Year B, Pentecost 18
One of my favorite paintings of Jesus depicts him seated with children surrounding him. He is talking to one boy with his arm around the boy’s shoulder. A little girl has her head on his shoulder. I have had this print for as long as I can remember. The picture is so ingrained in me that when I think of Jesus, I see that Jesus. Most of us have probably seen a picture or painting of Jesus with children. There is a reason politicians are always kissing babies. It’s heartwarming. It makes you feel good. It makes you want to trust them. We want that image of Jesus as much as we want that image of national leaders. This image comes in part from our Gospel for today.
Our Gospel for today is jam packed. The children only come in at the end of the reading. It starts with Jesus teaching his disciples, explaining that he would be killed and then rise again. The disciples were understandably confused by this, but didn’t not ask for an explanation. Instead, they got into an argument about who was the greatest. Greatest at what we do not know. Greatest disciple, greatest miracle worker, greatest fisherman. We don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus didn’t like it. In response to their petty argument, he told them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Now, if you have been coming to church for a while, you have probably heard this so many times, it no longer seems shocking. Yet, if you think about it, it must have sounded kind of crazy to the disciples who were hearing it for the first time. And Jesus knew it sounded crazy. He knew that his disciples were not catching on to everything he was teaching. So he decided to show them what he meant. He took a child and held the child in his arms. He said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”
Well isn’t that sweet. Can’t you just see the disciples nodding along with big smiles? I have always imagined the scene with loving parents not far off looking on– proud of their son or daughter and grateful to Jesus for taking such an interest in their child. It must have been as heartwarming then as we perceive it now. Perhaps not. You see… the way we treat children in our culture or social circles is not how all people perceive or treat children. We expect our children to be doted on and loved. We expect them to have family looking after them. That may be our experience–and we are fortunate if it is, but it is certainly not the norm. It is really only in modern history when children had rights, let alone the exalted place they currently hold in our culture.
In the time that Jesus was living in, children were the least of these. They had no rights. The mortality rate was high and people could not assume their child would live to be an adult. Women had lots of children to ensure that at least some would live to carry on the family name and tradition. Today, if there was a food scarcity, the children would be fed first. Then, they would have been fed last, if fed at all. Not only were they not highly regarded, they were a nuisance. They had to be taken care and could not contribute much to the family. Therefore when Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” —That would have been shocking.
While this view of children seems unimaginable to most of us, it’s not actually that unthinkable. I can’t speak for you all, but I have been very fortunate in that in my world, I have almost always seen children treated well. I have been sheltered. I remember there was only one time in my life when I saw children in a desperate situation. When I was 9, my parents took me on a day trip to a border town in Mexico. As soon as we crossed over the border, we were surrounded by children asking for money. I gave all my money away in the first 15 minutes. It just blew my mind that these children were just wandering the streets. The scary thing is, that is a lot more common than most of us want to admit. There are a lot of children out there who are unloved, who are hungry, carrying contagious and deadly diseases, disfigured because they didn’t get the proper nutrition in the womb, deserted because they were born a girl, scared and desperate because their parents have been killed in war or they have been separated from their parents for reasons beyond their control. Children are suffering all over the world.
There are the children who occasionally pluck the strings of our heart when we see a horrifying image on the news, but these are images that we can push back because they are not our own. I want to paint you a new picture. These are the children who are surrounding Jesus in this story. They are dirty, hungry and sick. They are neglected and unwanted. They are being shot at because of the color of their skin. They are being bought and sold as slaves. They are dying. And Jesus wasn’t just handing them some loose change, he was holding them in his arms and telling his chosen 12 that these, these were the people who mattered to him. And if they mattered to him, they should matter to his disciples as well. They should matter to all of us.
I know that there are a lot of you who are working for children in our community and some outside our community. St. John’s has been working with Downtown Hampton Development Center that provides low cost early education for many years; we have parishioners who take children shopping for school supplies; we have people who tutor at the local schools; our St. Anne’s Guild works with the Boys Home in Covington and many of you serve on boards of various agencies committed to helping children. Our music academy is currently reaching out to provide music lessons to children who might not be able to otherwise afford it. Those are all such important things. We can do more. Right now violent crime by youth and to youth is up in Hampton. Some of these teenagers who are the victims, witnesses, and offenders of these crimes have never known the love that Jesus asks us to share. Right now the Mayor’s office is working with local churches at forming mentor programs for youth in junior high. This is another opportunity to follow Jesus’ charge to his disciples, to care for the least of these…not just the cute children we see depicted in religious art, the children who really desperately need our love.
Typically, when we think of Jesus loving the children, we think of innocence, curiosity and loyalty. But Jesus was talking about the aspects of children that are harder to love. While that is a challenge to all of us, it is comforting to know that he loves the parts of each of us that are hard to love. As a wise person once said, “Jesus loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to let us stay that way.” Just one chapter after our reading for today, Jesus and the disciples once again interact with children. The disciples rebuked the children for seeking his blessing. It seems they did not learn that lesson very well. But that’s ok- they were slow learners like most of us are. Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them again. I bet he also blessed his disciples, because they needed love too. It’s not easy to be Jesus’ disciples. It’s not easy to love the least of these. Thankfully, we have many opportunities. Even if we mess up and don’t love as we should, we have countless opportunities to share Jesus’ blessings, and if we take these opportunities, the potential is unlimited.