Sermon - Ordinary 25 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index | Questions and Comments |
Welcoming the child among us
[For additional background see also Status, love and equality from the gospel for Ordinary 23 B]
It was not the only time he had to speak like this. The disciples had been competing among themselves for places of honour, and he had tell them it was not the way it would be in the Kingdom. Yes, I know it's the time of the Olympics and we enjoy watching competition for first place. We enjoy seeing honours bestowed on high achievers. We can think some more about that, but Jesus was not talking about striving for excellence. His concern was about the disciples competing for positions of influence in the kingdom they expected him to establish. It was about power and rewards, and I will come back to the value of competition later. The concern Jesus expressed here was similar to that of James in the epistle for today:
Jesus spoke to them about being servants of all rather than being first of all, and then took a little child and placed it among them. It is easy enough to see how Jesus might have taken a little child as a model of simple trust or faith, and how he might also have offered the child as an example to reinforce what he was saying about leaders needing to be servants. Indeed in the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke there is a word, talya, which means either child or servant. So the link is obvious. The disciples had been disputing amongst themselves who was the greatest, and Jesus said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Being a servant was like being a child in status. But in Mark's telling of the story, Jesus did not actually make the connection to his lesson about humility and service in what he said about the child, not here, although Matthew's gospel has words from Jesus that look as if they could have belonged to the same incident:
That is a clear straight forward message, " unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven". We can see that also in what Mark wrote, even if Mark does not actually include those words. Simple trust and humility are much to be preferred to anxious striving for superiority among aspirants for entry into the Kingdom of God. It fits with all we know from the many occasions when Jesus spoke of our being servants of one another, and surely it is the sort of thing that he would say when he found the disciples discussing who was the greatest among them. We can learn that lesson, at least in our heads, even if we do not act upon it with quite the same readiness. Indeed we should know it, but I wonder if there is not something else going on here, something with a different message for us. What else could we learn from what Jesus said about the child?
If we continue with Matthew's account for a minute we see that after the saying about the child being an example of humility there is another of a different kind about accepting the child:
There a difference. It is one thing to become like a child, and not quite the same thing to welcome a child in the name of Christ. This additional saying in Matthew about welcoming the child is the saying in Mark's account: "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." The first part of the that saying is the same in Matthew: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. Then follows in Mark another idea adding strength by building on what it means to welcome Christ as a reason for welcoming the child: and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. To welcome the child in the name of Christ is to welcome Christ, and that means that at the same time we welcome "the one who sent me", that is, we welcome God into our lives, for God the Father is the one who sent him. So we seem to have moved from a lesson on humility to one about accepting Christ and establishing a relationship through him with God who sent him. We could say that "the child" is Jesus Christ. When we welcome his coming among us we enter into a new relationship, a new covenant, with God.
When Jesus asked people to receive others in his name he was asking them to accept such child as they would accept him. "In my name" means because of regard for me and who I am. It is a little like the way in which we might welcome the child of a close friend of relative, treating the child with the affection and respect we have for the father or mother whom we know well. But it is stronger than that. "In my name" also means "in my cause", taking the side of Jesus, identifying with him and what he is doing. To accept the child in the name of Christ is to accept the person and the work of Christ. Please don't be sidetracked into humanistic sentiment as if this were simply some encouragement to be kind to children! We often make a fuss of children in church as if there were some great virtue in it, and maybe there is, but we need to be careful that we are not just appealing to human emotions, especially those associated with our fertility. That is not the point of the story. It is not a general lesson about loving children, but rather about doing something in the name of Christ and thereby establishing a new relationship with God.
Ah, but, you will say, isn't there something about letting the little children come to him. Yes, indeed. It appears in the next chapter of Mark:
And there is something here to help with the previous saying: Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. In the previous saying, in my name, in the sense of "in my cause", means much the same as saying "for the sake of the kingdom of God". It is about entering into a relationship with Christ and thus with God who sent him; they were to come him as they were to come into the kingdom of God. Children were to have the kind of relationship with Jesus that we all must have in order to enter the Kingdom. So we are beginning to bring together the ideas of humility and communion with God in Christ. The little children stand in these stories as examples, or symbols, or models, of how we should be in our relationships with God, and in all our relationships. To go back to the dispute among the disciples concerning power and status, these sayings about little children are to teach us more than how we should treat children: they are about the kind of relationships in which we will share in the life of Christ and have communion with God. Accepting the "little ones" whoever they are is to accept Christ and through him to know God, for to be united with him is to know the one who sent him.
