I was struck in reading Tuesday’s Gospel by Our Lord’s reference to “mere children” in contrast to the “learned and clever” (Lk 10:21-24). Surely Jesus doesn’t see children as “mere?”
When we use this word in normal speech it often has a disparaging sense, meaning relatively unimportant or negligible. Synonyms for “mere” in more contemporary English are, “just” and, “only” – as in the knock on the door was “only” or “just” a person familiar to us. At worst it is dismissive, at least taking for granted or under-appreciating someone or something.
Jesus is using the adjective “mere” here in relation to children, not because he sees them of little value – quite the opposite! Jesus often highlights the claim that they must be models for those wishing to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In this Gospel passage, he is reflecting (in a critical way) the ordinary usage of people in his day, for whom children are deemed less important than adults, especially the wise and smart ones, who are the influencers of this world.
Can we not read a warning here for our Advent journey, to review our judgments of what is truly important in life in the light of the Gospel where “mere” things and people suddenly become “great!”
In the Gospel account of the Centurion’s request of Jesus to heal his servant (Mt 5:8-11), we can imagine the crowd dismissing this “mere” pagan, an enemy and oppressor of the people of Israel. Yet, Our Saviour compliments him highly for his faith, even above his fellow Jews, not to mention his own disciples.
He is the one who is open to the revelation of Jesus by His Father in recognising the Lord’s authority, especially in healing illness.
And a similar point can be made to so many other dismissive judgements by the religious establishment of his time, represented by the Scribes and Pharisees. A “mere” Samaritan shows up the religious people passing by a victim of bandits and goes out of his way to be generous in serving that poor man. A poor widow gives a “mere pittance” in dropping a few coins into the Temple collection box. But Jesus praises her for her sacrifice, again showing up the rich who give from their surplus! It is “only” the Samaritan leper who returns to thank Jesus for his healing. And the list can go on and on.
“Mere” things can also be used by the Lord to underline his powerful love in action. There are “just” seven loaves and some small fish to feed a multitude and Jesus is happy to multiply that number, leaving an abundance of left-overs. “Mere” water is transformed into the best of wine at the Wedding at Cana, to save the blushes of the bride and groom.
And returning to the “mere” children, are we not waiting for the revelation of God at Christmas in a “mere” child?
Consider those Wise Men, already on their way, following a star. They are searching for the “King of the Jews.” Surely he will be in a palace somewhere, but to their utmost surprise he is to be found in a “mere” stable, “just” the child of poor parents, with his “only” company the animals and those wretched shepherds.
But God will reveal his own delight at this “mere” invasion of the Divine into our world by sending his angels with their glorious singing. Nothing “mere” here!
If we adopt a faith which is a child-like disposition, open to wonder and mystery, humble and dependent, then this Advent, the Spirit of the Father and Son will gladly reveal to us the glorious beauty to be found in “mere” things and “people.”
Indeed, for God, nothing He creates is “mere.” Everything has value; we just have to open our eyes and ears to his comforting, yet challenging, message.
Yours “truly,” not “merely!”