27th December 2015 - Hugh Perry
1 Samuel 2:18-20
Hanna was childless and her husband’s other wife used to give her a hard time about that. Possibly because Hanna’ was their husbands favourite wife. A critical reading of the story shows a family full of domestic tension and patriarchal insensitivity.
However Hanna prays for a child to Yahweh at Shiloh and in her prayer promises that if she does conceive the child will be to serve God.
When Mary meets Elizabeth she sings the Magnificat which is based on the song that Hannah sings when she leaves the baby Samuel with Eli the priest. Clearly Luke makes a link between Hannah the mother who leaves her son to be brought up to serve God and Mary whose Son is predestined by God to carry out God’s purpose. As our reading from 1 Samuel explored Samuel’s development, so Luke gives us a window to the early development of Jesus.
There was an article in The Press recently that suggested that children should be encouraged in their entrepreneurial activities because it will equip them for the world they are growing into. Apparently a child who sells the home’s surplus fruit at a stall on the side of the road will be much more able to change jobs and seek out new opportunities in the rapidly changing world.
Alvin Toffler once suggested that the education system was not primarily devised to teach literacy or mathematics but to prepare the working class for the factory system. Last week news reader Hewitt Humphrey presented his last-ever news bulletin on the radio. When I first knew him he had the task of ringing the bell at our high school. Little did any of us realise that was part of a conspiracy to teach us punctuality and to sit at our machines when the bell went and go and eat when it rang again.
It is not the way the natural world works and according to Toffler it is not a work ethic that will serve the future. According to Toffler ‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.’ Today’s young people need to educate themselves to be people who grow to be self-employed or to be able seek out new employment when their employer goes out of business.
In Jesus’ time a boy simply continued his father’s occupation and a girl become a wife and mother. That still happens in our time but in the past those were the only options. So if, as the brief gospel references suggest, Jesus’ father was a carpenter then Jesus would have become a carpenter. Therefore it would be a shock to find him debating scripture with the rabbis in the temple.
According to Luke John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah who belonged to a priestly order so it was not surprising to find him in a prophetic role calling people to repentance. But Jesus would have been expected to join his father’s household enterprise. However just as futurist Alvin Toffler continues to predict a new order we are growing into, Jesus was also growing into a new order. A new order that Jesus would play a very extensive part and Luke offers this early window into his childhood as a clue to that future development.
In a much darker perspective on human development I watched a documentary about research into what makes people murder. That programme gave clear warnings about our growing level of child poverty and associated family violence.
As one might expect it covered under-development of the frontal cortex, chemical imbalance and possession of the warrior gene. It also discovered that people who had the warrior gene or chemical and other physical indicators did not become vicious criminals if they had a great childhood with loving parents. In contrast those investigated who were serving long prison sentences for vicious crimes had grown up in abusive households.
The programme concluded by showing that a combination of brain, chemical and genetic deviation plus an abusive childhood could send a child into a life of violent crime. The programme also showed that a poverty stricken, dysfunctional and violent upbringing could teach perfectly normal children to also grow into violent individuals.
That is certainly something to challenge our society’s high instances of family violence and growing child poverty.
However what is most pertinent as we take those understandings into the context of our two readings about the early childhood of Samuel and Jesus is that those narratives not only touch on child development but spiritual growth. Furthermore in acknowledging the importance of a loving childhood we can see why the snippets of birth and infancy narratives were included in the gospels.
There are complete infancy gospels with fantastic stories of a magic child, like a precocious Super Boy bringing clay birds to life and cursing troublesome playmates but fortunately the early church rejected those stories. Therefore the stories that made it into Matthew and Luke must have been seen as important in explaining the development of a man who grew to give humanity a unique perspective on the relationship between God and humanity. Furthermore the divine understanding that Jesus modelled offers a whole new way of being human that Jesus called the ‘kingdom of God’. A way God calls humanity to organise itself that contrasts to the dominating and violent kingdom or empires of any number of Caesars or kings.
Dr Mike Riddell draws attention to the power and challenge presented in Matthew’s birth narrative when he wrote an article titled ‘Vulnerability in the Face of Power’ in Tui Motu InterIslands Magazine on the 1st of December 2015.
