This Sunday our lectionary readings are all about wisdom: wisdom as a housewife who makes her household prosperous; wisdom in those who immerse themselves in studying scripture; wisdom in those who seek to do good and make peace; and wisdom in the guise of a little child being appreciated and welcomed and valued.
At the time of our gospel reading from Mark in the first century of the common era, children were looked upon as potentially valuable in family economics. Children were an investment: expensive in terms of time, care, and nurture at the outset, but upon growing up they would become productive (at that time as soon as they entered their teen years or thereabouts). Infancy and early childhood were times of great danger for children, and many did not survive to age five—all the way up to my own parents’ generation. I used to tell my history students that the baby boomers in the industrialized world were the first generation to not regularly experience the death of siblings in childhood. Adolescence as a developmental condition was not even invented until near the 20th century, with the development of the sciences of psychology and psychiatry. For most of human history, you were a child (and relatively overlooked, expected to be “seen and not heard”); then somewhere around age 12 (earlier if your family was poor) —bam!—you were an adult and expected to start pulling your own weight in the household. Period.
Yet underestimating children and their acumen is a fool’s game. In the exhausting days of raising children, I and my friends would sometimes be startled by the wisdom that would come out of our children’s mouths. I am personally not allowed to tell any of these tales about my own children, but I remember some that I have come across elsewhere.
One six-year-old complained to her mom, “You keep telling me not to talk to strangers, but how am I supposed to make new friends?”
One kid of a particularly frazzled pair of parents had wanted to go to the playground for days. Finally he said, “If we do it now, we will never run out of time.” (I wrote that one into my phone.)
One little guy was having a hard time getting away from a kid who pinched and yelled at pre-school anytime she didn’t get her way, and yet he still kept trying to be her friend. “I know she has a hard time being nice. That’s why I will show her how,” he said.
And in a reminder, as if we needed one in these days, that we need MORE science education in elementary school, not less: “The early bird catches the worm,” a mom told her third-grade daughter who loved to be up at night, trying to get her to get up earlier. The daughter replied, “The night owl catches the mouse, and there’s more nutrition and calories in a mouse.”
One kindergartner would come home from school, and every day his dad would ask him how his day was. Every day, the little guy would proclaim it was a great day. Finally the dad asked him how every day was so great, and the little boy solemnly replied, “Because I decided it was going to be great.”
When Jesus places a little child in the midst of the disciples, and compares welcoming one of them to welcoming him, he is reminding us of several points of wisdom. Wisdom is never mere knowledge, but a way of living with kindness, compassion, mercy, and attention, as we see just from those wise remarks coming out of the mouths of babes. Wisdom is not discounting anyone based on their age or any other characteristic but realizing you can learn from anybody: even those who might be irritating can teach you patience and kindness. Wisdom is being open to seeing others not as potential competitors or “less-than,” but as fellow children of God. Wisdom is making time for taking care of yourself, as Jesus did when he would visit friends or go off for some prayer time alone.
The Wisdom of God is so important in ordering our lives that the Psalter begins by specifically naming wisdom as a blessing beyond all others. The reading from James reminds us of specific characteristics of those who cultivate and seek the wisdom of God: purity, peaceableness, gentleness, being willing to yield and not insist on your own way, merciful, productive, impartial, sincerity.
Welcoming little children—with all their joy and purity and sometimes noise—is the same as welcoming me, Jesus reminds us. That’s no small thing.
We could all use some more wisdom. And it often comes in the voice of a little one.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts prayers and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.