Certainly sons are a gift from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb, a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the sons born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man who has filled his quiver with them.
He will never be shamed
for he will destroy his foes at the gate.
We all know that the Ten Commandments require us to “honor thy father and thy mother,” and elsewhere in Exodus the Lord declares, “Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death” (21:17). But have we considered the full meaning of these commands?
Because we learn the Commandments as children, our natural tendency is to think that the Fourth Commandment means doing your chores and not talking back to Mom and Dad. But most of those listening to Moses were of age, and Moses was telling them, not that they should be good boys and girls, but rather that they should respect and care for their own elderly parents, whose child-rearing days were long past. Honoring one’s father and mother meant honoring them all through life, perhaps especially when they became old and infirm.
The Fourth Commandment, together with God’s command to our first parents, “Be fruitful and multiply,” form a picture of inter-generational dependence. Adults are meant to care for their aged parents while having and raising children who will in turn care for them. Three generations, living in unity, form a family.
In the ancient economy, before Social Security and 401(k) plans, the family was the retirement plan, and the cycle of life was maintained by those in the middle. A man’s sons not only equipped him, as the psalmist says, to withstand his foes; they also provided for his future and for his future reputation. Since most men, then as now, led rather ordinary lives, having their own offspring meant that someone would remember them after they died. It also meant that they would be protected and cared for as they got older and less self-sufficient. (Incidentally, this helps us to understand better the poverty and chastity that we who profess the evangelical counsels embrace, because part of why we are poor is that we have no children to provide for our material future; we can only cling to God’s promise.)
Throughout the Old Testament, children were seen as a great blessing. God promised Abraham, who was childless, that his own offspring would be his heir and that his descendants would be numerous: “He took him outside and said: Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, he added, will your descendants be” (Genesis 15:4-5). God reiterated these promises when he instituted circumcision as a the sign of his covenant: “Between you and me I will establish my covenant, and I will multiply you exceedingly; …I will make you exceedingly fertile; I will make nations of you; kings will stem from you” (Genesis 17:2, 6).
As children were considered a great blessing, so, by contrast, childlessness was considered a shameful and dangerous thing to face. Since the Jews originally believed that God meted out rewards and punishments in this present life, they saw infertility as a sign of God’s disfavor. Luke had to tell us explicitly that Zechariah and Elizabeth “were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” (Luke 1:6) before he mentioned that they were childless (1:7). Of course, we know now, with the benefit of the Gospel, that those living in God’s favor can expect suffering and hardship. Infertility cannot be interpreted as a sign of moral weakness or of God’s disfavor, though it remains trying.
In light of all this, let us consider Christ’s words as he was making his way up Mt. Calvary:
Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed’” (Luke 23:28-29).
When those pious Jewish women heard Jesus say, “Blessed are the barren,” they must have been shocked. How could they have imagined a world in which barrenness would be praised? It is one thing to assuage the shame experienced by couples unable to conceive; it is another to hold up childlessness as an ideal. How could the world have gone from one where you had to be careful to explain that childlessness was not a result of personal sin to one in which childlessness was praiseworthy?
Today we have not quite reached the point Jesus predicted—the number of doctors, drugs, books, and television shows dedicated to helping women get pregnant provide ample evidence to the contrary—but having children is certainly no longer seen as the kind of blessing depicted in the Old Testament. Children, particularly those conceived by the young, are looked upon as barriers to success, not as “arrows in the hand of a warrior.” We speak of the ever rising “cost” of raising a child. We may call children “our future” in a metaphorical or poetic way, but we expect paid professionals, funded by our retirement programs, to take care of us when we are old. Children, it seems, are just another good that can be subordinated to others.
The crassest attempt to subordinate children to a lesser good occurred thirty-nine years ago, when on January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court decided that a child’s right to life could be abrogated by his or her mother’s right to privacy. Privacy, a concept whose extension is nearly impossible to define, was placed ahead of life. And, in the politics that have developed since that decision, it is the good of “choice” that reigns supreme.
How have children gone from being seen as gifts bestowed by the Lord to being considered one of many competing goods to be acquired when we think the timing is right? The answer, in one word, is wealth.
Wealth frees us from the inter-generational cooperation and dependence we saw in Exodus. No longer must we care for our parents and raise children who will care for us. Instead, we can trust in our wealth: our own savings and investments or, in the form of Social Security and Medicare, the collective wealth of our country. Don’t get me wrong; children are worth a lot more than their ability to grow up and provide for their aged parents. But, detached from its natural and mutual economic dependence, the family has become unmoored.
The fundamental familial connection between young and old is why today’s March for Life has to be about more than abortion. A culture unwilling to embrace its children will eventually become one unwilling to care for the old and infirm.
All of these groups—the young, the old, and the sick—were the object of Jesus’s love and affection during his earthly ministry. He insisted that the children be allowed to come to him; he healed the sick; and many of his early followers were widows.
May Christ teach us how to follow his example. May he strengthen us with his Spirit. May he show us how to love life and all those living it.
Image: Giotto, The Massacre of the Innocents