Buried in the heart of the gospel, but often smothered by pious overlays, is a relentlessly subversive dream. In the words of Mary, God has “pulled down princes from their thrones, and raised high the lowly”. This is achieved not through some armed revolution, but through the birth of an infant who will be executed by the political powers after a show trial. It is the alignment of God on the side of the underdogs that creates a rupture in conventional thinking.
In that paragraph Riddell gives the essence of what we believe about Jesus and his impact on a world of power and domination. A world Riddell says is not unlike our world.
Never before in human history have governments had access to such extraordinary resources to surveil and dominate the populations they rule over. The coalition of the powerful — that alliance between the wealthy and the executive — has reached such a pinnacle of corporate might that it is hard to imagine how any subversion of it is possible.
Yet it is in just that sort of world that Jesus and the power of love, that brought him into being, had such an impact. The birth narratives outline the poverty in which Jesus is born, the connection between the mothers of Jesus and John the Baptist to a priestly family and the love that Joseph shows to Mary.
The gospel hints are miniscule but there is enough to allow our imaginations to believe that Jesus was born into a loving family that overcame the poverty of their circumstances. Against all odds Jesus’ loving family produced a unique loving, accepting and empathic individual whose life changed the world.
The view of Jesus at the temple shows some of that loving childhood working out in a deep understanding of his family’s religious tradition. As a twelve year old Jesus would have received religious training for his bar mitzvah, his initiation as an adult. However his intense interest and ability to impress the scholars shows a curiosity beyond those basic requirements. That curiosity, we might suggest, comes from the cultural stream that encouraged Joseph to accept Mary as his wife even though she was pregnant to an unknown man. Such speculation on Jesus’ birth and growing calls us all to go and do likewise.
If as science seems to indicate love overcomes adversity of both genetics and circumstances we not only have to love our children but ensure all children are loved.
However today’s gospel reading takes our responsibility even further, both as individuals and as a church. Today’s gospel reading suggests Jesus thrived on his religious education and that heightened understanding was already taking him beyond his culture defined destiny as a carpenter. Jesus’ scriptural understanding was beginning to call him an itinerant rabbi.
A simplistic reading of today’s text would conclude that as even the infant Jesus was God he therefore totally understood all the scripture and was obviously way ahead of the scholars of his day. That puts today’s text in the same league as the boy Jesus who made birds out of clay, threw them into the air and they flew away. Such stories give a picture of Jesus as a super infant that was beamed into the stable in one of Ray Avery’s incubators.
On the other hand a Christology from below does more than fit the birth narratives and today’s reading. A Christology from below gives an image of a Jesus with proper biological birth, a merging of some interesting DNA and a growing understanding of his relationship with God. That understanding also models a relationship with the divine all people can aspire to
Thousands of years before Toffler’s dire predictions of the future and model of education that requires students to be able to learn, unlearn, and relearn the growing Jesus’ learning was opening new possibilities for him. Furthermore the incident with the gentile woman of Syrophoenician descent in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 7:25-30) showed the adult Jesus unlearning his cultural prejudices and relearning a more inclusive theology. That learning brought him nearer to the divine image we have of the Risen Christ
Therefore as Christian parents and grandparents we need to make sure that the education of our children and grandchildren not only allows them to learn, unlearn, and relearn but has some spiritual base that allows them to grow in understanding of their true humanity. Furthermore we need to provide a loving environment for such education and spiritual development to happen.
As a church we must seek out ways to teach the basic stories of our faith and allow those stories to develop a spiritual understanding and empathy for others. That is not about learning to sit quietly in church or learning bible passages by heart. The church’s challenge is to lovingly meet both children and adults where they are and encourage dialog on spiritual and religious issues. The church’s Christian education journey begins within a church’s mission that walks its gospel talk and gains people’s trust. Being Christ in the community with no strings attached.
Of course there are always strings attached. The real issue is ‘what are the strings?’ More people attending church is important for the institution and for us it is important to make the most of our new complex. However the only ethical justification, the only truly Christian motive for mission is to create a better world.
Our question is if love brought a growing and developing twelve year old Jesus to dialog with the scholars in the temple can our love bring both young people and adults to a spiritual dialog that will create a loving world? A love that overcomes our genetic imperfections, remodels damaged brains, and overcomes shattered childhoods.
Our Christ inspired mission is to promote a love that opens people to not only learn, unlearn and relearn but also to love with a love that unites all people in a total loving and renewing humanity.