Turning Over Our Children to God
The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
2 February 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
In the Gospel lesson from Luke we hear the story of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the Temple. Why were they doing this? They were doing it in obedience to fulfill the Jewish law found in the book of Exodus, which stated that every first-born male child among the Jews was to be regarded as “holy” and given to the Lord. This idea of holy does not mean “morally perfect.” Rather, the sense of holy in the text means set apart.
The book of Exodus, God commanded the Israelites to set apart their firstborn sons to serve as priests for their family and the community. God required this after he rescued the Israelites from the Egyptians by killing all the Egyptian’s firstborn sons. So in Exodus 13:2 God decrees, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” Hence, the first-born male child of every Jewish household was set apart for the Lord, to assume the duties of conducting family worship and to offer the appropriate sacrifices to God.
Later on, however, as we read in the book of Numbers, God chose the firstborn sons from the tribe of Levi in the place of all of the tribes’ eldest sons to serve him in the sanctuary. But, the families who bore sons who were not from the tribe of Levi were not completely off the hook. The law stated that those firstborn male children need to be “redeemed” or “bought back” from God. The price that was established for this “redemption” was 5 sheckles, which is the equivalent of about 100 grams of silver. How did they come up with that number?
The number was picked because in the story of Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery, the brothers sold Joseph for 20 pieces of sliver, which was the equivalent of 5 sheckles (100 grams of silver; like 5 of our silver dollars). So, at the time of Jesus, it was still customary for parents not from the tribe of Levi to present their first-born sons to the Temple, accompanied by a sin offering. The fact that Mary and Joseph did not pay 5 sheckles for Jesus is theologically important in the story because it indicates that Jesus was still “consecrated for the Lord and belonged to him.” Mary and Joseph did not “buy back” Jesus from God’s service.
Imagine what it would be like in the Christian tradition if every family offered their first-born child to serve the church in holy orders, whether as a priest or deacon, or member of a religious community? Would you experience that as a being a great honor and privilege for your child and your family? Or would you resent that life for your child? The way we react to that question, I think, can be very telling about how much we value the religious life. Are you glad that the church has clergy, but also glad that your children have chosen some other, say more lucrative, profession? Or do you really wish your children would become clergy or embrace the religious life and are disappointed that they haven’t?
When I told my parents I was leaving the Air Force to go to seminary, no one was terribly thrilled. My mother was neutral about it and said, “whatever you want to do I will support you.” My dad, on the other hand, was very upset. We were in a restaurant when I told him, and he slammed down his glass and yelled, “Why do you want to do that!” (And, that’s an edited version of what he really said.) The restaurant all of a sudden got very quiet and I could just feel everyone looking over to see what the outburst was all about. He told me I was making a stupid decision and going to ruin my life. My dad had enlisted in the Army during Vietnam and he was so proud of me for having gone to the Air Force Academy, becoming an officer, being in the Presidential Honor Guard, and on track for a very successful Air Force career. My decision to make such a radical change in my life was something that he couldn’t process. In his mind I was “throwing away my life” and all that I had worked so hard for so many years. It was absurd to him.
A couple years later, when I was a senior in seminary, my grandfather died, my dad’s dad. My grandmother asked me to help put together the funeral and lead it. That side of the family weren’t churchgoers so we did it in a funeral home. But, it was the first time my dad really got to see me in that sort of role. And, after the funeral my dad said to me. “You really did a good job up there. I’m proud of you. I understand your decision a little bit better now.” He’s been supportive of me ever since.
The relationship between parents and children is a complicated one. One the one hand, as parents you are singularly responsible for seeing to the welfare and upbringing of your children and you invest a lot both financially and emotionally into making sure you set up your children to have a successful future. Indeed, your children depend on you in so many ways. But, on the other hand, you really aren’t responsible for your children’s future at all. God is. And, in case you didn’t know this, if you have presented your child for baptism you have, actually, publicly acknowledged this very fact, even if you weren’t really aware of what you were doing.
