Then Jesus and his disciples came to Capernaum; and when they arrived at the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And so Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
Today’s Gospel text is one of those passages that evokes a certain image. Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples what God’s hospitality looks like, and so he calls a child over to him, sits the child on his knee, puts his arms around the child, and says, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” I’m willing to bet that nine out of ten people, upon hearing Jesus’ words in this passage, conjure an image that is kind of like of one of those 19th century paintings of Jesus— sitting on a rock under a tree, surrounded by a bunch of beautiful, well-groomed children, everyone looking happy and serene. It’s a comforting image—I believe we have one or two just like it hanging in one of our Sunday School classrooms. But before we get too caught up in the warm and fuzzy feelings that we associate with Jesus welcoming children, I should probably mention that such an image is actually a complete and utter fiction.
To understand why that is, we first have to understand that the sentimentality that we modern day Westerners attach to children— the idea that children are cute little angels, worthy of every possible expense for the sake of their happiness and protection— is all something of a modern phenomenon. Preacher Nadia Bolz Weber sums up our modern view of children in this way, “these days, our images of children come from [Baby Gap commercials,] Norman Rockwell paintings emblazoned in our minds, or worse, those Anne Getty photos where she dresses up children as potted flowers and snow peas.” She goes on to say that while these are the kind of sentimental images that we associate with childhood in the 21st century, it wasn’t quite the same in 1st century Palestine. “In Jesus’ time,” she writes, “there wasn’t a growing market for adorableness like there is today.”
The truth is, children in 1st century times did not get nightly bubble baths and storytime. Childhood was not a time of play and imagination and fantasy. Childhood, in Jesus’ day, was often a time of terror. If children lived— which was not a given— they were often more burdensome than beloved. They became valuable only when they became old enough to be useful. Until then, they were dirty, weak, useless, and in the way. In biblical times, one third of all children died before the age of 10. It was not unheard of to sell a child into slavery into order to provide for one’s family. There was little sentimental value given to children at a time where survival was often the only game in town. And so we have to imagine, that when Jesus pulled a child over to him to illustrate to his disciples what God’s radical welcome looked like, it was not a smiling, chubby faced cherub that Jesus chose. It was likely a dirty, terrified emaciated child, who was likely just trying to stay out of the way. THAT is the kind of child God welcomes. THAT is the kind of child that God calls us to welcome, for to do so is to welcome Christ himself.
So what does this mean for us? Now that sentimentality is off the table, what are we to make of this passage?
Well, perhaps most obviously, we are called to extend our welcome—not just to those who have it all together, not just to those who are useful and worthy and make positive contributions to society, but also to those who are scared, dirty, unworthy, sad, pathetic, or struggling to fit in and find their place. We are called to extend our welcome to those who are not valued in our society—to the last, the loneliest, and the least. Whether they are rich or poor, young or old, able-bodied or with disabilities, gay, straight, bisexual or transgender, legal or undocumented. In the church, we are called to welcome all as if they were Christ himself.
But you know, as important as all of that is, this passage is more than just another item on our spiritual to do list. Yes, we should welcome everyone, including those who are vulnerable, difficult, childish, and supposedly useless. Yes, we should welcome the immigrant and the stranger, the wanderer and the refugee, the poor, the lost, and the least. But ultimately this passage isn’t just about what we should do. It’s also about what God does do.
Here’s the thing— it’s awfully easy, upon hearing passages like this one, for us to assume that the disciples are stand ins for us. We hear these stories and it’s natural for us to identify with them, because let’s be real here, we too have arguments about who is the greatest among us. We too struggle with pride and doubt. We too desire to follow Jesus but often find ourselves falling short. When it comes to the disciples, we are in many ways just like them. And so we hear this story, and we naturally think that Jesus’ primary message to us must be the same as it was to his disciples— welcome the child, welcome the poor, welcome the vulnerable in your midst. And that’s all well and good. But you know what? There’s someone else in this story for us to identify with. There’s another character— easy to overlook. It’s not the disciples. It’s certainly not Jesus. It’s the child.
You see, we too are often the child in this passage— though maybe we are slow to admit it. We too often feel vulnerable and unsure about our worthiness. We too are often scared and struggle to feel useful in this world. But we put up fronts, don’t we? We pretend that we have it all together, we pretend that we know what we’re doing, that we are strong and steady. But inside— inside we are just like that child— terrified about our place in the world, wanting nothing more than to be of service in the world, to make our lives mean something, but uncertain if we are accomplishing that— maybe even feeling certain that we’re NOT accomplishing that, and fearful of what that means for our lives.
At the end of the day, what it all boils down to— with all sentimentality aside— is that children really are a mess. They cry, they throw tantrums, they leak everywhere, they fall down all the time. Children are a real hot mess. And you know what? A good deal of the time, if we’re being honest, so are we. We cry. We lose our tempers. We don’t know what to do. We falter and fail. We feel useless and inadequate. And to make up for that, we pretend. We pretend to know more than we do. We pretend to be more secure than we are. We pretend. But God takes us when we are at our most vulnerable and pulls us into God’s arms, saying to us, welcome. You are home. You are safe here. Welcome. No matter how scared you are—welcome. No matter how insecure you are—welcome. No matter how vulnerable you are or how small you feel— welcome.
We spend so much of our time trying to be strong, trying to look wise, trying to impress others with our skills. And don’t get me wrong, God loves us when we are strong too. God loves us when we accomplish things and when we contribute our talents to the greater good. But God’s love and welcome is not contingent upon these things. And when we come before God in worship, we don’t need to pretend. We don’t need to earn God’s love, we don’t need to be worthy in order for God to welcome us, because we are God’s children— messy and insecure, scared and vulnerable, but absolutely beloved and welcome. And so you see, this passage works both ways. It is a call to action for us to widen our own welcome— both within the church and outside the church walls. It is a reminder that if we are to walk in the ways of Christ, we too must welcome the most vulnerable in our midst. But it’s also a call to remembrance of our own belovedness. It is a reminder that we are welcomed into the arms of God no matter how vulnerable we are, no matter how lost we feel, no matter how unworthy we think we are. God’s wide and radical welcome extends to all. Sisters and brothers, may our knowledge and acceptance of that welcome stir our hearts in gratitude and praise. May it be the foundation of all that we do together as a church, and may it inspire us to open our hearts more fully to the child in our midst.
Amen, and may it be so.