Expectations and Relationships
The story of Jesus welcoming little children is probably one of the most endearing of the Gospel stories. There is something so tender and reassuring in the image of Jesus, the Son of God, gently embracing children that touches a part of us and yearns for the sense of peace those children must have experienced. But we might also ask ourselves today what that story of the little children has to do with all the talk of the differentiation of the sexes in the reading from the Book Genesis, the laws on divorce in the first part of today's Gospel, and the suffering of Christ in the Letter to the Hebrews. Perhaps a true story might help us focus on that meaning.
There is, in educational circles, a phenomenon known as “The Pygmalion Principle.” This educational theory is based on a research study published in the book entitled Pygmalion in the Classroom.*
The study in question involved an experiment conducted in the 1950s in California. The teachers of one group were told that their students were just average in ability and performance. They were in fact gifted. The teachers of the other group were told that their students were academically talented and high achievers, when in fact they were average students. The results: the really gifted demonstrated average achievement; the average performed like gifted students. It's all about expectations! Our Sacred Stories today are all about expectations. God's expectation is that we not be alone and that we are God's children, and therefore, Jesus' brothers and sisters! It's about God’s desire for human beings to be in right relationship with one another. And it is a truism that the expectations of others determine what those relationships will be.
The standard the Book of Genesis offers for husbands and wives in marriage should be as true in all our relationships. What a far less contentious country, church, and world this would be if the mutuality and complementarity of the Book of Genesis were the models followed.
Even more telling, in the Letter to the Hebrews we are told that Jesus, the Son of God, is not ashamed to call us, mere humans, his brothers and sisters. Can we not, then, see all people, regardless of differences, as our brothers and sisters? If it were our brother or sister who was randomly profiled by the police, would we be indifferent? If it were our brother or sister who was gay, how would we react to the to the homophobia they experienced? If it were our brother or sister living on the streets, what would be our response to homelessness and poverty?
What is true of society is equally true of the Church. The preservation of a patriarchal structure is out of touch with the expectations of mutuality Jesus so often holds up as a model for the Reign of God. In fact, Jesus calls for those who would lead to be servants. This should drive home the inconsistency of an ecclesial structure that is exclusive and hierarchical. Would Jesus want women excluded from leadership? In a time of crisis in the priesthood, we need to ask if Jesus ever really intended a celibate clergy or the clericalism it has created!
As uncomfortable as some of these societal and ecclesial issues are, they are at the heart of the Reign of God--a world of peace and justice. The Scriptures proclaimed today frame the consistent challenge of that vision: the expectation of all human relationships being rooted in an equality of personhood.
When we see the image of Jesus and the children, we are challenged to see the beauty of all human relationships, both in society and in the church. It isn't difficult to see what we need to work on in the days ahead. We need to begin to work earnestly at understanding the expectations of all our relationships the way Christ sees them. The Scriptures today tell us how in graphic stories: that no one should be alone; that we are equally brothers and sisters in Christ, and as such, that we are all children of a loving God. That's really God's only expectation of us. Should it not be our only expectation of one another?
* The name of the study was based on the Greek myth of Pygmalion
in which, by sheer force of will, a statue is brought to life. It is the same myth rendered by George Bernard Shaw into the play of the same name and by Lerner and Lowe into My Fair Lady.