Historical Culture Context
In antiquity, childhood was a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached thirty percent of live births. Sometimes 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 be 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 (Mt 11:16-19), he effectively insults them.
Proverbs and Sirach exhort fathers to punish sons physically because they are considered basically evil and need strong correction if the father does not want to suffer neglect and abuse later in life (Prov 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15, 17, 19; Sir 30:1-13).
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.
Against this background, Jesus’ statements in today’s Gospel take on fresh meaning. In Mark 9:30-32, Jesus for the second time speaks to his disciples of impending betrayal, death, and return to life. Mark notes that they did not understand, and very likely they could not understand the combination of all these elements in a single statement.
There is no difficulty understanding betrayal leading to death. In the Mediterranean world, one would try to thwart such a plan but if that were impossible, the honorable person would strive to die in manly fashion. Rising to new life muddies the picture. Yet the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus for enlightenment.
Honor in a Faction
Since Jesus’ announcement has to do with his honor, it is no surprise that the disciples engage in a squabble over their honor in his group. The surprise again is Jesus’ response to their squabble. Jesus’ question is superfluous. No one whispers in this culture, and squabbles over honor would be quite vociferous. To pose the question bluntly as Jesus does is his first move in shaming the disciples. But Jesus doesn’t stop there.
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.
John J. Pilch