10 September 2017

Welcome the Child

Matthew 18:1-5 and Matthew 19:13-15

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Kickoff Sunday

“The child” features prominently in Matthew’s Gospel.  In fact, the significance of “the child” is often overlooked in Matthew’s Gospel.  “The child” I have in mind here is not an individual child, although, as we’ll see, it can refer to one in particular; I’m referring, instead, to a turn of phrase, “the child,” to paidion, some version of which is used frequently in Matthew.

I’m grateful for the scholarship of Sharon Betsworth who, in an article in the Journal of Childhood and Religion, analyzed Matthew’s use “the child.”[1]  Matthew first uses this phrase in Matthew 2, which contains Jesus’ birth story.  Unique to Matthew’s Gospel is the story of magi who visit Jesus, not as a baby, but as a child.  This is followed by Herod’s demonic slaughter of the innocents.  Then we have Joseph taking Jesus and Mary to Egypt, for safety.  All this happens in Matthew 2.  Betsworth notes that scholars often draw parallels between Jesus and Moses in Matthew 2, and Joseph’s warning dream to take Jesus to Egypt echoes Joseph in Genesis (37-39), who also had future-warning dreams. Scholars often focus on the characters, Herod, magi, Joseph, Mary.  “Attention to these characters,” however, “often eclipse the one who is the catalyst for their actions, the child Jesus.”[2] 

And, significantly, Matthew sparingly refers to Jesus by name.  In chapter two, only once.  Instead, Matthew refers to Jesus as “the child,” to paidion.  It’s used nine times in chapter two.  Four times it refers to Jesus, alone; five times it’s used together with his mother, and each time the mother is secondary.  The focus is on “the child.”  All the action here revolves around “the child.” The promise of a new future rests upon this child.  The child has to be cared for, protect.  This child has enormous power.  This child is a threat to Herod, a client king of the Roman Empire. 

Remarkably, referring to Jesus as “the child,” instead of by his name allows us to identify more fully with Jesus.  “The child” become a blank slate or canvass upon which we project our own images or understanding of what it means to be a child.  Referring to Jesus as child makes it easier for us to relate to him, to connect with him, to have empathy toward him, even to worship him—as the magi worshipped Jesus on bended kneed, even as we might worship a newborn child, with appropriate wonder and awe and gratitude and joy.

What we need to know, which is not immediately obvious for us, is that the phrase to paidion, reflects the low status of a child in Jesus’ time.  Paidion is related semantically to pais, often used to designate a slave.  The word conveys the “sense of one who lacks choice and is powerless.  The child is very vulnerable,” in Matthew 2, “and very much in need of the care provided by his parents.”  We may not have associated these attributes of low status, powerlessness, fragility, vulnerability, with Jesus if his name were used in the narrative.[3]

So, then, what do find throughout Matthew’s Gospel, especially here in chapter 18 and 19?  The Gospel is replete with references to “the child” and “children.”  Some form of the phrase is used eighteen times in Matthew. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus places a child before them and tells the disciples that they must change and become like children.  “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mt. 18:4-5). 

We have, no doubt, heard and maybe romanticized this saying of Jesus countless times.  However, if we romanticize it or idealize it, we’ll miss the radicality of this statement.  To see this, let’s skip to the Matthew 19, another place where Jesus refers to children.

What do we have here?  Little children were being brought to Jesus for him to bless and pray for them.  The disciples have no patience for this.  The disciples, obsessed with power, influence, authority, wondering about who is “greatest in the kingdom” (Mt. 18:1-5), find the presence of mothers and children as the opposite of all that they aspire toward.  The disciples yell at the parents with a force that push them both, parents and children, far away from Jesus.  Then Jesus scolds his disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14).

To be fair to the disciples, they probably thought they were acting appropriately.  They were merely reflecting the assumptions and customs of their day.  The disciples’ response here, like so many other places in Matthew’s Gospel, exemplifies “normality,” “custom,” “convention,” “tradition.”  The disciples represent the way it is, the status quo.  And so, they were probably stunned, appalled, even outraged to hear Jesus appraise normality, flaunt convention, and undercut custom.

The way of Jesus is always demanding.  If it’s not demanding, it’s not the way of Jesus.  Before the gospel is heard as good news, it’s often experienced as bad news.  God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).  God’s grace, God’s justice, God’s mercy are radical, they cut to the root.   The gospel overturns in order to rebuild lives, and the world.  The gospel is first encountered as shocking or scandalous.  Doesn’t Jesus say to his disciples, earlier in Matthew, “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me” (Mt. 11:6). Blessed is the one who is not offended.  Why would Jesus say such a thing?  Because Jesus is offensive, the gospel is offensive according to conventional morality and custom.  Jesus needs to say this to his disciples precisely because the message of God’s Kingdom, the core message of the gospel, the work of the church is offensive and scandalous.  The gospel undermines all that is, it shakes the foundations, and destabilizes everything; it upends the way things are, and offers in their place an alternative ethic based on love, a different way to live based on mercy and justice, a new understanding of what it means to be a person of faith, to be a servant of God, even a new understanding of who God is and what God loves and desires and expects from us—which brings me back to “the child.”

