have never taken any of those children in Africa in my arms. Their clothes were always dirty, and who knew with what. Jesus’ action would have shocked his disciples: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. That would have turned their world of expectations and what they thought they knew of God on its head.
In his letter, James talks about the wisdom from above, and how unlike the wisdom of the world it is. Following the wisdom from above will not help you get ahead in this world. We leave out some verse in our reading from James. In them he says, “Adulterers! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” And his analysis of the conflicts among us is spot-on. We want what we don’t have, and it leads to jealousy and strife.
I recoil a little bit when I read, “You want something and you don’t have it, so you commit murder.” None of us is likely to have ever committed murder. But then I think about how we collectively behave in the world. I have a cousin who is a chocolatier. He has to be very careful where he buys his cocoa. Much of the cocoa we use in this country comes from Africa, and a lot of the cacao beans are harvested by child labor, even amounting to slavery. Many children die in the process.
Ghana has nationalized its cacao forests, and processes its own cocoa. Even so, most of the harvesters (adults) have never tasted the chocolate made from the beans they harvest. Something as simple as chocolate, we want it and we don’t have it, so we buy it cheaply, and participate in systems that are destructive. If we read James just personally, we are likely to say, “Not me! Never!” but if we broaden the scope, we can see he is speaking the truth.
Both Jesus and James hold up to our attention a different kind of wisdom. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first of all must be last of all and servant of all.” This kind of thinking is going to be costly. We will be living at cross purposes to our society and our economy, which suggest that we should have what we want.
Many were expecting a Messiah, who would put things to rights. Israel had been subjugated to one empire after another, and was under the boot of Rome. Surely the Messiah would set Israel back on the throne, and extend its justice throughout the world, paying back all those who had harmed it. That’s why the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. Instead, Jesus is holding up a picture of a very different kind of Messiah, one who would suffer and die.
The Christian genius was to see in that suffering and death, and God’s acceptance of it in the resurrection and ascension, the self-giving love of God. God was not going to set things to rights by smiting our enemies, but entering the world with a different kind of wisdom, a wisdom that would embrace a little urchin and suggest to us that we should do the same. If that were to happen, the world would indeed be set to rights.
We live in hope of that kingdom, practicing its wisdom here and now to the astonishment of the rest of the world.