Jesus liked kids. He spent time with children and thought about children. He responded quickly when parents would plead with him for their child – the little girl, Talitha, whom he raised from the dead; the possessed boy he liberated from epilepsy. He liked having children around him. Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them. He thought children were great role models. Whoever humbles themself as this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He tried to protect children. If anyone causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck. He warned us that our conversion as his follower had to be patterned after that of children. I tell you the truth, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. And Jesus wants us to understand that we are called to imitate a child’s openness to receive the gift. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all. The passage from St. Mark read on this Sunday continues to hold up children for our reflection but in a slightly different manner. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” Jesus here is adding an additional nuance to the saying that having a more child-like spirit should shape the way we live our discipleship. He is telling us in receiving, in welcoming, in offering hospitality to a child we are receiving and welcoming him. You shift the focus off of you – even the you that is supposed to change and become like a child – and onto the child itself. This is similar to the parable of the sheep and the goats where Jesus says that whatever we do for the least of the brothers and sisters we do to him. Children are almost by definition the “least” who have a claim on us as the embodiment of the presence of Jesus in our lives.
What does it look like when we receive, welcome a child?. A story from my family. My brother’s first child is handicapped. In Maryland, if you have a handicapped child they require “counselling” should you become pregnant again. So my brother and his wife dutifully went to the state office. He described the scene like this: he went in and sat as far from the desk as he could with his arms folded across his chest and glared. Is there a problem asked the counsellor? My brother answered, “We love our first child just as she is. We wouldn’t trade her for the world. We will love our second child however he or she is. Nothing you can say will change that.” The counselling session was very brief. That story illustrates how to receive a child and, hence, how we receive Jesus. First, you must love without conditions. You only way you can truly welcome a child into your home by accepting them just the way they are. You have to get to know them in all their uniqueness. You can’t demand that they look a certain way or act a certain way. You receive who they are as they are. Second, you must love without expectations. You don’t receive a child into you home because of what they are going to do for you. Nobody thinks, “I’ll welcome this child now so that they can take care of me.” All the expectations are on you and not on them. Which leads to the third key to welcoming a child: you know it’s going to cost you and are willing to pay the price – cost you not only the pocketbook but in your time, your emotional energy, your future. My observation of parents is that receiving a child changes them in more ways than you can even imagine. The entire way that you look at life is different. You are different. The world is different.
Jesus says that welcoming a child in our life is how we welcome him – without conditions, expectations, or calculation. Think back on the incident that gave rise to this instruction from Jesus. His disciples were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest when Jesus brought a child into their midst. He wanted his followers to see things in a whole new way. That suggests that for us to truly become disciples of Jesus and not just admirers, we must be wary of the conditions, expectations and calculations we have in our lives. In addition, the epistle for today from St. James, opens up this way of seeing things beyond the domestic sphere and even onto a broader stage. St. James might have even been remembering the argument among the disciples when he observed that “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist there is disorder.” Where do wars, where do conflicts come from, the epistle asks? They come from our coveting, our desires, our wanting something we don’t have. If we want peace in ourselves and in our world we must learn to receive what is instead of hankering for what is not.
A story. Once upon a time a Greek patriot died and went to heaven. St. Peter looked him over and invited him in. But as he was about to go through the Pearly Gates an alarm went off. The Greek patriot had his fist clenched and St. Peter explained that you can only receive the gift of heaven with open hands. You don’t understand, said the patriot. I have the soil of my native land in my hand. I have fought for it my whole life. I just can’t let it go. St. Peter had an idea and soon there was a child playing before the gates of heaven. The patriot looked at the child and saw how precious it was. Just then the child began to fall and was going to be hurt. What else could the patriot do but open his hands and catch the child before it was injured. Holding the child in his arms the child and patriot entered heaven together.