No one is expendable!
This weekend, after a layoff because of the Covid-19 pandemic, our religious education classes are starting again, and our young people are returning. For this reason, I want to begin with the second part of today’s gospel—about children.
Let’s begin with a story. A family was seated in a restaurant. The server took the order from the adults, then turned to their young son. “What will you have, young man?” she asked. The boy replied, “I want a hot dog.” The mother then interrupted, “No hot dog. Give him the boneless chicken fillet, the mashed potatoes, some vegetables…” Ignoring her, the server turned to the boy. “Ketchup or mustard?” she asked. “Ketchup,” he replied, a happy smile on his face. “Comin’ right up,” the server said, returning to the kitchen. Among the adults at the table there was stunned silence. After a moment, the boy turned to his parents. “Know what?” he said. “She thinks I’m real.”
According to the gospel reading, Jesus also thought that children were real. You can imagine that things were pretty hectic, Jesus was teaching in different places, and the schedule was tight. So, perhaps to keep things moving, the Apostles tried to stop parents from bringing their children for special attention to Jesus. Jesus, the gospel tells us, became indignant when he found out what was happening. “Let the children come to me,” he says, “do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Then Jesus uses the children as an example of faith and discipleship: “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
Now, as we read this Scripture passage, we might think, what’s so extraordinary about that? Why wouldn’t Jesus love children? The truth of the matter is that children did not automatically have status in that society. Their personhood often seemed to grow with their age and their usefulness to family and society. Israel had a patriarchal society, so boys were typically wanted and treated better than girls. Marriages were arranged, often in such a way as to improve the status of a family.
So, what Jesus does is to raise the status of children by encouraging adults to imitate them in the way they could accept Jesus and his teaching: if you do not accept the kingdom of God like a child, you will not enter it.
Let’s not forget that Jesus did the same thing for the status and self-worth of the poor. In Matthew’s famous judgment scene, in which Jesus separates sheep from goats, he actually identifies himself with the poor and the marginalized: I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was naked, and you clothed me; I was ill or in prison, and you came to visit me. In a society that often considered poverty as a punishment for sin, and poor people as getting what they deserved, this was huge!
Now, let’s go back to the first part of the gospel which deals with a subject that, for many, is very painful: marriage and divorce. I urge you to read my bulletin column in which I deal with this issue in greater detail. One of the important points Jesus makes is that he goes back to the beginning. What was God’s original creative intention when he created the human race as male and female? Was it that relationships should break down and end up in heartache, both for the parents and their children? Did God intend that the family, the basic building block of society, should fall apart, destroying a sense of stability and peace? Of course not! But once sin entered the picture, God’s original intentions became marred, and incredible sadness entered the world.
When it comes to divorce, then, the Church walks a fine line. On the one hand we want to teach about the beauty and stability of marriage and help married couples to live up to it. And on the other hand, annulments are possible because human beings are in fact imperfect and often enter a relationship that, for one reason or another, has something crucial lacking and never becomes a lasting, life-long relationship.
But I want to point out something that is often overlooked in this gospel passage. According to the Law of Moses, only the husband could get a divorce by writing a divorce document stating his reasons for doing so. Quite often, the reasons were rather trivial, and as a result women were being treated like property rather than equal partners in a relationship. So, only a husband could get a divorce, yet listen to what Jesus says: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” No more whimsical, trivial patriarchal divorces! Men, treat your wives with the love and respect they deserve. But Jesus then goes on to state what in that society was impossible: “if she [the wife] divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” How do you like that? It may be about something less than ideal, but Jesus’ teaching elevates the status of women, as he had done with children and the poor. Women could now say, like the young boy in the restaurant, “Jesus think’s we’re real!” As one further example of this: who’s the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus? A woman, Mary Magdalene! The Church came to call her “the Apostle to the Apostles”—for Jesus, the Risen One, sends her to tell the Apostles the Good News.
So today’s gospel invites us to ask, who’s status needs protection today, in our time? Whom should I stop treating as if that person is expendable, nonessential or disposable? The gospel proposes looking at how we treat children, women, the poor and those who are different from us. For Jesus, no one is expendable; no one is beyond salvation. We need to hear that, and we need to examine our conscience if we really mean to be followers of Jesus.