Last Sunday, as I was locking up the building, I heard some voices down at the end of the hall in the education wing. I went to investigate. It was the middle school /youth class meeting. I joined them for a few minutes. They were talking about the service, my sermon and the bible readings. One of the kids had a good question for me. They wondered why I usually preach on the gospel and don’t talk about the other texts. It’s an easy answer. Our job as preachers is to preach the gospel. I don’t always do that, of course. Last summer, for example, I preached a number of sermons on Paul’s letter to the Romans, and earlier this summer, I preached on the texts from the Hebrew Bible, as we were reading the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David. But for the most part, I do preach on the gospel reading for the day.
That being said, there are Sundays when the lectionary readings present particular problems. They may be confusing or troubling. They may even be offensive. That’s certainly a possibility with today’s reading from Proverbs, and I would consider myself irresponsible if I didn’t say at least a little bit about this text, which purports to be the description of the ideal wife. A couple of things to point out. First, the context. We’re reading it this week because traditionally, Proverbs has been attributed to King Solomon, and so it’s an extension of the narrative thread we’ve been following all summer. Proverbs, like Job and Ecclesiastes, belongs to a type of biblical literature called wisdom literature. What characterizes this type is its focus on deriving rules from life by observation of the world and nature. It’s not particularly interested in key biblical themes like law or covenant, and doesn’t usually address or reflect on God’s mighty acts in history. Proverbs, and much other Wisdom literature presumes that the social order and the world make sense, that we can find our place in life and that if we cultivate the virtues, live well, we will have a good and prosperous life.
Today’s passage seems to be, and has been often used, as a depiction of the ideal wife and that interpretation has had both positive and negative effects. Perhaps some of you bristled as you listened to the words of praise for a woman who gets up while it is still dark to prepare meals for the household, who works day and night, not only within the home, but buying fields, selling the cloth she’s made and doesn’t eat the bread of idleness. I would point out that the image presented here is of a wealthy, aristocratic, noble, perhaps even royal wife. She has a certain amount of independence and entrepeneurial skills. But’s it’s worth noting that what our version translates as “A capable wife who can find?” could also be translated, “woman of valor” or even a woman with “warrior strength.”
Yes, it’s a patriarchal text, the product of an ancient historical context very far removed from our own day. Texts like this one have been held up as models for women, and too often used to subjugate and oppress them. The gospel reading offers a powerful challenge to the regulated order of the world of Proverbs. Of course, it too comes from a patriarchal, and hierarchical historical context, the world of first-century Palestine, in which Rome’s raw power dominated and subjugated everyone, exploiting the land and its people.
Our gospel today is the second of the three predictions of the passion that I mentioned last time and we see condensed here the pattern of prediction, disciples’ cluelessness, and Jesus’ teaching about discipleship. They’re in Galilee now and as they go, Jesus announces his intention to go to Jerusalem where he’ll be arrested, killed, and rise from the dead. The disciples have no idea what he’s talking about and Mark tells us that they were afraid to ask.
But that’s not the worst of it. When they arrive at their destination, Jesus asks them what they were arguing about as they walked. Embarassed, they remain silent. In that silence, Jesus words compound their embarassment, “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.”
We’ve turned Jesus’ words here into sentimentality and sweetness but it’s important to remember that like the words about the woman of valor in Proverbs, these words of Jesus were spoken in a very different cultural context. Childhood was not the innocent, protected stage of life that we imagine for our children or grandchildren. In the ancient world, children were the future—they would provide for the parents when they got old and infirm; when they got older, they would become valuable economically to the household. But when they were young, they were liabilities, another mouth to feed, and much more likely to succumb to illness. In the Roman judicial system, adult children who were unmarried remained under the power and authority of the head of household, completely dependent on him. Still, children were not slaves. They were, as one commentator put it, “insiders left on the outside.”
It’s not just that Jesus commends them. He welcomes them. We might not understand how radical his actions and words were. In this rigidly stratified society, in a house where he was likely a visitor, Jesus picked up a child, placed her in his arms, and welcomed her into their midst. No doubt the host, who had welcomed Jesus and the twelve was mortified. But the words that come next were words of reassurance: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”
These words resonate, and challenge, on so many levels. Do we welcome children? I’m sure no one would answer that question with no. We want our congregation to be vibrant, multi-generational, to have a thriving Christian formation program and young children learning about Jesus. But how often do we cast a disapproving glance when a child is a bit too noisy during worship?
We welcome children, but at the same time, we live in a city and community where too many of our children live in poverty, where our schools struggle. We live in a city where the shelters for families turn away more people each night than they house. We live in a city where single mothers with children, who don’t have shelter who are turned away for shelter receive $400 tickets if they’re discovered by police. We live in a city where every night the only shelters available for families, turn away more people than they serve.
We welcome children, but we all have seen the images of refugees fleeing the violence and war and languishing in train stations and no-man’s lands, pushed from one country to the next, or die on their flight to safety.
We live in a state, a nation, where political and cultural rhetoric wants to punish and stigmatize those who need our assistance, where our care and concern for lives don’t extend beyond the womb, to either the mother or her child.
When we welcome children, we welcome Jesus and the one who sent him. When we take children into our arms, when we offer them safety, shelter, food, healthcare, and the possibility of a fulfilling life, then we welcome Jesus.