“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”
Sunday 23 September 2018
If I was to ask you what gender the child in the gospel story was today, how many of you would say that it was a boy?
Let me read it to you again: 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.’ So the New revised Standard Version of the Bible uses the non-gendered pronoun it. But you know I looked up ten different respectable translations of the Bible and seven say “he” and only three say “it”. The Greek word that is being translated is autois and it can be translated as he, she or it. Isn’t it interesting that so many translators chose to emphasise the male gender even though the feminine or neuter gender translations were possible.
But the gender of the child is not the issue and we will get back to the significance of this action of Jesus.
But let’s get the event into context. Because of the Patronal Feast of St Matthew, last week we missed reading the end of chapter eight of the gospel. It placed Jesus in the far north of the country at Caesarea Philippi and he was about to begin a long southward journey to Jerusalem.
Today’s episode finds Jesus and his disciples nearing and arriving at Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, on that journey. The opening sentence gives us the sense of a journey. They went on from there and passed through Galilee. Then we are told a very interesting fact. He (Jesus) did not want anyone to know it; Why? for he was teaching his disciples.
This southward journey seems to have another purpose other than simply allowing Jesus to confront his opponents in Jerusalem. He is taking the opportunity to teach his disciples in private. We can imagine that this is in depth teaching – more than he has shared with the crowds in the first half of the gospel.
So what is he teaching them today? The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again. He is predicting for them his own passion, death and resurrection.
However, we are told immediately: But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. With the benefit of hindsight and spectator status on the incident, we might ask: How will you learn if you don’t ask questions? Before we get too pleased with ourselves, we might ask ourselves whether we ask God questions in prayer when life tosses up situations that we don’t understand.
But they clearly were not comprehending the nature of Jesus teaching to them in his passion prediction. When they arrive in Capernaum, we find out through Jesus’ questioning of them that they have been arguing among themselves as to who was the greatest among them within their group. This hardly seems an appropriate response to Jesus’ passion prediction.
In fact, Jesus predicts his passion three times in Mark’s gospel. This is the second one. And on each occasion, the response from the disciples in completely inappropriate.
When Jesus predicted his passion the first time, we were told that Peter took him aside and rebuked him and had to be rebuked in turn by Jesus because his mind was not on divine things but on human things.
After this second prediction, the disciples start arguing among themselves as to which one is the greatest. After Jesus’ third prediction later in the gospel, the brothers Zebedee, James and John, will approach Jesus and ask to sit at his right and left hand in the kingdom.
The disciples plainly didn’t get the message. But there is no excuse for us. We know that Jesus prediction about his suffering, death and resurrection will come true. We have no excuse for claiming to fail to understand. And to help us to understand, we have in the gospel this striking action of Jesus when he brought a child into the midst of the disciples. In fact, there are so many cultural bells going off in this scene that you have to think even the disciples must have been getting some of the message that Jesus was trying to teach them about the nature of the kingdom of God which does not glorify greatness, but in fact, raises the lowly to prominence.
We could almost say that what Jesus did with this child was like a prophetic action. Sometimes, the Old Testament prophets would act out a message in order to bring it home to the people. We might today call it street theatre. However we want to understand what Jesus was doing, we cannot lose sight of the fact that he was teaching.
The action takes place in a house. So, it was a private class, for the disciples. We are told: He (Jesus) sat down and called the twelve. Whenever the gospels tell us that Jesus sits down to speak to his disciples, this is like a code. Sitting down to teach was the posture of a rabbi. Whenever Jesus does this we know that what he is about to say or do is solemn teaching, like a rabbi instructing his disciples.
So first of all, he tells them what he wants them to understand: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Very matter of fact and to the point that they had been arguing about – who is the greatest? There is Jesus’ answer. If you want to be the greatest, be the least.
Then he demonstrates what he means in the most dramatic of fashion. Then he took a little child (we don’t know whether a boy or a girl remember) and put it among them. So far his action is only mildly curious. Then we are told: and taking it in his arms.
Other translations say: and embraced; he put his arms around him; putting his arms around him. Whatever way it is expressed, Jesus action was unheard of in the culture. Children were regarded as non-persons socially because they were unable to return hospitality. What good was there in showing kindness to a child if the child had no ability to return your kindness. None of this would be lost on the disciples.
Do you know where the only other mention in the New Testament of an adult embracing a child or a young person incapable of returning the kindness occurs? In the parable of the prodigal son.
Jesus’ words following this prophetic action are so powerful. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. But that is not all. Jesus then goes on to say what this really means. Whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. These are powerful words demonstrated by a powerful action in his embrace and placing of a child at the centre of the room. It is not the high and mighty who make God present to us, it is in fact the opposite. It is those that are considered of little import who make God present to us. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.
We probably shouldn’t be too hard on the disciples that they don’t always seem to understand. How well do we understand this teaching? Who are the ones like children in our midst? In our homes, our neighbourhood, our country, our world? Jesus word to us is that in welcoming and embracing them, we welcome God the creator of the world into our lives. It bears thinking and praying about.
God of grace,
no one is beyond the reach of your love,
or outside your limitless mercy.
Move us toward those the world despises and people reject,
so we may venture to follow Christ,
and risk showing his love.
Stand with those who are outcast;
strengthen them in peace;
encourage them by your presence;
and use them to build on the cornerstone of Christ, until differences are honoured and respected,
and all people together give you glory.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen