A CHILD AND A DOORMAT
Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, Mark 9:30-37
September 21, 1997 by Tad Mitsui
I have a book of traditional Swiss cuisine at home. It is a gorgeous book with pictures of many mouth-watering dishes. The front cover is a reproduction of an old painting of a rich medieval family at their dinner table. The mother and father sit at the head of the table. Four older boys sit on one side, four older girls on another side, and the youngest boys and girls are at the far end opposite their parents. The parents sit on the large padded chairs and are provided with all three kinds of cutlery on the silk covered trays. Obviously the parents were the most important members. Older children sit on wooden chairs, but only the boys have knives and forks. The older girls also sit on wooden chairs but have only knives. Finally, the little boys and girls, like the older girls, have only knives, but they don”t even have chairs. They stand at the end of the table. The girls and the little children, I guess, were expected to eat with their hands.
In various ways, the world has been ruled by the laws of the jungle. The old, the sick, the small, and the weak have been treated like doormats, left on the floor of the society to be trampled on, and in the end to be thrown away. Children, too, used to be treated like that like the Swiss family in the picture. It was a common practice in many cultures to see the best portion of dinner was always kept for the man of the house; women and children ate the left-overs.
We want to believe that today we treat children better. But I sometimes wonder. Today”s gospel reading still has a lot to tell us. Are we very different from those days? Remember what Jesus said, "Whoever welcomes a little child, welcomes me. This sounds like such a "nice" message, but I wonder if we”re really up to accepting, not just children, but all the weak and powerless in the way that Jesus was suggesting. It was a challenge that both the disciples and the early church struggled with.
One day, Jesus predicted the suffering and death that awaited him in Jerusalem. He had done that once before. It is quite clear that the disciples did not hear what Jesus had said, either time. The disciples completely misunderstood what Jesus meant. We must admit that, just like the disciples, we also do not hear what we do not want to hear. We hate bad news. As Jesus and his company travelled towards Jerusalem, their minds were fixed on one idea. Jerusalem was where their master would at last be recognized as the true messiah. He would take the throne of David as the king of the Jews. Their heads were swollen with the dream of sitting next to the king. They started to argue about who was more important than the other, and who would be closest to the seat of power. They had no idea that what Jesus had referred to as the kingdom was different from what they had in mind.
So, Jesus challenged their ideas about status and power. He picked up a little child and said, "Do you want to be great in my kingdom? Be like this child." A "child" represented a person with no power and a low status. Power or status means nothing in the world that Jesus had been speaking about. The kingdom of God is ruled by justice and love, not by money or power. The humble person like a little child would be the priority in God”s world. However, I have to caution against a romantic image of a child. As all parents know, children can be cruel, greedy, possessive, and selfish, just like any one of us. When we watch a few toddlers play together and fight over toys, we know that all of us are born with greed and selfishness.
By giving priority to a child, Jesus gave us two messages. First, we must treat any defenceless and helpless person as though each of them is Jesus Christ himself. Secondly, the most important person in the eyes of God can be like a child without any power or position. Many things that are important in this society have no consequence to God. Then, what is important to God?
I have a book by sociologist Rodney Stark that examines why the Christian Church grew so fast in the first few centuries. Though it was illegal to be a Christian at the time, the church grew from a group of a few hundred uneducated Jews into a great company of 33 million people from all classes and nationalities in the Mediterranean world. How did this happen? Stark”s book mentions a few interesting features of the early church that led to this rapid growth. Remember, Christianity was an illegal religion; they could not advertise and or hold public meetings. It was friends and relations telling others where to go to hear the good news, that spread the Gospel. One of the most intriguing phenomenon the book tells us about is how the attitude of the Christians towards sick people led to the rapid expansion of the church. During the first few centuries after Christ, several waves of the plague wiped out nearly a third of the population of Europe. It was during those spells of the plague that, curiously, the church grew faster. Why? Because Christians looked after the very sick, when it was the custom of the day to abandon those who were dying from a serious illness. Thus, the early Christians made their mark by looking after the weakest in society.
Bishop Dyonisius of North African, in his Easter letter during the plague of 260 A.D., gave a lengthy tribute to the heroic nursing efforts of local Christians, many of whom lost their lives while caring for others. But many people with the plague survived in the church, because they were lovingly cared for by fellow Christians. Seeing that the sick were looked after and survived better in the church, many people began to join the church to be saved. But it had not been the intention of the early Christians to bring in more members when they looked after the sick. Most of the sick people were beyond any hope of recovery. Many of the care-givers risked their lives or died while caring for them. And yet, the long term result of such devotion to the suffering people was a growing and lively community. The church grew, while the population was being decimated. A community ruled by the laws of the jungle, where the weak are treated like a doormat, may survive, but only marginally. But the community ruled by the laws of love, in the end, thrives.
You can judge the quality of a community by the way it treats its weakest member. In a caring society, no cost is spared for the disabled, the elderly, the sick, and the young. As Jesus said, "Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes me." But as we have seen this "nice" message is really revolutionary. It can upset the seating plan at the table of society in profound ways. Yet God”s message is such that we can only find our strength and power by caring for the weak and the powerless. In God”s kingdom, our place at the table depends on inviting the "children" to sit on our knees.