Here’s another one from our own Lee Pierce. Enjoy!-anita
My recent reading has been in the book of Mark, especially on Jesus’ teaching on servanthood as the path to greatness as defined by God. In Mark 9:36-37, Jesus illustrates His point by taking a child in His arms and telling the disciples that “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me….”
I guess I’ve always read that verse thinking that children were extra-special to our Lord (and I believe that to be true still). But after researching children and their lot in the first century world of the Bible I came across a number of painful facts.
In a Tabletalk magazine (Ligonier Ministries) study of Mark, it notes that first-century children (and women) “…were among the lowest members of society in both Gentile and Jewish culture…not viewed as having much worth.” All the more remarkable that Jesus would then single out a child and teach His disciples to honor such a child to fulfill His calling for them.
Despite some of the teaching in the Bible as to the worth of a child (See Ps 127:3,4 and Ps 128:3-6 for example), childhood in the ancient world was extremely difficult. In a book called “A History of Children” by A.R. Colon, it was noted that one third of all children in ancient Rome had died by age 10. Most girls were married between the ages of 13 to 17. In his writings, the Roman historian Tacitus (55-120 A.D.) said that a child could be abandoned to suffer death for numerous reasons: “An infant child could be abandoned (termed an expositi) without penalty or social stigma….” Children with disabilities were especially vulnerable. But Christianity and its teachings were not without effect. Colon, in his book, explains, “It wasn’t really until Christianity took hold that things changed for Roman children.” He notes that Christian Roman emperors increased the penalties for abandoning children. And given that society’s propensity of viewing children more as chattel property, often being sold into slavery, the Roman emperors reduced the period for which children could be enslaved to only five years!
In his book, “The Gospel of Luke,” Joel B. Green discusses that children in the 1st century Greco-Roman world were viewed as “not adults.” They might be seen as having some future value to the family when they grew up but “…otherwise they possessed little if any intrinsic value as human beings.”
So Jesus’ teaching here—as so often is the case in many of His teachings on numerous topics—is topsy-turvey to what 1st century society (including the disciples) believed about children. Green notes: Jesus wants the disciples (and us) to understand that “…the greatest honor is extending respectful service to those with no status at all, to the powerless….” Later he says, “…the primary issue is not who receives honor from the rest, but who gives honor to the least.”
In the context of the disciples’ discussion as they debated which one of them was the greatest (Mark 9:34), Jesus turns the whole discussion upside down. And this message still has great relevance in our own country where, according to Green, “Our infant mortality rate is higher than 33 other countries.” The publication date of his book was 1997, but upon my checking The World Factbook published by the U.S. government, as of 2015, our infant mortality rate was 167th out of 224 countries analyzed. So that means that 57 countries have a lower infant mortality rate than the United States (infant mortality defined here as 1 year of age or younger). At some important level, life in the United States now is not much better or safer than life for a child was in the first century. Maybe we haven’t advanced as much as a culture as we sometimes profess that we have.
By: Lee Pierce