It was fitting that God, for Whom and through Whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the Pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2.10)
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10.15)
Ethel Covington, my grade-school librarian, remains one of my greatest heroes. She had an impeccable flair that brought great joy to instilling in us the wonders of literature. Her library was the friendliest, safest, most adventurous place on earth and it often rang with her laughter as she roamed its premises to find out what we were reading. Miss Covington adored Dickens and firmly believed he was essential reading for young people, since many of his tales revolved around the plight of children. I trust there are still librarians who share her conviction, although I tend to doubt it. We now live in an age that romanticizes childhood as a blissful state of innocence—a world that bears not the slightest resemblance to Dickens’ universe. Consistently, in Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and other novels, children are at the mercy of a greedy, unstable society that views them as liabilities. They’re tossed from pillar to post, vulnerable to the connivances of vile criminals and callous bureaucrats, forced to hang on by the slenderest of threads. Of course, Dickens’ genius rested on his ability to countermand the evil arrayed against them with improbable twists of fate. But he never let his readers forget these lucky children were exceptions to the rule.
To be a child during England’s Industrial Revolution was to suffer tremendous hardship—to be abandoned, exploited, and ignored, to cause more grief by living than by doing everyone the favor of, in Scrooge’s infamous words, dying and decreasing the surplus population. We find such attitudes appalling now. But when Dickens wrote, less than two centuries ago, not much had changed since the time of Christ. And if we’re to grasp the import of Sunday’s readings, we first must recognize the “children” they mention are not the precious tykes we coo over and coddle. They’re the most useless, needy members of society. Until they’re old enough to pull their weight, they’re huge burdens to their families and communities, and their premature deaths are often greeted with sighs of relief, not inconsolable mourning.
While Mark is the slimmest and oldest gospel, in many ways it’s the most “modern.” The writer’s mastery of juxtaposition constantly invites us to read between the lines, detecting richer meaning in the tightly scripted passages by noting how and where they’re placed. In Sunday’s selection (Mark 10.2-16), we revisit one of his most beloved passages and see how this works. When parents bring their children to Jesus, the disciples speak “sternly” to them, the suggestion being that these little ones are unworthy of Jesus’s attention. But Jesus is “indignant” and tells the disciples, “Let the little children come to Me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that kingdom of God belongs.” (v14) By itself, this episode conveys a lovely, atypical sentiment for Jesus’s time. And verse 14 is often used in our day in a sentimental way, e.g., “Jesus loves the little children of the world.” But the power of Jesus’s words can’t be fully extracted without including the text immediately preceding them.
The Pharisees come to Jesus with another of their religiously and politically charged questions—in this case, the legitimacy of divorce. In their culture, marriages are contractual affairs that deed women to men as property by which they ensure the family line. Ideally, love would bind husband and wife together, creating a nurturing environment for marital offspring. But since marriages are typically negotiated long before the partners reach maturity, common assumptions we make about them—romance, sexual attraction, and compatibility—are off the table. Naturally, this leads to a lot of unhappy unions. Jesus cites a loophole given by Moses, permitting “a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” (v4) He instantly rebuts the law, saying Moses allowed it “because of your hardness of heart.”
Jesus isn’t interested in splitting legal hairs. He wants to talk about faithfulness reflected in a lifelong commitment. Later, with the disciples, He’s more frank, saying anyone who divorces a spouse for another commits adultery, a sin punishable by death. These are very strong words, and we’re wise to contemplate the gravity that provokes them. Jesus reviles divorce and remarriage as a disruption of divine order, a sin that effectively creates widows, widowers, and orphans by disowning one household for another. The Greek word He uses for “adultery” carries overtones indicating those who abandon spouses and children for other partners and offspring “usurp unlawful control.” In their neglect, they take it upon themselves to destroy lives entrusted to them. Such decisions are not theirs to make, Jesus says. Then we read on, where the disciples do the very thing that Jesus just told them to avoid: they turn parents and little children away. Is it any wonder Jesus is indignant?
Where Are We?
One of the assets—and liabilities—of Mark’s compact style is that it provides enough low-hanging fruit to satisfy every taste. As I studied this weekend’s passage, I easily imagined preachers cherry-picking favorite portions without bothering to shake the whole tree. Many will focus on the wonders of childhood, no matter that ancient childhood—as in Dickens—is far from wonderful. They’ll equate entering God’s kingdom with naïve trust, rather than the suffering and hardships that childhood presents to Jesus’s listeners. Others will capture the vulnerabilities of youth and extrapolate a message of compassion for the “little ones”—the undervalued and oppressed—a note that Mark consistently strikes throughout his gospel. Finally, many will no doubt reach for Jesus’s remarks on marriage with the same enthusiasm that provoked the Pharisees to broach the subject: to validate obsolete laws that promote inequality and the convenience of dismissing anyone who doesn’t meet with their liking. Personally, I struggle with how such a reading is justifiable, as this passage stresses the radical inclusion central to Christ’s Gospel. Nonetheless, it’s there for the taking, if one so chooses.
Yet as I looked at Mark, I kept asking, “Where are we in this passage?” Are we reckless spouses who shirk our responsibilities to pursue something we want so badly we’ll sacrifice anything to get it? Many times we are. Are we spiritual adulterers who usurp unlawful control of God’s kingdom and disrupt God’s plan? It’s possible. Are we disciples who take it upon ourselves to decide who is or isn’t worthy of Christ’s attention? Sadly, we do that too. Still, something inside me wouldn’t settle for quick reduction of so complex a text, or the ready-made guilt of human failure. There had to be more in this than first meets the eye and Sunday’s New Testament offering brought it to light.
In Hebrews 2.10 we read, “It was fitting that God, for Whom and through Whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the Pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” We are God’s children and we will suffer the outrages of abandonment and abuse. People will disown us in favor of others. Some will use archaic laws to legitimize their scorn and neglect. And—if not literally, spiritually—some would prefer we die and decrease the surplus population, rather than burden them with our needs and longings. But each of us, regardless of who we are and how we’re made, are being brought to glory through Christ, the Pioneer Who made perfect our salvation through taking on our sufferings. He is our Leader, faithful beyond measure and wedded to us for life. It’s not about the villains. It’s all about the Victor Who says, “Let the little children come to Me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that kingdom of God belongs,” adding this assurance: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (v15) The Child Who is the Christ welcomes us to God’s kingdom. May we receive this divine invitation with a whole-hearted “I do!”