A little over 30 years ago, 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 now, 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 greatest of all 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.

It is important to bear all this in mind if one is to understand what Jesus meant by what we have just heard him say. The context is that he had discovered some of his followers squabbling over their status or rank in his new kingdom. Expecting him to be a political Messiah who would overturn Roman rule and establish a new political rule, they jostled for privileged roles in Christ’s new earthly reign. When Jesus became aware of this, he declared:

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 deliberately used it to explain that in his kingdom the most desirable status is not to be ‘top of the tree’ but to be a servant or a ‘slave’ to people who, like a little child, were vulnerable and  had no position or status in society. The child he embraced was an example of what he meant. The slave-like service of insignificant or lowly people – exemplified by the child – is an essential condition or value of belonging to his kingdom. This is why in St John’s Gospel 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’, what the child represented in Christ’s 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: according to Jesus, I’m also, through him, in communion with God the Father. 

So 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’, as Jesus ask?’

Who are the little ones, the people of lowly or no status, the people ignored or made invisible in our society today?

And what more can I do to be more aware of their needs and respond to them as Christ, the Servant, asks?

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
19 September 2021

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