The child in the midst
A dozen ragged men trudged along the winding road to the City, arguing vehemently among themselves. Only their leader – the one they called the Teacher – remained silent.
Strong views on religion and politics, and conflicting personal ambitions, fuelled the fire of their discontent. All agreed that the godless, foreign regime controlling their country should be expelled, and that their Teacher (a man of faith) should lead the revolution. But each was also anxious to assure himself a pre-eminent place in the new order – and each advanced strong claims on the best and most powerful positions.
Still arguing, they approached a well at the side of the road, pushing aside the women and children who had gathered there to draw water. Preoccupied with their quarrel, they failed to notice as the Teacher spoke quietly to one of the women and beckoned the child at her side to come to him – failed to notice, until the Teacher, with the child in his arms, suddenly strode into their midst with a sharp command, “Listen to me!”
Their annoyance at this intrusion was palpable. Here they were, would-be revolutionaries debating momentous issues and giving voice to exalted ambitions. What was the Teacher doing bringing a child into such a situation?
With eyes flashing, the Teacher made plain his purpose. “This child is trusting, not calculating,” he said. “You should learn to trust like her.
“This child is young and does not promote herself or make claims on any one. You should learn the humility of someone in her position.
“You think this little one has no place here and it annoys you that I have made her a place,” he concluded. “But I tell you that unless you put the interests of this little one – and others as vulnerable as she – ahead of your own, you have no place in the work or the kingdom I am preparing you for.”
As the little band, much subdued, continued on its way, they considered what had happened. To them it was the presence of the child that had been inappropriate, misdirected, and incongruous. But their Teacher had used the child to demonstrate that it was their quarrel that was inappropriate, their ambitions that were misdirected, and their conduct that was incongruous with his intentions for them. Slowly, grudgingly, they absorbed the lesson of “the child in the midst.”
Many years later one of them – a former tax collector named Matthew – wrote the story down. Another member of the group, a fisherman named Peter, retold it to a young man named Mark who also wrote an account of it, as did a physician named Luke.
The story of “the child in the midst” passed into history. But its capacity to challenge the roots of our present-day quarrels and to refocus our present-day priorities is still potent, if we choose to apply it.
Imagine the House of Commons during the daily Question Period – a cauldron of mistrust, ambition, and self-aggrandizement if there ever was one. The MPs, egged on by the media, are hurling loaded questions, clever retorts, and assorted insults across the floor as usual.
But what if the space between the government and opposition benches were occupied, not by the mace and the tables of the house officers, but by scores of young children representing more truly than any Member of Parliament the future hopes of our country?
Would we politicians be able to act as we so often do, in the face of “the child in the midst”? Would it be the presence and actions of the children that would be incongruous and out of place in the Commons, or would it be the words and actions of the Members that would now appear inappropriate and misdirected?
On a larger and more deadly stage, imagine the road from Ramallah to Jerusalem – a road well traveled by Islamic terrorists, Israeli soldiers, and thousands of ordinary people whose lives are being torn asunder by the turmoil and violence of Middle East politics. But what if for one day that road were to be occupied exclusively –from one end to the other – by thousands of children? Palestinian children, Israeli children, children from every nation with a stake in the Middle East conflict?
The suicide bomber who attacked that road would bring down universal censure on his head and his cause. The soldier who fired even one shot in the direction of that road would do the same. For at least a day, that road would know the peace for which most Palestinians and Israelis desperately long.
Closer to home, imagine a contemporary Canadian couple in their twenties or thirties with a precious five year old daughter. Somewhere in Mom and Dad’s backgrounds – one generation back, perhaps two or three – there has been a spiritual tradition, maybe Quebec Catholicism, perhaps traditional Judaism, maybe some form of Protestantism or another faith tradition. But it has been largely lost, swamped by modernity, or maybe jettisoned for good reasons.
One day their little one comes home from kindergarten with a simple but profound question: “Who is Jesus?”
Mom and Dad love the child and are wise enough to realize that this is a question which cannot be casually dismissed. The simple question starts them on a journey of reflection and spiritual discovery, addressing the all-important questions: what do they themselves believe? and what beliefs do they intend to pass on to their children? They are challenged as never before by the child in their midst.
The same men who recorded the story of the child in the midst, recorded another story – about heavenly messengers appearing to shepherds and saying: “There is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: you will find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.”
The political and religious establishment of that day reacted to the presence of that child by hardening their hearts and turning away from everything he represented. But the shepherds, the wise men, and many of the common people responded by receiving him into their lives.
We remember and retell this story at Christmas time. It is the challenge of the child in our midst.