“Welcome a Child, Welcome God”
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)
In our culture today, our lives revolve around our children. In the Good Shepherd community we especially take pride in our Good Shepherd Episcopal School and our Hillside Early Childhood Center. We want our children to grow and learn in a safe, nurturing, Christian environment. We take the task of safeguarding our children so seriously, that all who come in contact with children on our campuses are required to complete a Safeguarding God’s Children course; where we learn the different steps to take – screening, monitoring, acting and reporting to ensure that are children are kept safe from all forms of abuse.
Although I completed the training both in the Diocese of Southeast Florida and the Diocese of Virginia, I spent half of the day on Friday completing the training yet again, so that the Diocese of Texas can be sure that I meet their particular requirements. Yes, we take caring for the well being of our children very seriously!
Even I placed answering my call to ordained ministry on hold until my children were grown; believing at the time that my children were my first ministry. Most 21st century mothers and some fathers believe that children should be watched over constantly and carefully. Some parents will even leave everything they own and take all kind of risks crossing borders to keep their children out of danger and to give them a better life.
Although there are a large number of children living in poverty and suffering abuse, for the most part, in our culture, children are highly valued and are placed first on our list of priorities. In the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.”
But it was not so in Greco-Roman culture. In those times children had no rights and were of very little value. Even in Judaism, which was slightly more positive than Greco-Roman culture, you had to wait until your bar mitzvah before you had any real status.[i] Children lacked power, value and significance. There was no “women and children first” there. Author John Pilch claims, even Thomas Aquinas taught that in a raging fire a husband was obligated to save first his father, them mother, next his wife and last of all his young child.[ii]
So can you imagine the disciples’ reaction when Jesus places a child among them and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me?” (Mark 9:37) They were probably thinking: what is wrong with this picture? We are supposed to welcome someone who doesn’t have the power or ability or place to welcome us in return? No return on our investment? No quid pro quo? We have followed the Messiah all over the countryside and all he speaks about is suffering and dying, rather than victory and glory, and to top it off, he now wants us to welcome and value small, insignificant and powerless people? This latest commandment makes no sense at all to the disciples, but they are too afraid to ask questions. Jesus knew that they had been arguing among themselves about who was greatest and they were embarrassed. By bringing the child in their midst, Jesus totally overturns their notion of greatness and power when he tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:36b)
Now why would Jesus make this link between children and God? We might be tempted to believe that it is because children are good, meek, unselfish, and accepting. Well, I don’t know too many children like that. I have learned from raising mine that children are: insightful, clever, quick, fierce, funny, solemn, surprising, selfish, generous, obedient, naughty, quiet, loud, challenging and exhausting. I believe Jesus knew this when he described children as representations of God.
Children have great imaginations. They can hear a story and fill in creative details using the full range of their senses. Writer and children’s minister, Debie Thomas, shares that when she tells children Bible stories, they can imagine what the perfume in the alabaster jar smelled like, the feel of the calluses on Peter’s feet when Jesus washed them and the taste of the bread at the last supper.[iii]
In our Gospel reading, Jesus invites the disciples to imagine a world where death does not have the last say, where suffering is replaced with joy and where resurrection is a promise, not merely a possibility. But they could not let go of their preconceived notion of the Messiah and what the kingdom of God should look like.
Children are not afraid to ask hard questions and they keep asking until they are satisfied with the answers they receive. The disciples missed out on having a deeper more intimate relationship with Jesus because either they were embarrassed to admit their ignorance, or believed – like we sometimes do – that avoiding the uncomfortable stuff would save them.
Young children do not fear scarcity, unless they are conditioned to do so. They expect that there is enough to go around. Enough time, enough attention, enough love, enough goldfish. The disciples on the other hand, do not believe in the abundance of God’s kingdom. They do not believe or understand that there is room for all. So they argue about who gets first dibs.
The child is a symbol of the lack of power, value and significance. In some cultures, children are socially invisible. In others, they’re legally unprotected. In all cultures, even ours, children are at the mercy of those who are older, bigger, and stronger than they are. And this — yes, this shocking portrait of dependence and vulnerability — is the portrait Jesus offers of God. In the divine economy, power and prestige accumulate when through humility, we consent to be little, to be vulnerable, to be invisible, to be low. Jesus calls us to look out for each other. We gain greatness not by bullying others out of our way, but by serving them, empathizing with them and sacrificing ourselves for their well being.
Children in the culture that shaped the disciples’ worldview weren’t the only ones who were devalued; there were others in their society who were both powerless and vulnerable; the aged, handicapped, sick, illiterate, those cast out as unclean. Jesus wanted to teach the disciples a lesson on servant hood. He wanted them to unlearn their former way of thinking and to redefine the meaning of “greatness.” We truly begin to see what setting our minds on the divine really means. Not just spiritual meditations, but attention to the least in such a radical way that we become the least.
In God’s kingdom, the pyramid is inverted. Where the disciples have argued about greatness and power, Jesus directs them to open their arms to the powerless – to children young and not so young. When we welcome the worthless, we welcome Christ. What would be the outcome if the church could begin to think and act this way?
One of the most amazing and central beliefs of our faith is that God became a helpless human child and in our Gospel story, Jesus tells us that to welcome a child is to welcome God.