In 1989 a law came into force in England and Wales, known as The Children Act, which states that the interests of children and young people up to the age of 18 are paramount in all considerations of their welfare and safeguarding. No other considerations are allowed to over-ride the right of children and young people to be protected from harm.
The place and role of the child in modern European society has changed dramatically in the past century or so. For example, it is no longer acceptable or lawful to have children working in a coal mine, or sweeping a chimney, or working in a factory.
According to law, the needs of the child must be placed first. In ancient Middle Eastern cultures, the child was placed last. And it was the same in first century Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus – children had no rights whatsoever. In fact, they had the lowest status of all.
Even in the Middle Ages, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of the great theologians in the Church, taught that in a house fire a husband was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his children. In a time of famine, children would be fed last, after the adults. How times have changed!
It is important to bear all this in mind if one is to understand what Jesus meant by his teaching in the Gospel we have just heard. The context is that he discovered that his disciples had been squabbling over their status or rank in his kingdom. Expecting him to be a political Messiah who would overturn Roman rule and establish a new political kingdom, they jostled for privileged roles in Christ’s new earthly reign. When Jesus became aware of this, he declared:
If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all
And then, embracing a child, he went on to say
Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
The word used in this Gospel for “servant” is diakonos. It was used then in Palestine for the kind of lowly or menial service carried out by slaves. Jesus used it to explain that in his new community or kingdom the most desirable status is not to be ‘top of the tree’ but to be a servant or a ‘slave’ to people who had no position or status in society, of which the child he embraced was an example. Such service, he taught, is an essential value of belonging to his kingdom. It’s why he washed the feet of his disciples – usually the task of a slave – at the Last Supper.
But he did not leave it at that. He said that if you serve someone of such lowly standing in society in his name, you actually are directly in communion with him:
anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.
And then he added:
and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
In supporting a ‘little one’, like a child in his time, we are not only in communion with Jesus – we also are, through him, in union with God, the Creator, the One who sent him to us.
So in doing what I can, however small or menial my help may be, to stand up for, support or ‘serve’ the ‘nobody’s’ in society – the vulnerable, the powerless, people in desperate need, and people who have no rights, I’m not just helping them but I’m also relating directly with Jesus and, through Him, to God the Father.
In conclusion, the questions we might ask ourselves in response to the Lord’s teaching are:
‘How do I make myself ‘last and servant of all?’
Who are the little ones, the people of lowly or no status who are ignored or made invisible in our society today?
And what can I do to be more aware of their needs and then respond to them as Christ, the Servant, asks?
Holy Name, Jesmond
23 September 2018