It isn’t often that we hear the voice of the really wicked person in the Hebrew Scriptures. Usually we hear the voice of God’s prophets or even God’s voice. So the reading from the Book of Wisdom that we hear this morning might be just a bit jarring. The wicked are plotting the death of a good person who, because of his goodness, is making them look bad.
The framers of the lectionary use this reading to introduce us to one of the passages in which Jesus tells his disciples of his forthcoming passion and death. Then, with remarkable irony, St. Mark tells us that the disciples have been discussing which of them is going to be regarded as the greatest. Mark brings the point home powerfully by contrasting Jesus’ shameful death with the apostles’ concern for glory and honor. This “reversal of fortune” theme is common to all the Gospels. If you want to be great, then you must be the least! If you want to be first, then you must be the last!
Introducing a child into the teaching makes it even more powerful. However, I have a feeling that Western readers will miss Mark’s point because we value our children so greatly and will do just about anything to make it possible for them not only to live but to thrive. Oh yes, there are the odd examples of parents who harm their children. However, the vast majority of parents consider their children their greatest treasure. This was simply not the case in the Middle East in the first century where and when parents chose not to get too close to their children until they reached maturity. The reason for this was quite simple; children often did not live to see adulthood. 30% of all infants died at birth or shortly thereafter. Of those who survived the first year, another 60% died before puberty. Disease and poor hygiene were the main culprits. Children were the most vulnerable members of society. Consequently, parents avoided getting too close to their younger children so that the unavoidable pain of losing a child would not be so hard to bear. When a son or daughter made it to puberty, their parents could breathe a little easier and hold their children a little closer.
The vulnerability of children was so pronounced that in times of famine, they waited until the adults were fed. In dangerous situations, the elders were the first to be protected. Before we think too badly of these people because of this attitude, we should remember that this thinking persisted even into the Middle Ages. Even Thomas Aquinas wrote that the children should be considered last when the family was in straits. Slaves ranked higher in the family hierarchy than minor children because their value was greater than that of young children whose lives might be snuffed out without warning by disease or accidents.
So when Jesus placed a child in their midst and tells them that when they welcome a child, they welcome him, they would have been shocked. How could Jesus put himself on a par with a child? It would have been considered cultural suicide to go to this extreme. Yet this is how Jesus demonstrates how they are to consider themselves. If you want to be great, then you must consider yourselves as insignificant as a child.
We live in what purports to be a Christian nation. Over and over again, I hear the slogan “Make America great again!” Jesus gives us the way to become great. Greatness will be ours when we make ourselves the least and when we protect the most vulnerable among us before considering our own needs. Therein lies true greatness, the greatness of a servant of God.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator