In this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” But what does it mean to welcome? If it simply means “make a space for” or “don’t kick out,” then we’re good. I can handle that. But, given that Jesus is challenging the disciples’ perceptions of power and authority and servanthood, I have a feeling it’s deeper than that.
In Mark’s version of the story, this is Jesus’ way of refuting the disciples’ desire to be the greatest. Even deeper than that, this is Mark’s way of showing that the disciples still didn’t understand Jesus’ passion predictions. Jesus predicts his death (2nd time); the disciples argue about who is the greatest (clearly don’t get it); Jesus responds with the bit about children (come on, people!). And that suggests to me that welcoming children is a little like dying on the cross. It’s not as easy as you think.
Although we are separated by centuries of culture, and children have come a long way during that time, I don’t think this is merely a cultural gap between us and Jesus’ words. His words wouldn’t have been shocking because people hated children back then. Instead, he’s asking us to do more than “make space” or “not kick out” little ones. He’s asking us to set them in the middle of us and learn from them.
This morning, I read a NPR bit about white middle-class families sending their children to Birmingham’s public schools—bucking a long-standing trend. And in the article one of the parents says of elementary-aged children, “I feel like at this age, they don't really see color…They go straight to playing together and learning about each other and talking and sharing snacks.” THAT is the opposite of what the disciples had been arguing about. Jesus is telling them to go back to first grade and learn what they need to learn about who’s first. I don’t know at what age children discover that black kids and white kids are different. I don’t know how old you have to be before you learn that some kids don’t have the five-star trapper-keeper because their parents can’t afford it and (to take the logic where the disciples were stuck) are thus less valuable as human beings. But we aren’t born that way. And Jesus wants us to get back to the playground.
Welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him means eliminating the social strata that assign value to “the greatest” and “the least of these.” Jesus died as the world’s servant. Yet he was exalted to the heavenly places. There is no more “who is the greatest?” We’re supposed to be past that now.