Readings: Sirach 17:1-15; Psalm 103; Mark 10:13-16
Today's first reading is another beautiful passage from the Book of Sirach. It gives us a 'theological anthropology', a portrait of the human being illuminated by his relationship with God. The human being is created in the image of God: this is one of the few places between Genesis and the New Testament where this description is found. It means the human being is alive and intelligent, knowing good and evil and having free choice in relation to them. The human being rules over all other creatures because he is reflective, inventive, and understanding. He is spiritual and wise, and ought to know God through the works of creation. So man gives glory and praise to God, lives within the covenant, and has received precepts from God to guide his actions.
There is no suggestion of anything like eternal life here. The human being participates in all these good things as long as he is alive but his days of life are limited and he returns to the earth from which he was made. One thing that pushed Hebrew thought in the direction of resurrection was the frequency with which this serene vision of human life as powerful, knowledgeable, effective, creative, and moral, was known not to be the reality. The equation of such serenity with good living was often subverted by experience: good people, wise and spiritual, did not enjoy good things during the course of their lives, whereas people who chose evil and wicked ways, neglected God's commandments, and failed to praise Him, did well in the course of their lives. Where then was justice? How could God show Himself to be righteous if not through a resurrection, of the good to life (which seems to be simply more of the same, a kind of re-incarnation) and the wicked to judgement.
We must wait for the New Testament to get a clear teaching about the resurrection of the dead. Jesus teaches it many times, speaking of the resurrection of all to judgement, the good to be rewarded for their goodness and the wicked to be punished for their wickedness. We might be tempted now to dismiss this kind of talk as childish. Surely that's the infantile stage of moral development, to think in terms of rewards and punishments? It is true that it can reflect a childish understanding of morality as well as a monstrous image of God. But we are to become like little children, Jesus says in today's gospel. Childlike, not childish, as preachers frequently rush to point out.
Children, if memory serves correctly, do have a strong sense of a parallel world, within or beneath or behind the world available to the senses. Through the looking glass, into the wardrobe, rub the lamp, and another dimension opens up, a magical, supernatural dimension that encircles and contains the reality in which we are living our lives. We are to accept the Kingdom of God like a child. 'I would bring you into my childhood home, and there you would teach me', is one translation of Song of Songs 8:2. 'Like a weaned child on its mother's breast, even so is my soul', says Psalm 131. The mother will forget the child at her breast and have no compassion for it, before I forget you, says the Lord, or fail to show you compassion (Isaiah 49:15-16).
Again today the readings combine to draw us beyond the adult, philosophical, reflectiveness of the Wisdom literature to the radical, colourful, surprising world of the child. That serene and knowledgeable man described in the first reading, dutiful and admirable, is invited to grow up into a new kind of childhood, to be 'born again' as Jesus says to Nicodemus, to return to the childhood home of the one who loves him in order to be taught a new way of being, starting from a new beginning. The resurrected life is not just a continuation of what we experience here, another turn of the carousel. It is new in every way, a new heavens and a new earth, where justice will be at home, where the Eternal Child leads us along everlasting paths of discovery.