Texts: Jeremiah 11:18-20; James 3:13-4.3, 7-8; Mark 9:30-37
It was not the same in Jesus’ time. The idea of childhood as we understand it is a relatively recent idea in our history, only a few centuries old. In Palestinian society at the time, children were like “pre-people:” they had status somewhere between property and slaves. This is not to say that parents (and fathers in particular) did not love their children, but their value lay more in what they would become—heirs and contributors to the family—not in who they were. Raising children was women’s work; men like Jesus’ disciples expected kids to be seen and not heard.
And yet, Jesus says instead of ignoring children his disciples ought to seek them out, show them hospitality and honor them as they would a guest in their own home. Jesus says that by welcoming insignificant children such as these, they actually welcome Jesus himself; and, of course, to receive Jesus is actually to receive God.
Our modern concept of childhood has actually made it easier for us to get Jesus’ point in this story, I think. We can look at the children around us, whether our children or grandchildren or even the kids in our congregation, and see how they can point us to God. Children in our society are no longer invisible; but this story asks us to reflect on the question—who is invisible to us now?
Now, I had been to New York several times by this point, and I had gotten used to “dealing” with homeless people. If you look at them or show any sign of noticing them, they will ask for money; so I did what most people did: don’t make eye contact, just keep walking. I had my earbuds in which helped me to ignore him. I saw the man make a motion in my direction and say something, so I replied, simply, “Sorry, I haven’t got any change” and kept walking.
That’s when he got very upset. He became very animated as he talked to me. I took my earbuds out to hear what he was saying, and realized that he was chewing me out. Turns out, he hadn’t asked for money at all. He saw me walking by, saw the cross necklace I was wearing, saw a fellow Christian, and offered me a greeting: “God bless you.” To which I responded, “Sorry, I haven’t got any.”
The truth is that I heard what he said; but I saw who was saying it, I saw the cup in his hand and where he was sitting, and I made the conscious decision to ignore him, to look past him. I made him invisible. It wasn’t until he demanded my attention that I was able to see him for who he was.
We don’t see and hear what we don’t want to see and hear. I expected to see just another bum asking for money and so that’s what I saw. When the stories we experience don’t fit our narrative, we make excuses: we say, “Michael Brown wouldn’t have had a problem if he hadn’t broken the law.” We make accusations: we say, “Christine Blasey Ford is lying.” We see these people, but we don’t see them as people; instead, we see them as threats, outsiders, disruptions.
And yet, as we look for God, Jesus says this is where we should be looking: not at the powerful and prominent, but at the least, the little, the lowest, the last and the lost. Jesus points us to the children—people despised and rejected by society, people crucified for standing up for the truth, killed and demonized to make us feel safe and justified. Jesus is with Christine Blasey Ford as she suffers for coming forward with a story that is inconvenient and unpleasant; Jesus is with Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland who frighten us with their Blackness, their otherness. God is not found among the powerful or well-connected as the disciples assume, but rather hangs on the cross with all the others we’d sooner be rid of.
This is the lesson that Jesus himself learned in Tyre in the story we read two weeks ago. You may recall that at the beginning of that story, Mark tells us, he did not want anyone to know he was there. Today, Mark once again tells us that as Jesus and his disciples went through Galilee, he did not want anyone to know it. I think that is Mark’s subtle way of helping us make the connection. In Tyre, Jesus learned the hard way that God is found among the people we would rather ignore, people like the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter. In Galilee, Jesus passes that lesson on to his disciples: greatness is not about standing high above everyone else, but about stooping so low that no one is beneath us.
Lest we become self-congratulatory at our own sensitivity to issues of race and class and gender, we also remember today that the “good news” is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways. We may pride ourselves on our welcoming those who are ignored by society, but we all have people we ignore and whose stories we disregard. When was the last time you had a deep and honest conversation about politics with someone with whom you disagree? I looked past that gentleman on 8th Avenue because I thought I knew what he was. I closed myself off to him because I didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
When Jesus stood that child in the midst of his disciples, he was trying to teach them to see—to really see—someone the world had taught them not to see. The world continues to teach us that some people are invisible and should remain that way; that we have a right to ignore and dismiss anyone we deem to be inferior to us because of their religious or political beliefs or their life choices or their supposed hypocrisy.
How often do we look past these people—perhaps even members of our own family or congregation—because we believe we already know who they are and don’t want to hear what they have to say? When we close ourselves off to people with whom we disagree, we are closing ourselves off to Jesus. We don’t have to agree with them, but have we ever stopped to listen to where those sentiments come from? Have we ever considered how much we might have in common, or are we unable to see that because of what the world says must divide us?
Jesus’ point today is that it is those divisions that keep us from meeting God. If we are able to look past those differences, to welcome people as people and not as children, as political agents, as thugs, as inconveniences, then we will be in fact be welcoming him; and when we welcome Jesus, we welcome not him but the One who sent him.
This means that if we want to meet Jesus, we should go out and meet those who are suffering, the ones who are hanging on the crosses we have erected. It means that Jesus may be found among the lowly, the forgotten, and the ignored, and that is where we should be if we wish to see him. But it also means that whenever we allow the world to divide us along lines of race, gender, class or political affiliation, we are allowing the world to close us off from God. In order to welcome Jesus among us, we must be willing to treat people not like children, but like children of God.
I’m grateful that the guy on 8th Avenue stopped me and made me see him, he showed me Jesus sitting with him on the street, holding a cup of change. Jesus does the same for us in this meal. We come here as people formed by the world, trained to look past and ignore the people we don’t want to see. As we eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus becomes one with us, reforms us and recreates us as people of God, not people of the world. As we leave this place, we look through Jesus’ eyes to see people as he sees them. Since Mark’s time, we have learned to love and accept children for who they are; now Jesus is helping us to do the same for all the others we would ignore.