As we know, children are among the most vulnerable in society.  Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) said, “The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.”  Scripture tells us that children are a sign of divine blessing (Gen. 13:16, 15:1-16; Ps. 127:3-5, 128:3-6).  They embody the hope of the family, or a people, for a meaningful future.  In Jesus’ time, however, most of the children lived on the edge of existence.  In the Greco-Roman world, children were the least socially, politically, and economically.  They were considered “weak, irrational, ignorant [and] unpredictable.”[4]  The disabled were especially vulnerable.  Children lacked worth and status; worth and status only came with adulthood.[5]  Jesus did not accept these views.  He judged these views and then transforms them.  For Jesus, a child is elevated into a living symbol; a child represents the most vulnerable in society, those society considers weak, worthless, “low” on the ladder of economic class. 

Jesus’ teaching is radical: remove the barriers, he says, between the church and the “little ones”—and don’t erect new ones.  Allow the vulnerable, the weak, the worthless, the low to come.  God’s kingdom, God’s realm belongs to them, to the little children.

And, where is this kingdom?  Here, now.  Don’t we pray, week after week, “…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10)?  Who are the worthy residents of God’s kingdom? Who is the kingdom for?  Children. 

And, who are the children?  Who are these “little ones”?  Who is “the child”?  The child is not defined by age, the child is nameless poor among you, the refugee, the asylum seeker, the immigrant, the migrant worker, the teenager living on the streets, the forgotten, the overlooked, the ignored, the abandoned, the invisible, the vulnerable, the marginalized, those we deem strange or odd, possessing little value.

And, how do we know the child is not bound by age?  Because Jesus, himself, says, that to welcome the child is to welcome him, because—amazingly—Jesus is the child!  

A child is not defined by age; a child is anyone who is vulnerable and powerless.  Jesus is the nameless poor, the refugee, the asylum seeker; Jesus is the immigrant, the migrant worker, the teenager living on the streets; Jesus is the forgotten, the overlooked, the ignored, the abandoned; Jesus is the invisible, the marginalized, those we deem strange or odd, possessing little value.  We are to become like children, like them, risk vulnerability, welcome them into your world.  The Greek word for welcome here, dexomai, can also mean “receive” or “accept,” it can also mean “greet,” even “worship.”

To become like a child is to become like Jesus, “the child,” vulnerable. To welcome Jesus is to welcome the child. To love Jesus is to love the child, the most vulnerable among us.

To love Jesus is also to love the vulnerable child within us.  Whatever our age, all our experiences as children are embedded in our psyches, in our memories. There is an inner child who dwells within each of us.  This is not pop-psychology, but a holy claim that honors the child still alive within us, the child, the little “you” who is always beside you, who accompanies you along your way.  It was psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) who said, “In every adult there lurks a child—an eternal child, something that is becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care and attention and education.  That is the part of the human personality that wants to develop and become whole.”[6]  The inner child remains the most trusting and hopeful and innocent part of who we are; she or he is also the most vulnerable and tender and wounded part of our psyches, often fearful, anxious, timid, worried, concerned.  This child, the child within also requires our compassion, as much as our neighbor.[7]  Jesus loves this child too. The inner child, this holy child, like the child Jesus, needs to be welcomed and loved and protected, and maybe even “worshipped,” treated with respect and awe.

As we kickoff another program year, as we welcome our children into church school this morning, let us go out of our way to make sure our children and youth feel welcomed and loved and accepted here. Are there obstacles that prevent them from experiencing God’s grace and love and acceptance?  Do you know the names of the children that sit beside you and near you most weeks in worship? Are you praying for them?

Let us also consider the most vulnerable in our community, the ageless child among us who needs to experience God’s welcome, love, and acceptance here? Have we put obstacles in their way, made it difficult for them to experience God’s grace?  Are we making it easy or difficult for children, whatever their age, to know their status and worth within God’s kingdom? Are we extending God’s welcome, love, compassion, and acceptance toward one another in this community of faith, to the folks we see week after week in worship—and to the child within?  May it be so.

[1] Sharon Betsworth, “The Child and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew,” Journal of Childhood and Religion, Vol. 1, Issue 4 (June 2010): 1-14. 
[2] Betsworth, 2.
[3] Betsworth, 8.
[4] Betsworth, 12.
[5] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 218-219.
[6] Carl G. Jung, “The Development of Personality,” Collected Works 17 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), par. 286.
[7] On valuing the inner child, see Donald Kalsched, Trauma and the Soul: A Psycho-spiritual Approach to Human Development and Integration (London: Routledge, 2013), 53ff.