Up and down the dingy corridors of a square, grey, Soviet-era sanatorium building, somewhere in the Russian countryside, I am improvising a poor contemporary re-enactment of the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
“Back In The Classroom, Please!”
My student, eight years old, is at a very early stage of his language-learning career. He would not be able to produce the words ‘back’, ‘in’, ‘the’, ‘classroom’ and ‘please’ if they were individually presented to him on flashcards in either written or pictorial form. But he certainly understands the general sentiment. As I round one corner, he looks back, grinning, from around the next, and sprints off, far far away.
Meanwhile another eight-year-old has taken on my job. She is standing in front of a roomful of wriggly children with a photo collection, using flashcard games to elicit such lexical items as ‘cow’, ‘crocodile’ and ‘flamingo’. When I return, she will say plaintively in Russian that nobody would listen to her apart from Katya, and I will give her and Katya an extra smiley face each on the whiteboard. Someone will be looking scared because I was shouting. By the end of the lesson, someone else will have rubbed all the smileys off the whiteboard with small angry hands. And in the evening, in the cool of the day, while my students are singing the Camp Hymn and queuing for sweet kefir and biscuits, I’ll be sitting in a little cloud of guilt, self-pity and mosquitoes on a white bench by the river, watching thunderstorms rumble across the yellow sky.
There are moments when one discovers that one has mysteriously failed to become either an exemplary Christian, or a half-way competent adult, or an effective teacher of Young Learners, and also that one has no idea how the first is supposed to relate to the other two. – One cannot go chasing after one runaway Young Learner and leave the rest behind – he will only run away more energetically, and no-one will Learn any English – but one cannot just leave him to it either – and this is just one instance of the general problem – whatever the general problem is – but chaos has descended by now, and one ends up sitting on the aforementioned bench with the wild sky and the riverbank and the river, and the long grass and the hut to take shelter in, and the surface of the flowing water with the raindrops beginning to plonk, plonk into it…
And just as, at such moments, the rumbling thunderstorms and the river and the raindrops seem to look back with a settled refusal to adapt themselves to pathetic fallacy, turbulent, unsettled, but not even slightly perturbed in the particular direction of the little human being watching them, so there are red-letter verses which, instead of Speaking Into The Situation exactly, turn a blank face to the situation and say what they say.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
‘Humbles himself’ is easier read than done; that is, when Jesus says you need to humble yourself, perhaps you should get up and humbly get on with the day, rather than fretting over the text still, quibblingly.
But the funny thing is that we can easily assume that Jesus must have picked a humble sort of child, or we can throw in some other generalization about children – ‘trusting and unpretentious’, if I remember the NIV Study Bible correctly, or that they receive gifts without feeling that they need to earn it, or whatever else comes to mind – and turn the passage into a teaching about those characteristics, allowing the simple fact that the kid was a kid to drop out of the picture.
Matthew does not confirm whether this child was humble, trusting, unpretentious, etc. Perhaps he was deeply distrusting of every adult in sight, and/or exceedingly pleased with himself, looking forward to bragging to his friends afterwards. Children are a diverse bunch, and it seems possible to imagine a first-century version of my runaway student standing in the midst of the disciples – or of the one who stood at the classroom door playing security guard – or the one doing headstands on his chair – or the one having a tantrum about not getting a tiger mask to colour – or the one whose behaviour swung at random from angelic to hair-pulling and back – or the one saying, “I just want to learn English in peace and quiet” – or the one helping the others with their worksheets – or the one glaring, the one smiling, the one demanding attention, the one industriously colouring, or the one who looked just like Brains from Thunderbirds. All we actually know for sure about this particular child is that apparently it was a boy, and that he came when Jesus called.
See that you do not despise one of these little ones…
This is the context in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep is told, in Matthew’s Gospel, that is, in chapter 18: Jesus speaking to his disciples with a child standing among them.
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
Then, Matthew 19, verses 13-14:
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
And then, Matthew 21, verses 15-16:
But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise’?”
It rather seems that the kingdom of heaven is theirs simply because they are children, and ‘become like children’ is a good healthy slap in the face to the EFL teacher carefully attempting to get things right – an attempt which turns out to be a distinctly minor sub-plot in the kingdom of heaven compared to the King of the kingdom’s vast yearning towards, delight in, children because they are children.
Children and whoever else is at the bottom of the pile. In Luke, the lost sheep in the parable represent a different demographic:
And publicans and sinful men were approaching to him [were nighing to him], to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes grumbled [grutched], saying, For this [man] receiveth sinful men, and eateth with them. And he spake to them this parable, and said [saying], What man of you that hath an hundred sheep, and if he hath lost one of them, whether he leaveth not ninety and nine in desert [and if he shall lose one of them, whether he leave not ninety and nine in desert], and goeth to it that perished, till he find it? And when he hath found it, he joyeth, and layeth it on his shoulders; [And when he hath found it, he joying putteth on his shoulders;] and he cometh home, and calleth together his friends and neighbours, and saith to them, Be ye glad with me, for I have found my sheep, that had perished.
(The Wycliffe Bible, just for a change.)
The last, the least and the lost: and the lonely, and the little people, and the ones who have generally made a mess of everything, and the ones who never had anything to make a mess of: these are the ones the kingdom of heaven belongs to, and in the kingdom of heaven everything gets turned upside down. One lost sheep is worth more than ninety-nine who stayed put. One tax collector is worth more than ninety-nine honest citizens. One garment worker is worth more than ninety-nine CEO’s. One sex worker is worth more than ninety-nine Proverbs 31 women. One alcoholic is worth more than ninety-nine teetotallers. One guilty suspect is worth more than ninety-nine excellent lawyers. One child is worth more than ninety-nine EFL teachers. Not one is to be despised, and when he hath found it, he joying putteth it on his shoulders.
The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
Not that any of this gets the incompetent EFL teacher, sitting on a bench by the river, any closer to a solution for her classroom management problems. And a solution does need to be found, and tomorrow’s lessons must be planned and delivered, and the attempt to be a competent adult must go on, just vaguely haunted by the hope that all this about the one lost sheep might be literally true, and by the idea that actually ninety-nine out of every hundred people are the one sheep in some way, and by the feeling that if one really believed this deep down, maybe one would do everything differently.
But the hope and the idea and the feeling are somewhere to start, seeing through a glass darkly; like the storm-pelted beautiful riverside as the rain eases off, and the evening gathers in, and the little hut is a still a little shelter, and the river is still flowing.