Where True Honor Is Found
sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."John J. Pilch offers some interesting cultural notes on the role of children in the time of Jesus:
In antiquity, childhood was a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent of live births. Sixty percent were dead by the age of sixteen. These figures reflect not only the ravages of unconquered diseases but also the outcomes of poor hygiene.
Moreover, while Western cultures tend to place children first and risk everything to save the child above all, ancient Middle Eastern cultures would place the child last. The medieval Mediterranean theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that in a raging fire a husband was obliged to save his father first. then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his young child. When a famine came upon the land, children would he fed last, after the adults. Such priorities are still common in many non-Western cultures.
Within the family and the community, the child had next to no status. A minor child was considered equal to a slave. Only after reaching maturity did a child become a free person with rights to inherit the family estate. When Jesus compares his adult compatriots to children who do not know how to respond to cultural cues (Matt 11:16-19), he effectively insults them....This does not mean that children were not loved or appreciated. Mediterranean discipline fuses love with violence as parents explain: “We only do this because we love them.” Even God disciplines “him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Prov 3:11-12).
Children are loved because they provide “social security” for parents. Obviously if they survive to adulthood, they also assure family continuity. Children are so greatly desired in the family that a wife will never be fully accepted into the patriarchal family setting until she bears a child, preferably a son. The emotional bond between that son and his mother is the strongest of all ties in the typical Mediterranean family.
By asking the disciples to extend hospitality (“to welcome”) a child, a creature of low status in their culture, Jesus further shames these grown men. Hospitality is extended to complete strangers to guarantee safe transit in unfamiliar and hostile territory. To extend hospitality to children (“to welcome them”) would be a laugh to everyone else in the culture. Further, though guests are not expected to reciprocate hospitality, they are expected to broadcast the kindness of the host far and wide, thus extending his honorable reputation. Unpredictable children couldn’t be counted upon to do that, so why bother?
Jesus teaches that life is full of surprises. True honor can be found in the most unlikely places.
Labels: Gospel reading