Welcome the Child

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 27
October 03, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Jesus welcomes children: both literal children and the inner child in all of us.

A family was seated in a restaurant. The server took the order from the adults, then turned to their young son. "What will you have, young man?" she asked.

"I want a hot dog."

"No hot dog," the mother interrupted. "Give him the boneless chicken fillet, the mashed potatoes, some vegetables ..."

Ignoring her, the server turned to the boy. "Ketchup or mustard?" she asked.

"Ketchup," he replied, a happy smile on his face.

"Comin' right up," the server said, and headed off for the kitchen.

Among the adults at the table, there was stunned silence. After a moment, the boy turned to his parents. "Know what?" he said. "She thinks I'm real."

Yes, children are real

Jesus thought children were real. Today's reading from Mark makes that clear.

A little earlier in Mark's gospel, the disciples were arguing among themselves over which of them was the greatest. (Isn't that what most arguments are about, when it comes right down to it?)

When Jesus heard about this, he called them together and gave them this hard teaching: "Whoever among you wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."1

Then Jesus called over a little child. Taking the child into his arms, he said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me"2

"Welcome the child" is what he says. That's Jesus' teaching, his antidote for false, petty pride. In today's passage, he demonstrates concretely how to be so welcoming.

Jesus - whose star has risen faster than anyone in Galilee or Judea could remember - is having a rock-star moment. His fans are surging around him, hungry for a blessing. They're holding up their children for him to touch. In our time, they'd be holding up their smartphones to snap a picture to show their kids later ("See? You were there with him. He touched you!") In that day, however, stories would have to suffice.

Jesus has a group of roadies, wrangling the details. They're watching the day's itinerary closely. There's only so much time to spend at this location. Already they're behind schedule.

One disciple nods to another, and him to another. It's time.

They move as one, placing their bodies between the parents holding youngsters in their arms. "Thank you. Thank you for coming. The Master wishes he could bless all your children, but we're already late for our next stop."

The crowd ignores them.

The disciples trade anxious glances. "Okay, enough is enough," they think to themselves, before adopting a sterner tone: "That's it. We're done. Back off. Back off."

But then they hear a voice, sterner than their own. "Let the little children come to me; don't stop them. Don't you know God's kingdom belongs to them?"

It's their master. But then his scowl turns to a smile. It's a teaching moment. "You still haven't learned, have you? You must enter God's realm like a child; it's the only way in!"

So much for the pecking order

Social status was a preoccupation in first-century Galilee and Judea - as it is in many cultures. Everyone occupied one social level or another. Elders, scribes and Pharisees commanded the highest respect, followed by ordinary male citizens. Then came those who occupied the lower rungs of the social ladder: women and slaves. Below them, almost an afterthought, were the children.

The matter of who welcomed whom was a clear indicator of status. Something like that's true even today. If you walk into an executive's office, will that important personage greet you warmly, maybe even walk out from behind the desk to shake your hand? Or do you rate only a curt, businesslike conversation across the desktop?

Imagine the disciples' surprise when Jesus turns not to the Twelve, those who belong to his inner circle - and not even to the other Jewish men there gathered - but to a child! The Lord embraces the little one.

It's an unforgettable object lesson, a living example of humility and service.

We don't need that sort of example here in America, though - do we? This is the land where all men - and women, we'd quickly add, in this century - are created equal. We have no system of social caste (as they do in parts of Hindu India). We have no landed gentry (as they do in England). Everybody here in the good old U.S.A. is equal, right?

Believe that one and I'll tell you another.

We have more subtle ways of differentiating one category of people from another: of asking, as Jesus' disciples did in chapter 9, who is the greatest?

We still have the sad residue of racism. All those news stories about racial profiling, about the police pulling certain cars over, questioning the person behind the wheel for the suspicious behavior of "driving while black" - they're a clear indicator that we still have a long way to go.

Then there's personal wealth. That's a clear indicator of status, isn't it? There's that question people ask, when they want to know how much money another person has: "What are they worth?"

