The recent publicity stirred up by the young Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg with her short passionate speech to the UN Climate session has had mixed responses around the world.
For many of us, we wept with grief at our unwillingness and slowness in changing our lifestyles in our care and concern for God’s creation. And we cheered her extraordinary courage and capacity to speak her truth into power.
Her honesty is confronting and shines a light on the masks we wear so we can continue to believe simultaneously in contradictory facts, that is, we can choose not to take responsibility for it, we can deny it and believe our efforts will not make a difference. We can believe and continue as we are. We can get angry at those who demand we change our lives and lifestyles and not think about the issue.
For others, the response to her speech and actions has been vitriolic, with rude behaviour, vindictive cruel and humiliating name calling and being dismissive. It has shown a deep blindness to first world privilege and entitlement. It highlights the fierce pushback underway that is not counting the cost for the world and for all people, young and old. It has put Greta’s safety at risk with hate speech and shows a complete lack of respect for her as a child of God.
As we reflect on our response to Greta’s message, today’s Gospel reading similarly challenges us, as Jesus does with his listeners. Today we need to be honest with ourselves and God and see where we are trying to avoid responsibility and blame others, or pretend we can’t do anything, or think that we’ve done enough.
So, where has Jesus started today’s lesson?
Children in Jesus’ time were the property of their father. Children had no legal rights, having the same status as slaves and women. In the Roman world, children could be discarded if they were not wanted, or were seen to be useless or disabled.
As adults, everyone shared aspirations to acquire position, wealth and power. Such visible signs of worldly success and achievement were assumed to be God’s blessing and a sign of one’s own ability and hard work, of one’s worth and inherent righteousness.
Today, we see this in the preferred teaching of the prosperity gospel, which states those who are wealthy are obviously those who are blessed. They are clearly more worthy than those who are poor, who obviously have not been blessed, who are less worthy and of less account.
As Luke tells the story, the disciples had decided to keep the children away from Jesus, including those in their mother’s arms. A common reaction even in some of our churches today.
By doing this, the disciples were making sure Jesus was able to spend time with adults who were more important, particularly those who were wealthy.
I was reminded of a very telling image of Donald Trump walking past Greta Thunberg, turning his face and deliberately refusing to acknowledge her presence as he walked from one non-UN climate meeting to another, to talk about the really important things that were important to him. At that moment, she did not exist for him.
Jesus stops the disciples in their tracks.
Jesus talked frequently about who will enter the kingdom of God. Jesus commended a widow, a tax collector and a blind man. All socially marginalised people because of their gender, lack of marital status, social standing and disability.
And now, Jesus is saying children will be in the kingdom of God, rather than wealthy, powerful adults. Jesus has provided you and I with a clear example of how to be in the world and in God’s kingdom.
I would argue this is not a sentimental image. It is not an idealisation of childhood or youthfulness. Jesus understands human behaviour. Remember the brother of the prodigal son. He knows children and siblings can be jealous, behave badly and not love one another. Jesus is not saying because children are angels they will go straight to the kingdom. No.
Jesus capacity to tell stories is powerful. His stories highlight behaviours, thinking and culture we choose to ignore or not see as with Greta.
Jesus sees children with a love that sees all of what they are, their small stature, their limited experience, their openness and dependency, their humility and their aggression. It is this unconditional love for children and young people the disciples fail to understand.
Children don’t earn merit, they can’t prove their worthiness and they can’t achieve it, For Jesus, he can show us like children, we can only, simply, receive the kingdom as a gift from God, being truly dependent on God and not on anything else.
It is only God’s justification and welcome that is decisive. All we are left with is gratitude to God for God’s love and appreciation of Jesus’ calling to kingdom citizenship.
At this point, we need to go another step and put down more of our adult beliefs.
What we do out of gratitude for God’s gift to us, is to call the socially rejected, the marginalised and excluded to physical and spiritual life like Christ.
Like the early church we are called to transform society by not just accepting but seeking out the outcasts and marginalised. And we are to treat them as did Jesus with the children, with love, acceptance and joy.
When I think of the reality of child abuse, child poverty and rejection by adults, politically, economically, socially, in war as refugees, in natural disasters, through circumstances of birth, race and gender, it is clear children are still not prioritised in our world or our church.
A child’s dependence on adults mirrors our dependence on God, but do we see this? Do we receive them in the same way God receives them in the kingdom? We are assured God’s love for all of us is God’s gift to us.
Then Luke tells us about the rich ruler. It is no accident this story comes next. Jesus once again points out our attachment to wealth, status, power and the good things in life, irrespective of right living, is not sufficient to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus refutes the ruler’s basic assumption the key to eternal life lies in being good. If Jesus is good and doing good, the ruler thinks Jesus has the formula that will buy his way into the kingdom and merit eternal life.
The ruler said he did not murder, steal or commit adultery. He said he was doing good.
But Jesus pushes us beyond the literal meaning of the law just as we are debating in many of the current public conversations in the marketplace today.
This is not about what the law ‘says’, holding tightly to the letter of the law. Rather, Jesus calls us to a new way of life; a fresh and different trajectory based on God’s love going beyond the law.
This is what Jesus is doing as he goes to Jerusalem where he will give up his life out of love for God’s people, for all of God’s creation.
The ruler can receive the life he seeks by following Jesus. To do so he must leave behind everything that gets in the way. It is not for the sake of the poor that Jesus tells the ruler to give away all his possession; Jesus is telling the ruler this for his own sake.
Once he gives away the security of his riches and trusts only in God, then the ruler is ready to follow Jesus and receive eternal life. Jesus is not speaking for deprivation, either, because in God’s kingdom all are fed and clothed and cared for.
We can give thanks it is not wealth and possessions that lead to eternal life. We should tremble instead at the monumental challenge of holding all we possess so loosely so it does not and will not rule our lives.
As we hear Greta speak her inconvenient truths, we search our hearts to discover what is it we are so frightened of that we must kill the messenger as we did Jesus.
What are we defending, when we no longer see God’s creation as a gift, all the animals and plants, all the people already displaced through climate extinction, all the children left behind, excluded and vilified as refugees because we do not want to upset our status quo?
What is so important we will not speak for this creation, for children and all the dispossessed, for God’s love for all, and do not do what we can out of love with all our hearts, minds and souls for God’s kingdom and for our neighbours?
The lord be with you.