Becoming as a child

Pentecost 19

Mark 10.13-16  St Francis’ Day

Marian Free

In the name of God, Creator Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

What is it about children? Mark has used a child as an illustration three times now. A child is used to confront the disciples’ ideas of grandeur. The disciples are urged not to do anything that would hurt the faith of “these little ones” and today’s gospel suggests that unless the disciples welcome the kingdom of God as a little child, they will not enter it. It seems that Jesus is using the example of a child to confront the arrogance of the disciples, to emphasise their responsibility towards the vulnerable and to teach them how to accept God’s gifts to them.

From a twentieth century standpoint the obvious conclusion from today’s gospel is that Jesus is encouraging us to re-capture the wide-eyed innocence of our childhoods, to be open to the mystery and wonder of the kingdom rather than approaching it with jaded and cautious minds. There may be some element of this in what Jesus is saying, but given the unwarranted self-assurance of the disciples, their competition with each other and their desire to exclude others from their number, it is more likely that Jesus is referring to the lack of social status and the dependence of children.

According to the rabbinic tradition children were a waste of time – like drinking too much wine or associating with the ignorant. One saying reads: “Morning sleep and midday wine and children’s talk and sitting in the meeting houses of the people of the land put a person out of the world (M Abot 3:11). Children were not only a waste of time, but they were owed nothing. A child had no claim on anyone and could have no expectation that they deserved anything from anyone – including their parents. If they were treated well it was due to the love and generosity of their parents, but no expectations or obligations were placed on parents.  Children were completely dependent on the adults in their lives and good treatment was a matter of luck rather than a right. As a consequence, anything good that a child experienced or was given was received as a gift which they had done nothing to warrant.

Even in today’s world in which children are generally valued and in which their rights are enshrined in law, a child is still dependent on the adults in their lives for the quality of their care, for affection, for food, clothing and shelter, for education and medical care. Most of us spend our lives trying to escape this sort of dependence on others and few would make dependence rather than independence a life’s goal.

Yet it is precisely this that Jesus is recommending to his self-absorbed disciples. He is reminding them that they should understand that entry into the kingdom is not a right or something that they should take for granted. Entry into the kingdom of God is not earned by proving that they are better than one another. It is not the role of the disciples of Jesus to determine who is in and who is out. Instead, they need to adopt the position of children to their parents and understand that they completely dependent on God’s love and mercy and that everything that they receive is a gift that is unrelated to anything that they do or do not do.

For many, including Jesus’ disciples, the gift of God’s undeserved grace is almost impossible to accept. It is easier to think that there must be some sort of entrance criteria for membership in the kingdom, that only those who behave in a certain way or achieve a certain standard can earn the right to enter into the Kingdom of God. It is difficult to accept that those who are least worthy, those who have no legal status or right are not only welcome in the kingdom, but show the rest of us how to graciously receive God’s free gift.

Such was the problem that faced Francis in the thirteenth century. Francis was born in Assisi in 1188, the eldest son of a wealthy textile merchant. He, like many wealthy young men of his day lived a dissolute sort of life spending his Father’s money on fine clothing and on carousing and drinking with his friends. In a time of inter-city wars and rivalry, Francis had dreams of grandeur of becoming a military hero – a knight who would win the heart of a fair lady.  An opportunity came for him to join the forces of Prince of Taranto and to fight for the Pope in the south of Italy. He told his brothers that he would return a knight. However, within a day he had returned home having heard a voice from God. Once home, having no clear sense of what God intended for him, he returned to his former lifestyle, though it held none of the attraction that it had had before.

Gradually, Francis changed his life. He became more and more concerned for the poor, more and more determined that he should share the poverty of Christ, and more and more determined to give up his extravagant lifestyle and embrace a life of prayer. At first Francis remained at home, living more simply and giving generously to those in need. He showed compassion to all and especially to those suffering from leprosy who were not only destitute, but who were also excluded from society because of their disease.  Eventually Francis gave up all his wealth, renounced his inheritance and adopted a simple life in the countryside around his hometown. He wore a robe in the shape of a cross and in warm weather and cold wore only sandals on his feet. Like a beggar he became completely dependent on the goodness of others. Like the disciples of Jesus he went from town to town proclaiming the gospel of Jesus.

In time he was joined by others, who like him had become aware of the hollowness of their lives.  Despite this Francis was haunted by a sense of his sinfulness. How could he possibly be worthy of the Kingdom? On one occasion when he was oppressed with grief and worry, he had a vision of Jesus weighed down by the cross struggling up the hill of Calvary and he remembered the words of the fourth Gospel: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He understood at once that it was not anything that he had done, but that it was what God had done that had secured his entry into the kingdom. At that point he knew that he didn’t have to compete with others, to achieve a certain standard or to be part of the in-group. He simply had to accept what God had done in Christ and to allow himself to be completely dependent on God’s mercy.

This simple, child-like trust in God determined the remainder of Francis’ life. He was able to let go of his need to be in control and to place his life in God’s hands. He finally understood his total dependence on God’s mercy, his need to receive the kingdom of God as a child.

In our individualistic, achievement driven world, the idea that child-like dependence is something to be valued is utterly incomprehensible. And yet, Jesus tells us that dependence is the very criterion that entrance into the Kingdom of God demands. God who owes us nothing has given us everything. The gift of the Kingdom is ours for the taking. All that we have to do is to swallow our pride, let go of our independence and gratefully reach out our hands to receive what is offered.

 

 

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