Year B, Pentecost 17
One of my favorite images of Jesus is a picture that I have had hanging on my wall since I was a child.
I do not remember a time when that image of Christ was not in my head.
In the picture Jesus is seated with children all around him.
He is smiling and the children are smiling. When I look at that picture I imagine children swarming to Jesus as he leans down to speak with one.
He plays with them and talks to them.
There are several stories of Jesus with children and today’s Gospel is one of them.
It reminds me of the popular children’s song.
Jesus loves the little children.
All the children of the world
Red, brown, yellow, Black and white
They are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world
There is no wonder why Jesus loves the children. Most people like children, especially when they can return them to their parents when they get cranky. Jesus takes it a step further in the Gospel. It’s not just about loving the children, it’s about welcoming the children. He said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus loves the little children. When we hear these words, we probably think of the children who we know…children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. And it is no wonder why Jesus welcomes them. We are reminded that we too should welcome the little children. Most churches are pretty good about that.
But that is not what this Gospel is actually about. Children today are treated differently than they were in Jesus’ day. In our culture children are important. People orient their lives around their children. Parents say that their children are the most important part of their lives. But this was not so in Jesus’ day. Children were ignored. Sure, most parents loved their children, but children had no rights. They were expendable. There was a letter found from this time period from a Roman soldier to his pregnant wife. He wrote, “If you have a girl, take her outside and leave her.” Children were expendable.
Jesus was saying something new in this Gospel, something very countercultural. By welcoming children, he was welcoming those who were expendable. Not only that, he was telling his disciples that by welcoming those who were expendable, they were welcoming him. This was in response to an argument that the disciples were having. After Jesus had once again shared with them that he would be crucified and then resurrected, he heard them arguing in hushed tones. They were arguing about who was greater. It seems like madness, doesn’t it? Who does that? But it’s not that hard to imagine. Most of us probably don’t have those kind of arguments out loud, but we have them inside. In our heart we wonder why we are not as good as that person…or why if we are as good as that person…why we are not treated any better.
I can just hear Peter and John saying, “Well we were the ones he brought on top of the mountain and got to see Moses and Elijah. Clearly he likes us better.” Then maybe another disciple would counter with, “Oh really Peter….who was the one he just called Satan? Whose is favorite now… satan?” I find it easy to imagine this conversation because that is what I would have been saying. It is what many of us would say or think, because we have a tendency to compare ourselves to one another especially when we are anxious or afraid. The disciples let their fears and their insecurities take over. Arguing about who was better was easier than coming to terms with the fact that Jesus would suffer and die.
Jesus asked what they were arguing about, but he did not wait to hear the answer. He knew because he knew his disciples. He knew that it was and is human nature to argue about petty things because it is easier than discussing weightier matters, like the death of their friend and the danger that might pose for them. He knew. Jesus also knew that giving them a lecture would not make a difference. So he sat down and he called a child to him. And he said (not in so many words, but it was understood): “This is who matters. This is what matters. It’s not your fears and insecurities. It’s not your petty arguments. It is the least of these who matter. It is the children who no one else cares about. It is the child who is left on a rock to die. That is who matters to me. That is who we are called to welcome.”
Thank goodness our world is not like that anymore. Thank goodness we welcome children and love them. Surely Jesus would be proud. Or would he…Just a few weeks ago, the refugee crisis became very real for people when a small child was found dead on the coast of Turkey. Images of that dead child went viral. There was video footage of someone carrying the limp body out of the water. It was heartbreaking. The media went crazy. Why weren’t we doing more? We knew that these rickety boats in dangerous waters were full of families and those families had children! Didn’t we know that? And we did. It’s true. It took a dead child washed up on a beach to wake us up. There were articles casting blame. People debated who was and who was not doing enough. It’s human nature, when we should be talking and trying to work together, we bicker. Unlike the disciples, we don’t talk about who is greater. We talk about who is worse.
It is ironic. 2000 years ago a dead child would not have gotten anyone’s attention. Today it does…but dead adults don’t seem to get our attention. Today, anyone can be expendable. If Jesus lived today and found his disciples arguing about who is greater—I wonder who he would call to sit among them. Who are the expendable ones in our midst? Who are those who we do not notice until they end up on our beaches? There are many…so many. That picture hanging on my wall of Jesus with the cute children would look different if it had those who were expendable today.
It’s time to stop arguing and grand standing. It does not matter who is greater. It does not matter who is right. All that matters is who is the least of these. All that matters is what we can do to welcome them, to love them as Jesus loves them. Jesus loves the little children….all the children of the world. What we must remember is that we are all God’s children, no matter the age, no matter the color or creed. We are all God’s children. None of us are expendable.