There were other occasions on which Jesus spoke of how we should treat those whom he called his "little ones".
It is clearly intended to apply to the way that the followers of Jesus are treated, as if Jesus himself were the one receiving an act of kindness:
That is only a little further on the same chapter as the saying about welcoming the child and it is followed by the same sort of teaching which here and in Matthew is given specifically in regard to the acceptance of children:
Jesus even called his disciples his children at times (Mark 10:24; John 21:5). The little ones in these sayings are believers, perhaps new converts, and there is a special duty in regard to them. There is also a more inclusive duty of care for all who are powerless and in need.
Much same imperative to care is found in the sayings of Jesus in Matthew 25 when Jesus was telling them of how he himself might be served by our serving anyone in need -- even the least of his brothers and sisters:
What then was Jesus doing when he put the little child among them and told them to welcome such a child as if they were welcoming the Messiah himself? The little child stands for all who are powerless, all who are in need of being cared for, all to whom we might owe some service. Seeing the poor, the outsider, the meek, as especially privileged is to see them as Christ's little ones. Disciples of Jesus know that such as these belong to Christ and the Kingdom he proclaimed. Anyone who would follow Jesus is called upon to welcome such "children" as if they were Christ himself, that is, in his name.
In the same way, relationships among the disciples of Jesus should have that quality of welcoming the child among us, as we seek to care for, protect, and serve one another. That is the contrast Jesus drew with the competitive relationships he saw developing among them. They should stop trying to find out who was the greatest; but that was not all. It was not merely a question of learning some humility, as it were, deferring to one another. They were called upon positively to welcome each other and all "little ones" as they would Christ himself, in love and service.
So being the servant of all is part of the call to welcome the child among them. It is more than seeing the child as an endearing example of humble status, although there are other sayings which use the example of a child in that way. Indeed, small children might be trusting, but they are not always humble. Far from it! They can be very assertive and demanding at times. There are only certain ways in which we should be like little children. Being trusting and having low status, are qualities to think about in that respect, but Mark tells us more: that we can learn how to relate to each other from the way that a child is to be welcomed. Then welcoming any of his "little ones", no matter what their age or condition, we welcome the Lord. It might, and often will, require some humility on our part, but this little parable of action points rather to how we treat the powerless among us, whoever the "little ones" might be, and especially those who are of the household of faith. To put it another way, in this lesson we are called to overcome the tendency to fight for influence over one another by welcoming "the child" among us in the name of Christ.
Its is not exactly the most popular message right now, but we must acknowledge that a call to Christian discipleship is a call to live in way that is counter-cultural. Competition is said to be good for business; and our prosperity depends upon it, they say. Losers can be looked after by welfare services, and the churches in particular, but that is not the main game according to the dominant values of our society. Competition in sport illustrates and strengthens the dominant values. The fastest and the strongest are honoured most. Some games may be less damaging, and can sometimes bring out remarkable achievements in teams who support each other. We can all enjoy some relaxation in "harmless" competition in a game perhaps. People delight in the wonders of God's creation in the human body and the human person. Standards of excellence might even praise God. Psychologically the need for power is quite different from the need for achievement, and there is a difference also between power sought for its own sake or for oneself, and social power for the good of others. It depends on your attitude and values; but don't be deceived, there is a great deal of paganism in all this worship of human idols. Some of it is innocent, and even good if it is offered up to God, and we allow Christ to transform selfish competition for rewards into genuine strivings for such excellence that God will be honoured. More often than not in our kind of society, when we compete for status we will fall into the same trap as the disciples amongst whom Jesus placed the little child and asked them to welcome the child -- to welcome the child rather than the strong man among us.
Here too is that "wisdom from above" that James wrote of in the epistle for today:
There are human rewards of peace in this life for the wisdom from above that is peaceable, willing to yield, and full of mercy rather than being filled with envy and selfish ambition. That wisdom is "from above". Such wisdom was incarnate in Jesus Christ, who came "from above"; and the reward is even greater when we learn to welcome the child among us for it takes us beyond peace in this world to peace with God:
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