While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Like a Child
Our lesson from Mark is a classic: Jesus tells the disciples, who were arguing over which among them was the greatest, that they had to become like children in order to be first in God’s order of the world.
When we read this passage, we bring to it centuries of baggage that we should address if we want to understand what Jesus meant.
Childhood didn’t exist until three or four centuries ago. Obviously children have existed for as long as there have been humans but we didn’t used to think of that stage of human life as anything special.
The history of the development of childhood as an idea is fascinating
and goes back to the time of John Locke, a philosopher who suggested that babies came into the world as tabula rasa: a “blank slate” that needed to be filled. This led to all kinds of ideas, to the invention of children’s literature, to artists actually depicting children as children rather than tiny adults.
Then the Victorians got a hold of “childhood” and decked it out with ideas of innocence while at the same time forcing the children of the poor to be chimney sweeps and factory workers. Eventually all of this led to reforms that sent all children to school and changed our attitudes in ways that affect us to this day.
Jesus didn’t have all this baggage to carry; childhood in his culture was not what we know today. Being called a child ended at puberty. That’s still reflected in the custom of Jewish children celebrating their Bar or Bat Mitzvas at age 13 – a celebration of them entering the adult world. Children were loved and celebrated. They were a gift from God and a sign of God’s favour.
At the same time, their survival wasn’t guaranteed. That was one of the advantages of a large family; at least some of the children could survive into adulthood.
The Victorian idea of innocence was irrelevant. Most poor children for centuries lived in a single room with their parents, often in the same bed in colder climates. Sex was not a complete unknown, even if they didn’t really appreciate it until they were older, and death was well known to all ages, especially when medicine was so rare and healing was so hard to come by.
Children, then, were seen as small people with potential but without experience; people who would grow into life, who would eventually become responsible enough to care for their elderly parents.
They were valued but they were expected to learn from their elders
at every step of the way.
Think about that as we consider the question of leadership. The disciples were arguing about who was best. If they weren’t walking down the road I can just imagine them arm-wrestling for the title.
The child example of leadership comes from another perspective entirely. There is built-in vulnerability; the child isn’t big and strong; the child needs help, needs cooperation to get things done.
There is no expectation for a child to have all the answers. The leader who is modelled on the child acknowledges the need to consult, knows that they have a lot to learn and is prepared to be respectful of those with more experience. You might expect naiveté, but that’s not right because that culture didn’t expect children to be sheltered from the realities of life. Inexperience, sure but this isn’t a calling to ignorance, especially not that peculiar kind of holy ignorance that some generations of Christianity have labelled “purity”. In other passages we are called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We are expected to know what is going on and then choose not to do bad things.
Children can be much more honest about their feelings than many adults are. I don’t think Jesus was talking about that because it was less of a problem in those days. Adults were quite up front about their feelings and still are in many middle-eastern cultures. But just because Jesus wasn’t targeting that issue doesn’t mean that we can’t benefit from some lessons in emotional honesty in our current culture.
At the core of this lesson, though, is the contrast between the competing disciples and the child.
We have accepted self-promotion as an important thing in our consumer culture and these guys were actively putting themselves forward.
Jesus was offering them an image of leadership that included vulnerability, a willingness to learn and the idea of service.
Sometimes, as adults, we forget that a big part of childhood is being bossed around by grownups: parents, teachers, coaches, random adults who want you to stop making noise in front of their house. Everyone gets to boss kids around and kids, if they’re lucky, might get to give orders to the dog or possibly younger siblings.
That’s not our image of leadership. The idea of being in charge carries with it the expectation that others will follow your orders. But Jesus pulls the carpet out from under that image. Jesus wants those who lead to be the servants of all.
That’s an image we have tried to develop over the ages with varying levels of success. Certainly, we talk about it in the church and apply it to ministers. But Jesus was offering this as a new way of living for all areas of life as a contrast to the power-based image of leadership; the image of boss that creates the word “bossy”; the structure of society that allows leaders to be abusive, that makes a “me too” movement necessary.
Jesus challenged our basic assumptions of human relationships and structures. He challenged us to choose to do things differently; to live in ways that heal and build.
So that’s why we are to lead with the image of children in mind: acknowledging our vulnerability, willing to learn and to respect the experience of others and resisting the temptation to become bossy, but accepting the role of servant of all.
Society is still having a hard time accepting this image, even after 2000 years. But after a particularly bossy leader we saw down south in recent years, I think this teaching of Jesus is more important than ever.