May 31, 2023

The Tin Drum

Mk 10.13-16
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Preached at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
The Tin Drum

Gunther Grass in his novel, The Tin Drum tells the story of a child, Oskar, during the Nazi period in Germany. Sadly enough, Oskar seemed destined to grow up under the regime of the Nazis. But then that did not happen. Oskar decided to stop growing and to remain a child. And from the point of view of this child the story of a whole generation is told. With his tin drum he would play at the most inopportune occasions. Thus Oskar was the only possibility of resistance and subversion in an order in which brutality, oppression and discrimination was clothed with the mantle of reason and devotion. Oskar, the child that decided not to grow up, knew that only a child’s unpredictability, playfulness, and the tragic seriousness with which a child looks a the world could survive in a world in which madness was the established order. It was not that he was not at risk. On the contrary, by being constantly at risk in a world forbidden to children, he could see the madness of it all; a madness hidden to both the collaborators of the regime and the opposition. Through his childish subversive act, that is, with his drum, he could turn a military march into a waltz and the strictest Nazi officer would dance. With his childish strident voice he would break any glass with apparently no point in doing it. But these are the kind of things that children do.

Whether we like it or not, childhood is the time, the only time in life in which transgression is the rule. A child doesn’t know the rules, the laws or the customs. A child learns it by punishment or positive reinforcement by being on the edges of the permissible. This is why children are either protected or sacrificed, or else, either repressed or encouraged. But they themselves never compensate, never sacrifice, and never negotiate. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time regarded and treated children according to what was common knowledge at that time. Children, they said, are innocent, but by themselves they can’t be saved for they lack the knowledge of the law. Their salvation depends on their parents’ righteousness. Sadly, even 2000 years later, we act likewise .

In most of the legislations we regard indigenous peoples as minors, meaning that they are not accountable for what they do and also incapable of deciding what they want. Society, so goes the argument, will provide for them.

And it is these people, the little ones that were brought to Jesus. We don’t even know who brought them. The point is that they did not come by themselves. They were brought to Jesus. Not even this was their choice. There they were, standing in front of Jesus, already known as a religious leader, a rabbi that would gather the people around himself, teaching them and performing wonders. In other words, he was a public man concerned with his people with presumably no time to fool around with children. This is probably what the disciples thought when they attempted to send the children away. Not yet capable of learning the law how would these little ones ever be able to know what the meaning of gospel was, let alone understand it?
Innocent to the point of not knowing what condemnation was, how would they ever be able to know of liberation?

But they were exactly those whom Jesus chose to illustrate what the Kingdom was like. Be like a child, because only so will you inherit the Kingdom. And he certainly did not mean the children in the TV commercials, nice and well behaved. Be like a child, cute but also misbehaved. Be like a child who can say mom and dad, but who very unlikely would say sir and madam. But, alas, unlike a doctor, a clerk, a teacher, a mechanic or a pastor there is no training that will enable you to be a child. Unlike Oskar, you cannot decide to remain a child for life, and even if you could, it is obvious that it was not your choice. No amount of knowledge or wit can make that happen. You might learn that you need to be a child to inherit the Kingdom, but you cannot learn to be one because that simply cannot be learned.

What is the point of all this then? We are on a road from which there is no return. But in it we are driven to the edges of existence. On that road of no return we come to the limit of what knowledge will grant us and it will not be enough. In that journey we will learn that what we can know drives us to the limit of knowledge itself and that what we can do will never be adequate. And further what holds us together, race, cast, profession, religion, age, social class will not be enough in the face of all that sets us apart. And when we know all of that, when we reach the limit of whatever we are, only one thing remains: the child in each of us hurried under the weight of so much we have attempted ourselves to be. And this child, the same child that Jesus took in his arms and blessed, is the one born out of the waters of baptism. There, and only there are we one. There and there only are we a people, a new nation, hurried to all that we have construed and born to be a new republic. This is why our differences can be our differences; this is why we won’t need to build our identity and unity. The waters of baptism have given us the permission to be children again, always and ever. Nothing else is required. This is why it is not correct to say that we baptize children. We baptize persons into childhood.



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