Suffering the Little Children

Ours is a world not prone to “suffer the little children” to approach our Lord.

Juliaan De Vriendt (1842–1935), “Suffer the Little Children”
Juliaan De Vriendt (1842–1935), “Suffer the Little Children” (photo: Public Domain)

Today’s readings are particularly rich in terms of Catholic marital and sexual ethics: the account of the creation of woman in the First Reading and the teaching on divorce in Mark. There is also—in keeping with the attention to children over the past two weeks—another comment on children in the Gospel, which may or may not be heard in your parish, given the celebrant can choose a longer or shorter version (omitting Mark 10:13-16).

The First Reading deserves attention because of what I call the “erosion of our Genesis heritage.” The Reading is from the second account of creation (Genesis 2). The creation of a two sex humanity is also accounted in Genesis 1, where the sexual differentiation of human beings is presented alongside God making “man in His image; in the divine image He created him; male and female He created them.”

In today’s reading, God is presented anthropomorphically, i.e., in human-like terms, “making” a woman from the man. God first presents the rest of creation to Adam and he names them. In the Bible, a name is not just a label; it tells something about the essence of the named. So, in naming the animals, Adam comes to know what God already knows: that they are not “the suitable partner for the man.”

Now God, unlike the American Lone Ranger or Marlboro man, knows “it is not good for the man to be alone.” So what does he do? He creates woman.

But before He does, He casts a “deep sleep” on the man. As biblical commentators note, the word for this “deep sleep” is rare and signifies those moments when God is about to do something decisive in salvation history. And He creates woman.

God sees “it is not good” that man is alone (after, in Genesis 1, repeatedly noting what “is good”) and He gives him a suitable companion: Eve, not Steve. 

In antiquity, sexual differentiation was looked down on. For Aristotle, woman was a “misbegotten male,” i.e., a defective man with parts missing. 

For the Bible, the sexual differentiation of man and woman is created and intended by God. Woman is not a misbegotten male. She is not inferior. If she is treated that way, it is because of sin, not because God intended it that way “in the beginning.”

Our world is not too different from ancient Greece, but it is increasingly becoming unhinged from its Judeo-Christian moorings, its Genesis heritage. Sexual differentiation is now regarded in elite opinion as a cultural construct, a dreaded and discriminatory “gender binary” to be overcome. Sex, rather than being a gift of God inscribed in each of my very cells, is now seen as some overlay that only fosters bias and is best overcome by treating it either as a state of mind or by regarding androgyny as the norm for human interaction.

The link that connects the First Reading to the Gospel is precisely the biblical expression of the teaching of Humanae vitae: because of sexual differentiation, “a man will leave his mother and father and cling to his wife” (unity) “and the two shall be one flesh” (procreation). God’s model “in the beginning,” i.e., the normative state of creation, is one of procreation and unity.

Jesus picks the same theme up in the Gospel. He invokes that normative state, “in the beginning,” to rescind the toleration of divorce allowed by the Mosaic Law. The indissolubility of the man-woman relationship in marriage is what God intended “in the beginning” and which now—thanks to the Redemption accomplished in Christ—can be lived. He does not promise a rose garden, nor denies it may be hard (the Gospel three weeks ago spoke about “taking up one’s cross) but, in Christ, it can be done. Indissolubility as an essential characteristic of Christian marriage is, therefore, not a choice I am free to take or leave: it is part and parcel of what Christian marriage means.

Finally, in those parishes which will tempt men’s patience by prolonging Mass unduly by reading an additional three verses of the Gospel, the longer lection refers to Jesus calling the “little children” to Himself even as people were trying to shoo them off.

In the King James Version of Mark 10, the translation is “Suffer the little children to come unto me” and that’s what I would like to comment upon. There is a famous British saying about “children should be seen and not heard” and one suspects that’s what’s going on in today’s reading. Kids are being kids and parents are pushing their progeny toward Jesus and even the disciples are trying to divert them. “Suffer” at that stage of English meant “allow” or “let,” but the word also seems to convey a somewhat negative connotation, in the sense of “enduring” or “putting up with.”

Ours is a world not prone to “suffer the little children.” It does not want to endure parenthood and so sets itself up to make individual men and women into “lords and givers of life,” deciding whether and when life might be allowed to come or continue in existence. It is a world that imagines itself suffering from the presence of little children, be it individually (where a child is seen as an inconvenience to my life plans) or collectively (where children are seen as poverty-causing carbon footprint-creating surplus populations). (The paradox, of course, is that the developed world is suffering precisely because of the lack of children stemming from its imploding fertility rates). 

We do not want to “suffer” the little children to the banquet of life, just as once some did not want to “suffer” them to see Him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” 

Today’s Gospel connects this episode with Jesus’ Teaching on divorce, which also merits comment. Once upon a time, people who were tempted to separate or divorce avoided it “for the sake of the children.” Sometime, in the “Mr. I” decades of the 1970s and 1980s, a mythology arose that children are “so resilient” and “better off” when parents divorce that the latter should not hesitate to go off in the pursuit of their own happiness “for the sake of the children.”

The social science data makes it increasingly clear that the mythology was simply a lie. (See Judith Wallerstein’s works, for example). Kids do not prosper from divorce, and divorce tends to become a generational affair. Far from being good for kids, it would be better if their parents didn’t act like kids and lived up to their marital commitments—for their own sakes as well as “for the sake of the children” they accompany. Perhaps we should ask how we have made the little children “suffer” from our promotion of no-fault divorce.

Jesus wants us to “suffer the little children” to come to Him. Are we instead prone to make those little children suffer – by denying them life, by prenatal vivisection that would land you in jail if you did it to an animal, by unstable homes and by putting asunder what God has joined?

The Alabama State House, located in Montgomery, Alabama.

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