Today’s readings largely focus on the union of men and women, commonly known as marriage, beginning with the charming but
profound parable from Genesis and culminating with Jesus’ obstinate objection to divorce. But this is not his last word in this chapter of Mark’s gospel, which turns his gaze on children— who are not mentioned in the Genesis account.
The author of this section of Genesis cleverly explains the equality of the sexes in his tale of the creation of Eve from one of Adam’s ribs, surgically removed while he was under mercifully divine sedation. Unlike the animals he has just named, Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” part of a whole on an entirely different plane from the rest of creation. (I remember well how an earnest friend once explained to me that this is the reason why women have one more rib than do men, a curious and badly mistaken bit of literalism. Normally, every human being has 24 ribs, although there are rare congenital exceptions which are not gender specific. That bit of information should amuse your friends and confuse your enemies should the occasion arise, but let that pass.)
The addition of the incident of the children swarming Jesus is considered by many scholars to be merely adventitious. Liturgically, in keeping with the sad tenor of our attitude toward children (not that of Jesus, for sure), this passage may be omitted from today’s reading. Let me suggest why it should not.
Matthew and Luke report the same incident [See Matt 19:13-15, Luke 18:15-17, and for good measure Mark 9:36 -37]. Jesus had a particular affection for children. Significantly, some of his more astonishing miracles involve boys and, even more significantly for his time and our own, little girls (recall the story of Jairus’ daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, and the centurion’s boy). As we have seen in readings from past weeks, Jesus also explained the reign of God by pointing to children. Here he does again, but with a difference. The children insert themselves into the scene, insistent on touching Jesus. When his disciples try to shoo them away, Jesus stops them and defends the children. And Jesus’ advice about accepting the kingdom like a little child is not just a romantic aside. Children in Jesus’ day were without legal rights of any kind. They had no standing and, like women, were considered to be their father’s property. Child abuse was rampant in the Roman Empire, if less so among the Jews. Jesus clearly had other ideas.
Today, the plight of children worldwide is even more appalling than in first-century Palestine. Of the nearly 900 million people in the world today who suffer acute hunger daily, 14 million are children under the age of 5. One out of 6 children in the United States goes to bed hungry every night. Malnutrition is the underlying cause of 3.1 million child deaths each year and leads to lasting damage for millions of other children, as they become more vulnerable to severe diseases. [https://www.savethechildren.org/content/dam/global/reports/2018-end-of-childhood-report.pdf]
But severe malnutrition is only one of the threats to children’s health and safety. The world’s children also face sexual and physical abuse, trafficking, forced child marriage, and harrowing labor. In 2016, according to the International Labour Organization , “152 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 were in child labour, almost half them, 73 million, in hazardous child labour. …Such hazardous labour was most prevalent among children aged 15 to 17. Nevertheless, up to a fourth of all hazardous child labour (19 million), was carried out by children under the age of 12. Almost half (48 per cent) of the victims of child labour were aged 5-11 years; 28 per cent were 12-14 years old; and 24 per cent were 15-17 years old.
“Child labour is concentrated primarily in agriculture (71 per cent) – this includes fishing, forestry, livestock herding and aquaculture – 17 per cent in services; and 12 per cent in the Industrial sector, including mining.”
Despite this bleak overview, there is reason to hope. The UN General Assembly has urged the international community to step up efforts to eradicate forced labour and child labour, and declared 2021 as the Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. This year has also been declared The Year of Childhood, “a year-long celebration of childhood running throughout 2021… hosted by Children’s Parliament. During the year we are exploring childhood through the lens of children’s human rights, creating opportunities to share rights-based practice in an atmosphere of optimism and confidence.”
Far from adding the account of Jesus and the children of Palestine as an afterthought, the author of Mark’s gospel had cause to include the passage in his recounting of Jesus’ teaching about the sanctity of human life and the importance of a true family. From all appearances, however, we still have a long way to go in fulfilling his command: “”Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” [Mark 10:14].
2021 declared International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour