You may have noticed that so often, when Jesus really wants to get his disciples attention, he places a child in the midst of them — either literally or figuratively.
Think of his gentle rebuke to the disciples, when he is in the midst of blessing children: “…Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’”
Think of the time he admonishes his disciples as they bickered about who was greatest: He puts a child “in the midst of them, and says, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child…is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’”
Think of the time a child’s meal becomes a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?’ … Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated…” —about five thousand people.
And today, he concludes his commentary on discipleship with the vivid image of giving a child a drink of cold water.
Perhaps he learned this strategy — using a child to focus attention — from his father, who placed a baby — the infant Jesus — in our midst as way to get our attention.
That’s perhaps the best, and the worst, thing about children, isn’t it? There’s really no ignoring them. You know this all too well if you have listened to your own, or a neighbor’s, wailing baby. Or been near a squirmy little one at the movies or a fussy one on an airplane.
Kids can’t be ignored, sometimes to our dismay.
Even when no child is physically present, memories of our own childhood can shape us, haunt us, hold us in their grip. I suspect each one of us can remember vividly at least one youthful experience that could be considered formative: an undeserved punishment. An unexpected gift. An unanticipated loss. A mysterious encounter we may still struggle to make sense of. (Wouldn’t it be good to soften those difficult memories, or preserve those good ones, by giving them the emotional or spiritual equivalent of a cup of cold water?)
Jesus uses children not only to grab our attention, but also to help convey his message. In addition to the way they command, or demand, attention, children snap us out of our own adult bubble — sometimes, rather uncomfortably — and force us to confront things we might rather wish to ignore — for example, their dependence on us adults, and by the same token, their independence of thought. Their thoughts are not our thoughts, and our ways are not their ways. The two poles of dependence and independence, attachment and separation, shift and evolve and change day by day, year by year, as children develop and grow. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it’s back to the drawing board.
Here are a couple of things to consider about children — both those little ones, and, equally important, us as children of God.
To begin with, I suggest that the aphorism “children are the future” is not accurate. Children are in fact the present, and how we as individuals, as families, as a community of faith, as a nation, treat children says much about who we are, and how we are. If you want to get a sense of a particular society’s values, take a look at their children.
Children convey a history waiting to be told. A relationship with children offers us a chance to create our own legacy, in ways both large and small. And not only the legacy of our individual selves, but the enduring influence of the structures and systems we value. This happens in so many ways: through engagement in childhood education; through introducing children to the eternal wonders of museums, libraries, churches, parks, concerts. When we not only foster but engage in imaginative play, turning tables and sofas into castles and forts; including invisible friends in games and trips.
Today, Jesus sets in the midst of his disciples the idea, or perhaps the reality, of a child, or children. We can imagine everyone there as part of a crowd that is thirsty: perhaps hot, perhaps tired, perhaps even cranky. Yet all he asks is that we give a little one a cup of water. Minister to a child’s most elemental needs, in the name of Jesus.
Now I don’t mean to romanticize or idealize children, either the concept of them or their reality. But I do want to emphasize two of their most crucial spiritual qualities: they are vulnerable, and they are precious.
It is perhaps because of this — because of their vulnerability, and their preciousness — that children often appear in scripture as holy messengers. God knows how children can trigger in us a visceral, urgent desire for mercy, justice, and compassion.
Consider the ongoing refugee crisis. The situation gained a new level of attention and outrage when a photograph of a three-year-old boy’s lifeless body, washed up on shore of the Mediterranean Sea, made news. Likewise, news of a faraway famine becomes more real, more urgent, when we see the bloated belly, emaciated limbs, and empty eyes of a starving child.
Here I could cite a string of shocking statistics about the number of refugees under the age of 18; about child marriage; about children without access to healthcare or education; children who live in poverty, who face hunger daily, who are wounded or killed by gun violence…
But to what end? Would any of these appalling numbers or statistics be acceptable? Is there any child not worthy of a cup of the cold water of mercy, justice, and compassion?
If we fail children, we fail ourselves. If we fail children, we fail the God who risked everything to come to us as a little child: homeless, hungry, helpless. The holy child who as an adult said, with his dying breath, “I thirst.”