Ancient Rome was a man’s world. Jesus grew up as a man in a man’s world. Men wore the pants, so to speak, and men held the purse strings. The paterfamilias, the male head of each household, held absolute power over the members of his household. He owned the women and children under his care as well as the household slaves.
The paterfamilias had the power and the right to disown any member of his own household or to sell them into slavery.
By virtue of the culture into which he was born, Jesus was a paterfamilias.
He owned his mother. You remember when he was dying: hanging on the cross, the blood and breath and life seeping out of his body? He spoke to his mother, informing her that John, his disciple and friend would assume her care upon his death. Jesus was a paterfamilias.
It was the province of the paterfamilias to decide if his newborn would be kept. If not, if his decision went the other way—for economic reasons or because the child was ill—the child was left outside, exposed, abandoned. Rabbi Jesus was a paterfamilias.
It was not unusual for a paterfamilias to regard children as no better than stray dogs: creatures towards which they might feel something between indifference and annoyance. Rabbi Jesus was a paterfamilias.
Let’s look at the story of the blessing of the children:
One day, two millennia ago in Palestine—a province of the Roman Empire—a paterfamilias, a male head of household, a rabbi named Jesus, a rabbi of some note ... walks into the village of Capernaum.
Capernaum is a fishing village on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. What’s more, Capernaum, is the home town of Jesus’ good friends: Peter, James, Andrew, John and Matthew.
Peter, James, Andrew, John and Matthew are excited. They are bringing to their humble village a rabbi of some fame. They are proud to be associated with him ... proud to introduce him around to their kinfolk and neighbors.
As expected, word of Jesus’ presence travels like wildfire from villager to villager. The whole village is turning out. Among the villagers are parents of young children. They approach Rabbi Jesus that he might touch their children and bless them.
Seeing this, Peter, James, Andrew, John and Matthew intervene. Of course they do! It is their privilege to protect their famous rabbi from the rabble; to guard his stature.
Stepping between Jesus and the families, they rebuke the young parents ... shushing them and herding them away.
But, then something untoward happens, something awkward. Instead of showing gratitude to his friends, Jesus snaps at them. In their own home village he rebukes them in front of everybody: in front of their siblings and cousins, their neighbors, co-workers and friends.
Having rebuked his disciples, Jesus invites the village children to him. He gathers them into his arms, he holds them, touches them and he blesses them.
The Greek word for bless used in this verse is eulogeo (you know the word from our word, eulogy). Eulogeo, meaning, he speaks well of them. Jesus touches the children. He blesses them ... he speaks well of them.
In the United Church of Christ statement of faith we pledge to resist oppression and evil.
In this act of blessing of the children Jesus undertakes to do just that: he resists oppression.
It is as a paterfamilias—as a personage imbued with power and influence—that Jesus speaks well of an underclass, a voiceless and powerless demographic.
In this instant, in this act, a first century paterfamilias transforms a benign liturgical rite into an act of resistance against oppression and evil. And, he sets in motion an ethical challenge that reverberates down through the centuries.
For it was in his name that the followers of Jesus, the early Christians, challenged—and finally defeated—the cultural practice in the Roman Empire of infanticide.
It was in his name that the followers of Jesus, the early Christians, built orphanages, privileging the underprivileged with shelter, families, homes and love.
“Let the children come to me,” says Jesus, “... and he blesses them.” He speaks well of them.
This blessing is no empty symbol ... it is calculated, defiant, bold, and transformative.
If you have been at Old South Church for any length of time, you know we take this blessing thing seriously. We bless most anything that moves and a lot of things that don’t.
We bless pets ... placing gentle hands on wet noses and soft floppy ears, on feathers, fur and scales.
We bless hammers and work gloves—supercharging them—that they might be useful tools in building homes in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.
We bless prayer shawls. Knitted in soft wool, in pastels of pinks and greens, blues and yellows, grays and browns ... knitted with love ... We bless prayer shawls and send them out to wrap frightened people in warmth and love; to caress the grieving.
Because Jesus blessed so often and so boldly—we have learned to do it at Old South ... learned to bless ... and with our blessing, learned to speak well of those whom we bless.
Today, we shall bless the members of our Associate Ministers Search Committee. Some of them were blessed this past Thursday at Jazz Worship. Others were blessed earlier this morning at First Worship. The rest we will bless in a few moments.
We bless these sixteen members of Old South and entrust to them the job of finding two pastors who understand that the act of blessing can be a potent, defiant, ethical world-changing act ... an act of resistance, and act of affirmation.
We bless these sixteen members of Old South, entrusting to them the task of finding two clergy who understand that the Christian life is potent, world-transforming, radical and ethically charged.
We bless them to bring us leaders who will coach and train us, equip and challenge us to raise our arms and raise our voices—over and over and over—to engage in full-bodied, full-throated resistance against oppression and evil ... challenging us to bless when it might be our instinct to curse; coaching us to speak well of, when others speak with distain; training us to welcome when others dismiss, to pry open what is closed ... to resist oppression and evil by championing the dispossessed and the despised, the weak and the meek.
Ancient Rome may have been a man’s world. And, across most of the globe even in this 21st century it is still a man’s world. But the realm of God: not so much.
The realm of God belongs to everyone. God blesses everyone.
Welcome to God’s world.