Let’s get right to it today. Why children? Why does Jesus say that whoever welcomes a child in Jesus’ name welcomes him? In a few weeks, we will hear him say that unless we become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven, but why children?
Well let me put to bed right away any idea that it’s because children are naive and innocent and full of hope. While all of those things may be true, that’s certainly not how children were viewed in Jesus’ time. Quite the opposite, in fact. In Jesus’ time, in the Jewish-Palestinian culture and in the Hellenistic Greek culture and in the Roman culture, children were not precious. In those days, people believed that humans were born with two instincts warring within them - an instinct for good and an instinct for evil. And for the most part, people believed that children had to be trained to choose the good, because otherwise they would naturally choose the evil. Kind of what we believe, actually. And what people saw in children was this tendency to evil, which is, actually, if we are being realistic, what we see in children. They saw that children broke things and lied and stole things. Toddlers would snatch from each other, and hit when they’re angry. If you’ve been a parent, while time may dull the memory, you will remember that children are always not the little cherubs and angels we imagine them to be. Children are noisy, and disruptive, and chaotic, and loud, and often smelly. They are unpredictable, undisciplined, and troublesome.
In Jesus’ time, throughout all of Mediterranean culture, actually, children were also workers. Most people at that time, and particularly in the parts that Jesus travelled, were subsistence farmers. They farmed in order to eat and in order to pay rent, and buy what they needed. And those of you with farm experience will know that on a farm, everybody works. No exceptions. That was even more true in Jesus’ time. Beginning as young as three years of age, children worked. And yes, as we know from the appalling state of child labour that exists even today, three-year olds can work. And I’m not talking about chores, I’m talking about actual work. Children worked menial and back-breaking jobs in order to free up the adults to do the more complex work. In families, children were a means of livelihood, and they served.
And so here’s Jesus, pulling one of these smelly, dirty, undisciplined, misbehaving little servants into his lap, saying “Welcome this child in my name, and you welcome me, and not only me, but God.” Welcome this child. Welcoming, and any form of hospitality, was and still is a serious business in the Middle East. Hospitality is commanded by God - the Old Testament is full of commandments by God to welcome the stranger and full of stories of people going all out to welcome guests. When a guest showed up, you would give the best - the absolute best - of everything you had - you would kill your best goat to eat, you would give your best bed - usually your own - you would even give him your daughters if that’s what he wanted. Hospitality was absolutely everything.
And here is Jesus, saying give the best of everything you have to this child who is the lowest of the low and almost, although not quite, a slave. Show hospitality to this little kid - a worker who will probably not reach the age of eight - Jewish and Roman childhood mortality rates were so high that children had no legal standing before the age of eight, and didn’t receive a formal name until then. Take this random child, who is truly at the bottom of society, who is a consumer but not a producer - who eats more food than he can grow himself, and wears clothes that he can’t make for himself - children are, even today, a significant economic burden on a family and don’t bring an equivalent return on investment - take this random child and treat it as a king. Make yourself a servant to this child, put this child above yourself, in my name, and then - only then - will you be the greatest.
So who are the children among us? Who in our society is seen as disruptive, and unpredictable, and chaotic? Who in our society do we treat as more trouble than they’re worth, and do we consider to be consumers rather than producers? Who in our society do we think of as never managing to do anything good and just “prone to evil as the sparks fly upward”?
Sadly, there’s a lot people we could think of. I could talk about our attitude towards illegal immigrants and refugees, and how we talk about how they use up our social services and are a burden on the system. I could talk about our attitude towards panhandlers and the homeless on the street. Today is Campus Ministry Sunday, and I could talk about our attitude towards “kids these days.” Those teenagers and young adults in university - who laze around and party all the time and are always spending money on smartphones and clothes and living in our basements and don’t take their future seriously. “Kids these days” are most definitely noisy and disruptive and undisciplined and chaotic and burdensome.
Or, I could talk about us. Us as individuals. You and me. Each one of us. Because this attitude the people had in Jesus’ time towards children? We also have this attitude towards ourselves. We all have days, when deep down inside, we feel like we’re the lowest on the totem pole and wonder whether we’re really worth it. Some days, often when we’re sick and in bed and feeling crummy and miserable, we think that maybe we’re more trouble than we’re worth. That we’re disrupting other people’s lives - particularly the lives of those who care for us. Some days we worry that we will become a burden to others - that we will end up one of those people who consume more than we produce - that we will take up other people’s time and energy and finances and that we won’t be able to offer anything in return. Some days, and sometimes these days can on for weeks, we see in ourselves only our own tendency towards evil - we see our own selfishness, and our own impatience, and our own pettiness - and we beat ourselves up about it, just as parents used to beat their children in Jesus’ time (and still do today), and we if had to make up a list of people who should receive good things in life, we would put ourselves last.
“Then Jesus 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.’”
On those days when you feel yourself to be last, when you feel as if you are one of those worthless, kicked-about rug-rats, remember that Jesus took the children into his arms. And Jesus welcomed them.
Jesus takes you into his arms. As worthless as you might feel, as disappointed as you might be in yourself, as much as you don’t live up to your own expectations, Jesus takes you, and Jesus welcomes you. Jesus gives you the best he has - his own life, on the cross, and his own Holy Spirit, in baptism and communion - and Jesus serves you. Jesus doesn’t do this because you deserve it, or because you’ve earned it or worked for it. Jesus welcomes you because Jesus is God’s own Son, and God loves you. Just like we love children who are nevertheless troublesome and burdensome. God welcomes you and loves you, and gives you the best that God has - God’s own self in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. You may feel that you have nothing to offer in return, and indeed what can we offer God in return? But, all the same, Jesus takes you in his arms and welcomes you to the best of everything he has to offer. You are, after all, God’s child. In your eyes you may be the least, but in Jesus' arms you are great. Thanks be to God. Amen.