Deuteronomy 31: 1-8
Matthew 18: 1-5, 10, 12-14
Jesus of Nazareth was a product of a peasant agrarian culture that flourished in the villages of Galilee two thousand years ago. Like all his friends and neighbors he was a member of an extended family. These families were headed by a patriarch or more rarely a matriarch and included many adults and children. Often these families were almost tribal in size. Married couples within the group expected their children to be raised by the community. And children became part of the village work force at a tender age. So when Jesus entered a village to preach and heal the sick, he could expect the crowd who gathered to include the local children. They were very much a part of the village landscape and looked forward to the arrival of itinerant rabbis and wonder workers as a modern child might a circus coming to town. During Jesus’ visit they mingled with the crowd, played together on its fringes, listened to his teaching and marveled as he healed the sick. Jesus was used to the presence of children at these times and expected them to be there. He often used children as illustrations of his message and I suspect there were many more instances of his doing so than the evangelists recorded.
Today’s gospel is a good example of how Jesus incorporated children in his startling message of good news. In this passage from Matthew he warns his listeners, “Unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” the redeemed life that is available to those who love God and desire the peace and spiritual integration that such a relationship provides. Then he tells them they must change their way of living. Calling one of the village children to him he says, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Whoever discovers the dynamic of one’s relationship with God—dependence as an infant or small child is dependent on a parent for protection, nurture and guidance. Jesus was not speaking of childishness, a behavior and way of living all too common in many adults who always seek the spotlight and who act as if life is all about themselves. Their narcissism is idolatry and places them far from the ideal state of perfection Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven. The key is humility, a humility grounded on dependence on God.
When Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes me,” he is not speaking literally about children but about men and women who have been able to return to this original relationship with God a child has with a parent. To find our way to the resurrected life Jesus offers we must acknowledge our need for God. But in using children in his message Jesus may have intended a much broader teaching. What I think he was also saying was look to little children and their approach to life to recapture a spiritual world of wonder we have lost.
If people recognize the name of Bronson Alcott today, we probably remember him primarily for being the father of Louisa May Alcott and having had a home in nearby Concord. If we know more about him we associate him with Transcendentalism, and as the promoter of utopian living schemes, a philosopher whose prodigality caused him continual struggle to support his wife and children. What most don’t know about him was his innovative and revolutionary educational work with children. Of humble origin and with little formal education himself, as a young man Alcott taught at a number of district schools in Connecticut. In his teaching he rejected the commonly held teaching theory of breaking the will and subduing the child with a regimen of rote learning. Instead he treated his pupils as friends and in the classroom he did not act as though he were the only source of knowledge. He believed the thoughts of children could also be instructive. Rather than drilling farm children on weights and measures, he asked them for views on their souls. Furthermore, he eschewed corporal punishment. If a child acted out, Alcott said the fault lay chiefly with the teacher who had not inspired the child and asked the miscreant to apply the ferule to him. Alcott’s classes were orderly. He encouraged play and his classroom contained both boys and girls. Though his methods flew in the face of standard practice, Alcott quickly gained a reputation as one of the nation’s most inspiring teachers. Wealthy reformers lured him to Boston where he established the Temple School in 1827. Socially and intellectually prominent families were quick to enroll their children.
Alcott’s associates, Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller took verbatim notes of his “conversations” with children, his chief method of teaching. He would propose a subject and draw out the children’s views. The young scholars ranged in age from six to twelve years. As was true of all primary education in America that that time, the curriculum of the Temple School had a marked moral or religious tone. For example, Alcott might start a “conversation” by asking what is meant by Judgment Day and then each child would take a few minutes to reflect and respond. Emerson, who met Alcott in 1835, sat in on one of these classes. He was stunned by what he heard. “I watched the gradual dawn of thought upon the minds of all, that to truth is not age or season. The child perceives as if there is no more child. Age, sex are nothing.” In these “conversations” the children were able to say whatever was on their minds without fear of ridicule.
One day Alcott asked the class, “Can you say to yourself, I can remove this mountain.” Six year old Josiah Quincy, who would one day become mayor of Boston, burst out, “Yes, Mr. Alcott. I do not mean with my body I can. I know I can’t lift up a mountain with my hand, but I can feel and know that my conscience is greater than the mountain, for it can feel and do and the mountain cannot. There is the mountain, there. It was made and that’s all. But my conscience can grow. It is the same kind of spirit as made the mountain be, in the first place. I do not know what it may be and do. The body is a mountain and the spirit says be moved and it is moved to another place. Mr. Alcott, we think too much about clay. We should think of spirit. I am spirit not clay. I should think a mother now would love her baby’s spirit; and suppose it should die, that is only the spirit bursting away out of the body. It is alive, it is perfectly happy; I really do not know why people mourn when their friends die. I think it should be a matter of rejoicing. . . .I cannot see why people mourn for bodies.”
Encouraged by visitors’ responses, Alcott published Conversations with Children on the Gospels in 1836. Alcott himself did not support organized religion, nor was he a believer in the divinity of Jesus, but he did revere the Gospels as profound moral teaching. The book produced a immediate storm of outrage. His critics charged, not only was he asking children to air ideas on religion, but that he encouraged them to discuss birth and such terms as “conceived,” “seed” and “flesh” appalled the clergy. They accused him of corrupting the purity of children. Parents withdrew their children and the Temple School soon failed.
I have often wondered if Charles Grafton, one of the founders of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, was once one of Alcott’s scholars. He grew up in Boston while the school flourished and was the scion of a prominent family, but he may have been too young to have had Alcott for a teacher. Perhaps his older brothers attended instead and brought home its richness. Later, as rector of the Church of the Advent for sixteen years Grafton’s ideas for Christian education for children were remarkably similar to those of Alcott. The Hunnewell Room now used as a library at the parish was its original Sunday School room. Built a few years after Grafton had left the Advent and become a bishop, it nonetheless reflected his educational philosophy. During Father Grafton’s day Sunday School was taught to adults and children together. There was no discrimination by age. Furthermore, the instruction he offered was not Christianity lite, and all who attended were encouraged to respond to the gospel stories. The modern day practice of separate sermons for children would have been anathema to him.
I tell you this because I believe Jesus is giving us a double message in this gospel. Respond to God as little children dependent on the care and protection of a parent. But also recapture the sense of wonder children have in matters of spirituality. And, it is equally important, in matters of spirituality, to listen to children. Do not discount as valueless what they have to say. Take them and their comments on spirituality seriously. Assume responsibility for their spiritual training. Let it begin at home. Then let them guide you back to wonder, to the sense of spiritual awe we have lost.
D. H. Lawrence claimed that each individual is born with six senses, not five. In addition to hearing, taste, touch, vision and smell, we also have a sense of wonder. This is our spiritual sense. If you have ever witnessed a child’s attention interrupted by the flight of a bumblebee or mesmerized by the beauty of a flower you have seen the child’s sense of wonder in action, how it moved the individual to another realm of time, holy time. Or if you have ever had the privilege of watching children receive the Eucharist, that experience is enough to convince you they have an understanding of the sacramental mystery as profound as any adult. Recapturing this sense of wonder that children have will open us to joy, to grace, to love, to a passionate appreciation of the world around us, to God centered living that is the Kingdom of Heaven.
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