Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 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.” (Mark 9: 35-37)

Jesus, sitting with his disciples, takes a moment to snuggle a little kid. And readers of the Gospel smile and think, “awww. that’s so sweet.” And we imagine the twelve probably get a little mushy, too. After all, who can resist a child, the mainstay of tear-jerker commercials and heart-tugging political campaigns? Big eyes, chubby cheeks, all trusting innocence. What’s not to love?

And so, in our doting-adult goofiness, we miss the message entirely.

Jesus takes a small child and displays far more affection than we usually see in him. It’s a notable moment, just for that reason. But the context makes it even more astonishing. Because the disciples are actually being chastised in this moment, and the child is less an object of affection than a means of driving Jesus’ point home.

The point here isn’t about cuteness. Or innocence, or even about love. It’s about power and status; it’s about the entirely new worldview that Jesus’ teachings implied: the one that his disciples constantly resisted. The point here is to teach the twelve, who have been arguing about which one is the greatest. It’s probably a much more comfortable subject than Jesus’ recent habit of predicting his own suffering and death, a way of keeping their lives from feeling entirely out of balance and unstable.

Because really: Jesus is destabilizing. Jesus is upsetting. We who have lived in a Christian setting that exists within the framework of the world and human life – we who have spent centuries interpreting Jesus’ teachings in ways that allow us to see the poor as lazy, the sick as sinners, women as less-than and non-Christians as inherently damned; we who have taken on the mantle of judgment, who have decided that war might sometimes be just, who have shaped the traditions of forgiveness, hospitality, and charity in ways that don’t make us uncomfortable – we tend to prefer to see the disciples as stupid and Jesus as eternally kind. When we’re not arguing about who is the greatest, or cooing over cute children. We don’t see Jesus as the Messiah that the disciples had hoped for – the great warrior-from-God who would drive out the non-Jewish occupiers of the Holy Land, granting peace and freedom forever – but neither do we see him as inconveniently present in our own lives, pulling us away from our comfort, shaking us up until we stop trying to find our footing in the culture and values of human experience. We don’t see him as destabilizing, but as upholding our own worldview. We don’t see him as upsetting. We don’t see him as radical.

Which really means that we don’t see him at all.

At best, we see him as the disciples – the ones we call foolish – saw him: as someone who can grant us some status, who can take a poor fisherman and make him into a disciple, one of an elite group.

Which might be why this little child on Jesus’ lap is such an easy distraction.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Such an easy thing, to welcome a cute little schnookums. Finally, a teaching that we can adopt easily and at face value.

Easy for us, with our post-Victorian idealization of babies.

Not so easy for the disciples, however.

The twelve had been arguing over who was the greatest: fairly straightforward, for a group of men, a group that already had some inherent status in that society. Good Jewish men, heads of household, recognized legally and culturally as fully human, in a way that women and children were not. Children, in that society, barely existed; of the many born to a couple, few – if any – would reach adulthood. It was far better not to get too attached, not to grant them any particular status or power, not to recognize them any more than absolutely necessary, because the odds were good that they wouldn’t actually survive.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all.” Would you willingly relinquish your power and status, to become as unnoticeable as such a child?

And then Jesus goes further. Because it’s not enough to strip oneself to the level of a child, to strip away status and worth, legal protection and even humanity. Jesus calls us to welcome children, in his name.

That’s a big deal, because hospitality is a big deal. Because hospitality is more than about feeding people, more than about providing a bed. Christian hospitality cannot be offered grudgingly, cannot be sparing, cannot be half-hearted. Rather, we must welcome the stranger as if she were sent by God. We must welcome the stranger with abundance, caring more for her needs than for our own, giving her the best of what we have and withholding nothing. Our welcome must necessarily be extravagant. Even for a child.

Especially for a child.

Jesus is destabilizing, upending the social conventions and granting higher status to a child – a child! – than to grown men, who are told to serve one who, by all accounts, is by far their inferior.

Jesus is upsetting. To our sense of balance, to our sense of fairness, to our values and our motivation. Not because we are called to value children – whom we, unlike the disciples, tend to regard highly – but because we are called to value all children. All of God’s children. Because we are called to be last, to be servants, to consistently set others ahead of ourselves, no matter what our cultural mores might otherwise suggest.

We are called to the same extravagant, abundant welcome. For we who welcome the children – the powerless, the barely-human – welcome Christ; and whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent him.

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