What About the Children


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church     

December 31, 2017

Text: Luke 2:41-52

       The obnoxious twelve-year-old kid in this morning’s Gospel reading who basically tells his parents off when questioned regarding his behavior is someone I can relate to. When questioned why I was always in a library, I would have liked to give the same kind of response. Although Luke sanitizes the response of Mary and Joseph by simply stating that they did not understand what he meant, I imagine that his parents must have been both livid and relieved when they found their son as most parents would have been in similar circumstances.

       The reading from Luke this morning ends what is called the infancy portion of the book. Some scholars think that the original gospel did not contain the section we know as Luke 1.5 through the end of chapter 2 be-cause the writing style and vocabulary are different in the original Greek. However, this section had already been interpolated by the earliest surviving manuscript from about 200 CE. By the turn of the second century it seem-ed pretty obvious that Jesus was not returning to earth right away and the infancy stories satisfied a deep hunger to know more about Jesus before he began his earthly ministry. In fact, by the turn of the second century, there were many so-called infancy gospels that told stories about the child Jesus which were fanciful and never made it into the canon.

        The story of Jesus in the Temple, of course, does have its charm. Mom and Dad have left Jerusalem to return to Nazareth and suddenly they realize the kid’s not there. How often have we turned around looking for our own children? The sudden panic and the search ensue. I guess what I like about this story is not the soppy picture we all saw of some placid Jesus dressed in white with a little halo around his head but what the verse actually says: they found him listening and asking questions–the sign of real intelligence and understanding.

       This story and the one that precedes it in Luke, that of Simeon and the prophet Anna in the temple have none of the terror found in Matthew’s infancy story of Herod slaughtering children under the age of two in Bethlehem. This story yielded the Feast of the Holy Innocents that is traditionally observed on December 28 in the West and 27 in the East, well before Epiphany, the day the Magi were supposed to have seen the baby Jesus. Sometimes called Childermas, this feast day–feast days were not days to feast but to commemorate–originally was celebrated at the same time of Epiphany. It was moved sometime in the sixth century to its present date, for reasons lost in the annals of the early church.

        But all of these stories are about children.  Matthew has them murdered while Jesus flees to Egypt with his parents.  Luke, on the other hand, has Jesus blessed by prophets and perplexing adults with his questions, confounded because they probably couldn’t answer the questions he asked.

        But that’s the way children are, of course, con-founding us with their questions and forcing us to ack-nowledge the fact that we adults often turn a blind eye to the world around us. Indeed, often when we claim we are protecting our children, we are actually protecting our-selves from their hard questions, the ones we don’t want to answer because their questions may put us in an even more uncomfortable place, such as why we didn’t do something about the evil we see perpetrated by those people we call leaders.

        And, now, what about the children? The United Nations issues not only annual reports on the State of the World’s Children, focusing on particular issues, but also reports on children torn by war and violence that makes Herod’s massacre look tame even in the light of Renaissance paintings of mothers pleading with soldiers not to kill their children.

       Children are the most vulnerable population and in its attempt to outdo Herod, the Department of Homeland Security is seriously considering separating mothers from their children if they attempt to enter the United States seeking asylum. DHS claimed that the threat to do just that deterred women suffering from abuse and terror in Central America’s Northern Triangle–El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras–from trying to seek asylum in the United States. Now, isn’t our so-called leadership proud of itself for its attempts to avoid being the refuge that historically the United States has always claimed to be?

       Herod is not far from children here in the United States as well. Congress only provided the minimum in its funding of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP. Funding for CHIP is only through the end of March and the total being discussed is far less than the five-year reauthorization promised.  

       And the teachers who were amazed by Jesus’ understanding have been taken over by people like Betsy DeVos and her insatiable desire to destroy public schools in the United States. Touted as “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” the proposed budget will give more than $1.4 billion for what is euphemistically called “school choice,” a cover for destroying racial integration.

        The head of the U.S. Department of Education pro-poses slashing over 30 programs that have helped poor children. Claiming to help the “most vulnerable,” as the super-educators Trump and DeVos put it, the proposed budget will eliminate community literacy programs, not surprising since it seems clear that neither of them have read a book in years, if ever. If you think teachers were confounded in the past, just wait for this proposed future.

         When I read this morning’s passage, I wonder what kinds of questions a young Jesus would have asked. Per-haps they were questions about passages in Scripture such as ones from the prophet Micah. When will we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks? When will it be that nation shall not lift up sword against nation nor learn war any more? These were cer-tainly important questions for the boy who grew up into the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth living under the despotic rule of Rome. For in that time as well as now in Palestine, people cannot just sit under their fig trees–or olive trees–and be unafraid due to the occupying army of Israel.

        It seems that Bashar al-Assad, more truthfully called the butcher of Bagdad, has finally relented to a request by a British charity and surgeon to let about two dozen child-ren out of Ghouta, a suburb to the east of Bagdad, which has been under siege for five years, for medical treatment in London. The children had been previously refused by this modern day Herod who is bent on murdering his people into absolute submission. Or perhaps, like Herod, he is afraid that someday another might replace him.

        Perhaps the questions young Jesus asked concerned how Scripture calls us to heed the cry of the poor. Those questions cannot be simply ignored as this Nation pro-poses to do so in the coming year through the tax over-haul bill, which certain members of Congress, not to mention the man who occupies the White House, plans to make just the beginning.

         Perhaps the questions the young Jesus asked concerned how Scripture calls us to be stewards of God’s creation. Proposals for the coming year want us as a Nation to turn away from renewable energy and go back to coal. The miners can just die of black lung because the health budget has also been cut. And, after all, who cares about a few starving polar bears when there’s money to be made by raping the Arctic Wildlife Preserve?

        Perhaps the young Jesus wanted to know how those who claim they preach the Gospel reflect the Kingdom of God that he would announce. Looking around the room before his parents retrieved him, he must have wondered if the teachers really heard his questions. And we must wonder if in today’s world whether we really listen to the questions of children, those who are shuttled about from church to church because we lack affordable housing, those who are hungry because our national government has systematically eliminated or reduced spending in the few remaining programs for the poor, or those whose parents are torn from them to be sent back to their countries of origin.

        As the last verse of this morning’s reading notes, Jesus increased in wisdom and, of course, as a result, he was not satisfied with the answers of those who would limit the realm of God to the wealthy or narrow-minded traditionalists who want things the way they were. As he increased in wisdom, he kept asking uncomfortable questions and searched for answers that would open the world to God’s justice and righteousness. And as we know, he paid for his persistence because the powers and principalities of the world are afraid of losing their ill-gotten gain. So it is up to us not to give in and to always save the children from those who would destroy their futures.

        Let us pray: God of justice and righteousness, help us to be steadfast and faithful to the questions Jesus asked and to the answers he gave.  Amen.