An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’
- Luke 9:46-48
There's something arresting about the sight of a young animal, a puppy, a kitten, a piglet, even a rhinoceros, that makes even cynical people stop and go "Awwwww." The innocence in their eyes, the exuberance coupled with a slight clumsiness makes us smile in spite of ourselves and, for a brief moment, we pause our thinking and whatever we are doing and just enjoy the sight. It works with babies too, because there's something endearing about an infant or small child whose eyes still see the world as big and scary and yet full of wonderful things to explore and to learn about.
Puppies and kittens grow up, as do babies. They learn as they grow, and they become more aware of things outside themselves. Still, there’s still that trust and wonderment in their eyes that is there for anyone to see, at least until they begin to learn that there really aren’t bogeymen under the bed but there are bad people in the world who do bad things, and that sometimes they do bad things themselves.
What makes today’s passage so gut-wrenching for me, particularly at this time is the very illustration that Jesus used to settle a bunch of adults having a schoolyard quarrel about who was the greatest. What’s gut-wrenching about it is that there are pictures in the news every day and all over the internet of young children, children who, in our community, would be in school or at soccer practice or even in the cherub choir in our church, but who stand looking up at Border Patrol agents, asking to be let in to this country or who are shown sleeping on pallets in large rooms containing dozens of children. That second thing is probably not much of a problem for them; many slept in the same room or even the same bed with their siblings. Here, at least, they have a pallet of their own for probably the first time in their lives and maybe a night of sleep without worry that someone with a gun will break in t0 hurt or kill them. But imagine walking up to a stranger in a uniform and asking for help? Most of us wouldn’t even ask our nearest and dearest friends for that kind of help.
They are refugees, although many adults refuse to call them that, who were sent away by parents who love them every bit as much as any parent in this country loves their own, but who were afraid for their safety if they remained in their homeland. They are fleeing poverty, sickness, human trafficking, armed conflict and roving bands of brigands who take what they want and despoil the rest, even little children. Many have relatives already in the US who would care for them and provide for them because they are family members and that’s what families do for each other – in most places, anyway.
While politicians argue about who is the greatest, these little children are being warehoused while their families are found or their processing is complete before they are shipped unceremoniously to the nearest bus station or, worse yet, back to the very danger, poverty and hopelessness they tried to escape. It is sad that we have a recognized symbol of welcome to strangers and immigrants that has a poem on it that reads in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,…”* yet these children who may never have heard the poem or recognize the symbol are asking for precisely what Lady Liberty represents. They are being treated as almost like criminals because they “broke the law” by trying to enter the country without permission. When a child is 8, or 9, or 10, he or she doesn’t know all the rules, much less how to follow protocols from some far-off place that seems to offer safety and security. You do what your parents tell you, even if you don’t always understand.
What would Jesus say to these politicians and people who want to deny these children the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? To my mind, the passage today is precisely the answer to that question. Many question how we could afford to take care of such a flood, yet there always seems to be enough money for intervention in armed conflicts, even when they really do not impact us directly. He would probably go to the halls of Congress and start lobbying for the protection of the children. What I wonder is whether those in Congress and other positions of authority who profess to follow him would recognize him or be persuaded by his words?
We’ve got children at risk here in our own country as well. What is being done to curb the violence they see and suffer? What are we doing to give them the kind of childhood we all want for our own kids? Where are we serving Jesus in them?
“Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” That statement falls right into the same category as the one where Jesus reminds his disciples that whoever clothed the naked, fed the hungry, healed the sick, visited the prisoners did it to and for him. So who is going to look at the children and remember Jesus’ words? Or is it going to be business as usual, arguing over who is the greatest while the least go hungry, barefoot, homeless and hopeless?
Jesus has given us clear instructions. Are we brave and wise enough to follow them? If we don’t the world will suffer more in the long run. We may not live to see it but we will be leaving it as a legacy for our own children. We have a choice – are we the greatest or are we the servants of the least?
What would Jesus do? He’s already done it. It’s our turn now.
* excerpted from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.