When a child is presented for baptism, the parents are turning over their child and their child’s future into the hands of God. You might think of this symbolically when the parents physically hand over their child to the priest to be baptized. And, when the priest hands the child back to the parents, the parents are receiving their child back in a different standing. They receive the child back as a person who has begun a new life in Christ, where the life they have ahead of them is a unique vocation God has called them to discover and discern. One of the jobs of being a parent is to help children discover their vocation and not determine it for them.
So when parents hand their children over for baptism, similar to the way the first Israelites presented their first-born sons to God in the Temple, they are acknowledging that their child first and foremost belongs to God and the ultimate destiny of their child’s future is not up to them.
When people accept the vocation of being a Christian parent (and I truly believe parenthood is a vocation and a calling), they are essentially acknowledging that their children are not their property. They belong to parents only in the sense that God has given them a gift of which they are to be a steward. The job of parents as steward is to raise and nurture that child, so that he or she grows in wisdom, so that they can discover their own vocation for a future that God has planned for them. We can influence children and suggest courses of action, we can be more or less coercive in our approach, but the role of being a parent is to raise children so that they are both equipped for and have the confidence to answer God’s call when they hear it.
But the vocation of parenthood, of course, is not without its pains and sorrows, as every parent has realized to greater and lesser degrees. Whether it is the pain of being disappointed in your child’s chosen career path or decisions they have made, or the pain and anguish that goes along with being a parent whose child is born with a particular disability, or having a child diagnosed with a terminal disease like leukemia, in whatever state or condition that child inhabits, the job of the parents is to love them and provide for them, knowing that their ultimate future is in the hands of God.
It is not clear exactly what sort of life Mary and Joseph expected Jesus to have. We know they raised him as their son, and Joseph taught Jesus his craft of carpentry. We know they raised him in the Jewish faith. And, we know that they raised him in such a way that he grew in wisdom. But, their encounter with Simeon and Anna in the Temple courtyards must have given them pause.
After Simeon takes Jesus out of the arms of Mary and cries out that he can now die in peace because he has seen the Savior, he also foretells Jesus’ future to Mary. He says to her: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” And, his final words to her are, “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” Part of Mary’s calling to be Jesus’ mother was to experience the pain that was inevitably going to come to her, when she would witness in person the life of her son end in humiliation, torture, and death.
I have observed over the years that parents feel under tremendous pressure when it comes to providing for their children’s future, not to mention feeling terribly judged by other parents. Many parents feel tremendous pressure to get their kids into the right activities, and into the right schools, so they can get into the right colleges, so they can get the right jobs, so they can find the right spouse, so they can raise the right family, so their kids can have kids. This can cause tremendous stress on marriages and create difficult financial pressures, and cause families to take on a lot of debt. But, we might sometimes also forget that children can also feel under a tremendous amount of pressure to follow the path that their parents have carved out for them, worried that if they don’t follow that path or can’t follow that path, that their parents will not love them, or that they will be disappointed in them, or worse disown or reject them.
This was one of the main themes of the movie “Dead Poets Society.” The main character, Neil, was at a high-end Ivy League prep school and, after an encounter with an inspiring teacher, discovered his gift and passion for acting. His parents thought that activity was a waste of time and forbid him to participate. His parents had already determined that Neil was to go to medical school, they were paying for his education and he had no say in the matter. Neil ended up committing suicide at the end of the movie. And, this as many of you know, is not simply Hollywood fiction. When, I was at the Air Force Academy, two of my fellow cadets committed suicide while I was there. One of them left a note saying that he chose to end his life because he did not want to be there anymore and believed that his death was better than facing his parent’s rejection. He saw no alternative future for himself.
Stories like these are tragedies. And, unfortunately, they are not uncommon. Many of us do things and take on careers and life paths to please our parents, even though deep in our hearts we feel God calling us to different futures.
It takes courage to be a parent. But it takes even more courage to let your children go in the direction that God is calling them. In the face of society’s competing messages on what counts as success, it can be hard to trust your children’s future to God. But this is what is required of us. Our children are always first and foremost God’s children. As parents we are stewards of their lives and called to nurture them so that they grow in wisdom to become faithful men and women of God, ready to answer God’s call for their life when they hear it.