A photo flashed across my screen. It depicts a wire fence surrounding an unkempt yard somewhere in the countryside. A rusted old tractor is on one side, the plow attachment off to another, a tumble-down shed toward the corner, a farm house in the background. Hanging from the wire fence is an upside down plastic pink flamingo, and a sign that is hard to ignore, somehow. The sign reads, “Them ain’t my cows.” There are no cows in the photo.
The sign in the photo could raise lots of questions. Where are the cows? Whose cows are they? With whom was the property owner trying to communicate this vital information, and why? But the sign provides a clear answer to only one question, albeit a question that makes no sense in the absence of cows. But let there be no doubt: them ain’t my cows.
I don’t think Jesus had a very sophisticated signage program, since he had a pretty weak personal brand by today’s standards. But I think he’d have found something intriguing in that sign hung on the wire fence located in the countryside of who-knows-where in America. Especially since there weren’t any cows around the Judean countryside. In fact, I think Jesus might have found such a sign useful in some of his arguments with the Pharisees, especially when they came to test him, as we hear they did in the Gospel reading this morning.
The Pharisees asked Jesus if divorce is lawful according to the ancient religious law. I don’t know enough about the politics of the day to know what sort of trap they thought they were setting for Jesus. I don’t know whose agenda they were pushing. I don’t know if someone snuck a county clerk in the back way to see Jesus just so the media would report on this conversation. I expect that the exchange would have felt right at home in the current political climate, as the advocates of a particular point of view try to force others either to adopt their view or to disparage the perspective of their opponents.
I don’t know what Jesus made of it. He first provides a perfunctory answer. And when pressed, he takes a conservative hard line against divorce. But in the context of the moment, there is no sense that Jesus is all that interested in the question.
Moments later, however, Jesus becomes “indignant,” Saint Mark tells us, not because of anything to do with the question of divorce, but because his own disciples are preventing children from coming to be near him and touch him.
What I wish is this: I wish Jesus had reached behind him and pulled out a sign in response to that challenge from the Pharisees, a sign that read: “Them ain’t my cows.” It isn’t that the question of divorce is or was unimportant or un-interesting. But, as with other questions posed to Jesus, he is not interested in the answer that his interlocutors are after. (And it is very clear that they are looking for their own right answer, not for wisdom from Jesus: they came to test him.) Who is my neighbor? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar? These questions are all asked by people who only want answers they have already decided upon, not by those who are seeking real wisdom.
But Jesus is not willing to give the answers people are already looking for. And he often needs to turn the question on its head in order to teach about the kingdom of God. (Them ain’t my cows.)
If Jesus had just answered the Pharisees that way – Them ain’t my cows – there would surely have been some children around who would have giggled at the answer. But those children were being shooed away by his own disciples. So Jesus saw the real teaching moment: “Let the little children come to me.” Or in the older but still somehow familiar translation: “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”
And then, for the benefit of the giggling children: “Them ain’t my cows.” It is a nonsense, of course, and no one appreciates nonsense like children.
Living in an age when religion is often considered a nonsense, we might pay closer attention to the ability of children to find value and meaning where adults cannot; to see a reason to smile where adults can only frown; and to hear the voice of love where adults insist on the application of law. Jesus represents all these attitudes, although it seldom suits our purposes to remember him this way.
We have much in common with those who wanted to keep the children away from Jesus, and this has become a problem for the church. We have made it almost as difficult to bring children to Jesus as it was to bring them to see the pope. We have erected barriers, security measures, and checkpoints. We have wrapped Jesus in armor of our own design so that nothing can threaten our idea of him. And if we allow the occasional interloper through the barriers for a kiss on the head, then we can pretend that we have not put up miles of fencing around the places he can truly be found, that we have not issued a limited number of tickets just to be in the vicinity of the jumbo-trons that show the images of him that we choose to transmit. If we make it that hard to see the pope, just imagine how disinclined we really are to suffer the little children to come to Jesus.
What I mean to say isn’t that papal security is unimportant, but that we have become so expert at the wrong questions that we hardly even know how to do what Jesus asks of us – let the little children come to him. Them ain’t my cows.
It would appear that one of the gifts of the current Bishop of Rome is his ability to re-define the question. When all the encyclicals are issued, in the day when his ministry is evaluated, some of us are hoping, for instance, that the most important words he will ever have uttered will be these: “Who am I to judge?” A question almost incomprehensible to many of his predecessors, especially in its particular context, that must sound to numerous religious ears as nonsensical as “Them ain’t my cows,” and even antithetical to the premise of the question about marriage and divorce.
Perhaps, then, as a church we need to learn to provide this response more readily to the questions and situations that so easily lead us to put the children outside. Them ain’t my cows. Perhaps we could use this nonsensical catch-phrase as a Pavlovian tool to redirect our attention and energy in precisely the way that Jesus tried to redirect the attention and energy of his opponents and followers alike – toward the care of children.
‘“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.’ What if we concerned ourselves for the next ten years with no other passage of scripture but these three verses?
To so many people today the image of the church (if they have one at all) is not dissimilar to that photo that flashed across my screen. A wire fence surrounds a run-down yard, filled with rusting and out-dated implements that don’t work any more and aren’t even especially nice to look at. A house is protected in the distance, but for whom? The scene is empty of people, certainly no children. Something cheap and leftover has been hung upside down on the ugly wire fence, and a meaningless sign proclaims a senseless message to no one in particular, and with no real urgency. Them ain’t my cows.
Arguments about divorce – or gay marriage, or all sorts of other cultural issues – are not likely to change this picture, in my opinion. Them ain’t my cows.
Bringing children to Jesus is the only real way to change this picture. Not the Jesus whom we carefully guard and present as a more anemic version of our idea of our own best selves, but the Jesus who knows how likely we are to prevent children from coming right up to him and touching him. If we could work on suffering the little children to come to Jesus, we might be surprised how many other things would take care of themselves – maybe even divorce, here and there.
Jesus wants a church in which children are welcome and encouraged to come to him, because such a church is a useful icon of the kingdom of God, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” But we – and I mean the church far beyond Locust Street – we have perfected our role as disciples who drive children away from Jesus. That a few can withstand our resistance is hardly proof otherwise.
It would be easy to get caught in the trap about the admittedly vexing question of divorce. And it is vastly easier to do so than to put up with the hassle of suffering the little children to come to Jesus – at least as disruptive to us as it was to those first disciples.
But them ain’t my cows. And them ain’t Jesus’ cows either.
Jesus is asking us, commanding us to suffer the little children to come unto him. And that, my friends, is a very different picture: it is a picture of hope, and kindness, and generosity, and mercy, and sacrifice, and tenderness, and the willingness not to judge. It is a picture of love. And it is a picture of the kingdom of God – where little children who are crawling, and scribbling, and shouting, and dancing, and crying, and tugging, and snacking, and dribbling, and rocking, and napping, and running, and worrying, and singing, and jumping, and trying, and failing, and learning, and growing, and praying, and sighing, and hoping, and skipping, and playing, and suffering, and healing, and wondering, and yearning, and falling, and getting up, are all very much at home – for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
As for all the other stuff we could worry about: for the moment, at least, them ain’t my cows.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
4 October 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia