Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, …..‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. (Matthew 20)
So James` mum brings her boys to Jesus. She`s every inch the proud parent with great ideas and hopes for them. And how does Jesus respond? “You don`t know what you`re asking”.
If we think about it- this is a phrase that should ring true for so many parents. You ask for a baby- you get a person (something totally different). We find ourselves committed to the nurture of a young life- a humbling experience, an exposing experience. And a lifetime`s commitment at that. I would suggest, if we`re honest we know that there is a very real sense in which we don`t know what we`re asking for.
Now, this has always been the case. I`ve little time for those who knock the parents of today. They`re no better or worse than any previous generation. But what has changed I think, are the particular challenges they face. And most of these challenges are quite subtle. And I think they are bound up with this very issue: `what is it we`re asking when we have a child?`
Some years ago, I recall a friend telling me how in London- at the time- having a child was the perfect `fashion accessory` for young upwardly mobile folks. These things come and go, of course- but it`s interesting how consumerism has got in on the act isn`t it? Nowadays we seem to believe childbirth is a right rather than a gift. And that unborn child is ours to dispose of at a whim. And where did we get this notion that children have to be constantly `entertained`? Why do we bring them up as consumers?
Consumers of an endless round of activities which leave them exhausted and their parents practically broke.
Consumers of an education which – and get this- where even the very youngest are assessed under a category called `Achieve economic well-being`. From the very start they are being prepared for the world of work. It seems a bit much at the age of four and half!
And the competition is rife. And it`s the school`s place to turn them into high achievers isn`t it? Nowadays the typical school runs the risk of becoming a factory- where statistics are king. As if real learning can be quantified that easily.
So parents will shop around endlessly to find that perfect little place for their offspring. The one that our prejudice- and what the local gossip has told us- is the place to send them if you want them to get on. Beyond that we`ll pay through the nose for the advantage of mixing with the right sort.
This seems like an age fear. We buy a profusion of aids from WH Smith to get them through the tests and we drive our children until they can`t cope. – and still we feel guilty for not spending enough time with them. Come with me and stand at the school gate. Listen to the parents display their deep anxiety by endlessly comparing notes about how their child`s development is getting on- and how if they don`t get the right` secondary school their little one will be scarred for life.
And we`ve hardly noticed that we rely on the school to teach them all sorts of stuff the home used to do- Cookery with mum- woodwork with dad.
I`m not being wistful for a bygone age- I`m just saying that we can make a good case for saying that we`ve lost sight of what we`re asking for when we have a child.
By all means encourage a child to do well- to join in, play their part and so on. But we need to remember that at some point they are going to ask `why?`
I`ve met so many early middle aged people of late- who have gone through this kind of process – and they are all asking this same question: `Why?` Why should they have done all of this? To what purpose? And this is the question they really need help with. But sadly, just like the other `facts of life` it`s the one that causes so many parents so much embarrassment. Perhaps because they`ve never taken the time – or been able to find the space to ask these questions themselves.
I`m talking about questions about meaning and purpose.
So that`s why it`s good to remember James` mum. Because she brought her boys to Jesus. She brought those who meant so much to her- and all that she hoped for them.
She knelt down before him and she heard him say: “You don`t know what you`re asking”. It`s not a very comforting scene really. I mean, through her prayer- through her offering she came to see that she was wrong. But that`s the point. She teaches us a lot about prayer Yes, it`s about coming before Jesus- bringing the concerns of our heart. Yes, it`s about kneeling- (that`s not essential by the way -it`s not even possible for some of us!)- but it does express a certain submission. But significantly prayer might sometimes mean hearing uncomfortable things. like: “You don`t know what you`re asking”.
You see, I`m heartened by this picture of the God who accepts our most foolish prayers. I`m encouraged that he listens even when we don`t know what we`re asking half the time. And I like this thought that as we draw close to him he purifies our vision, our motives and our actions. And we discover things about ourselves and about God- and yes, about our children as well.
And one other thought: When he speaks to the lads Jesus holds out a picture of true greatness. The way of the Cross- the path of sacrifice.
Compared with the standard picture of aspiration for our young people today – which is fame and celebrity – this is magnificent.
And in the light of this I get the sense we`re selling our children short.
It`s not just that `fame and celebrity` is so terribly shallow`. I think we underestimate our children. I think what Jesus did- and what we`re failing to tap into is our children`s idealism; their instinct for caring and sacrifice. He gave them something to live ad something to die for. Whereas too often I think we`re selling our children short with too narrow a vision of what human life is about. But that`s another story.