The wording of that question is very unfortunate - and revealing. In the eyes of God, you know, a person who's got millions in property and investments is not actually worth any more - is not an intrinsically better or more valuable person - than someone of more modest means.

We all know the old saying, "You can't take it with you." Before the judgment seat of God, the question, "Who is the greatest?" will not be answered in terms of how many digits there may be west of the decimal point.

Then there are all those subtle indicators of status having to do with personal achievement: the job title; the degree from a prestigious university; the square footage and location of one's office; membership in professional societies. Do any of these really indicate who is the greatest, in a spiritual sense?

One place you see social divisions at their most blatant is at the airport. For nearly every airline, the simple act of boarding a plane is elaborately choreographed according to frequent flyer points - the monetization of status, in terms of which customers the airlines value most highly. Some of them have multiple levels of preferential treatment.

"We'd like to welcome our platinum passengers today." There they go, down that special carpeted lane marked off by the velvet ropes. Funny, but they don't look like they're made of platinum. Just flesh and blood, like anyone else!

All this is to say that - for those first-century disciples, as it is for us - we have this tendency within us to keep asking that question, "Who is the greatest?" and to come up with all the wrong answers.

The right answer, according to today's Gospel lesson, is exactly what Jesus did. He welcomed the child. He took the human being out of the crowd who had zero wealth and zero social status - no basis on which to make the claim "I'm the greatest" - and gave to that one his blessing.

Welcome the child within

There's another way, though, to welcome the child - and this gets very personal. Let's talk about welcoming the child within.

Surely you've all heard the phrase, "the inner child." It's one of those pop-psychology expressions that goes in and out of fashion, depending on which self-help book is on the bestseller list.

There's something to it, though. We like to think of childhood as an idyllic interlude, a time of few worries and a great many simple pleasures. But that's not a realistic picture. Growing up can be difficult. Sometimes - even in our earliest years - there's pain and suffering along the way. Sometimes, when we're young, there are important people in our lives - parents, teachers, neighbors, friends - who cause us pain, who lead us to feel inadequate or embarrassed about who we are.

Life in the "land of the giants" can be hard. Most of us manage, on the way to adulthood, to come to terms with those negative experiences: but sometimes the pain lingers, just below the surface. Sometimes the wounded, inner child emerges. Then we find ourselves responding to others with unexpected anger or sadness.

Those who work in the field of addiction treatment have learned something about those who grow up in households where one or both parents are alcoholics or have other addictions. The pain and confusion of growing up with an addicted parent can be profound. Sometimes the kids grow up to become addicts themselves. But sometimes, as adults, they take the opposite direction and become, frankly, control freaks. Adult children of alcoholics can become super-conscientious: organizing the "hell" out of their lives - literally. On the surface, they appear successful and in control, but in reality, that little child who's terrified of chaos lives within them still.

The remarkable thing about the so-called "adult child" phenomenon is that it can arise out of many more situations than alcoholism. Alcoholism is but one way families can be dysfunctional. Indeed, some have remarked that every family is dysfunctional in some way, and every person has some of that hurting child within them.

Part of our spiritual journey as adults is learning to welcome the child within. Many of us still need to find a way to make peace with our own negative experiences growing up, the ways we were hurt and wronged by parents or other authority figures. Some of us find it helpful to work with a counselor or therapist, exploring these issues.

The truth is, there's a part of every adult that feels like those little children, caught in the press of that crowd long ago - the "giants" looming over us, the confusion and the fear. But then there comes a gentle voice of welcome. Pure, unconditional acceptance. It is our Lord, calling us to him - calling us to be healed and whole, to be loved, to have the tears wiped from our faces.

What if we all could learn to welcome the child, in every sense: to welcome all the children in our lives, whether here in the church or in our own families? What if we learned to welcome, as well, other children with whom we come in contact? And yes - what if we even learned to welcome that hurting, fearful child who lives, nearly forgotten, deep within ourselves?

Welcome the child. And let that child come to the Lord Jesus unhindered, he who is waiting with open arms!