One of the significant legal changes to occur in the UK over the last thirty years has been the implementation of the Children Act that was passed by Parliament in 1989. It imposes duties on local authorities, courts, parents, and other agencies in the United Kingdom to ensure that children are safeguarded and their welfare is promoted.
In a country where once it was acceptable for children to work underground in coal mines, or sweep chimneys orlabour in unsafe and unhealthy factories, most people nowadays are horrified to hear of a child being maltreated or abused in any way. The place and primacy of children in our society has undergone a huge change for the better. Sadly, it is not the case in all countries.
Here in the UK the infant mortality rate is now at its lowest ever, just 3.8 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2018. We honour the NHS today for the huge part it has played and continues to play in the care of pregnant women and their babies. By contrast, in the ancient Middle East, where Jesus grew up, about one third of children died at birth or soon after; a third of live births died by the age of six; and sixty per cent did not live past their sixteenth birthday.
Even if they survived their early years, children in Palestine then were the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. They had little if any status within the community or family. They had no protection in law. Until the age of maturity, the child was considered equal to a slave. In a famine, for instance, the elder would be fed before the children.
In his teaching today Jesus refers to his followers, in our Jerusalem Bible translation, as ‘mere children’. He actually means ‘infants’. He is saying that those who are accepting his identity, by contrast with the ‘learned and the clever’ who are rejecting him, are like ‘infants’ then. They not only are as insignificant, simple, poor, powerless and vulnerable as infants but, crucially, they have the childlike capacity to openness, wonder and trust. His ministry is to bring people into the intimate relationship with God he enjoys and great intelligence is not sufficient to develop this relationship. We must have the mind of a baby who cannot rely on itself for its survival but must have wholehearted dependence and trust in another. This is the quality Jesus has in mind when he declares elsewhere: ‘let the children come to me for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs’.
Jesus then goes on to make this appeal: “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.’
The people Jesus was speaking to here were people living in villages – peasants – who were desperately poor. For the most part, their lives as tenant farmers were governed by the whims of their landowners. In most cases they could live only from day to day. Their lives were controlled also by a system of religion – they lived in a theocratic state (like Iran?) – that, in the view of Jesus, burdened and made impossible demands on them.
To describe the weight of religion on the backs of these poor people, Jesus uses the word ‘yoke’. This is a wooden cross-piece that is fastened over the necks of two animals when they are pulling a plough or a cart. A yoke is a means of control. Jesus uses the word to describe the constricting form of religion controlling the lives of these poor people.
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law. However, by his time the original Law of Moses had been added to over the years to the point where it had become an overbearing burden in people’s lives. It had expanded to 613 regulations and prohibitions which made it very difficult for the ordinary poor people to have that loving relationship with God as Father which, for Jesus, is the primary purpose of religion (the Law).
By contrast, Jesus says his ‘yoke’ is easy and any ‘burden’ he places on people is ‘light’. So come to me, he says, for ‘I am gentle and humble in heart’ – I am not legalistic, hard and unbending like your religious leaders. With me you will find ‘rest for your souls’.
The ministry of Jesus was to free people from a religion of legalism and to bring them into an intimate and loving relationship with God. So how is it that the very thing Jesus rejected in Judaism – a religion of legalism, prohibition and regulation – became so dominant in his Church for so many centuries? Such a system crushed the lives of many but now, thank God, under the gentle and humble Pope Francis, is it giving way to what Jesus intended.
Holy Name, Jesmond
5 July 2020