We tend to side with the people who agree with us or with arguments we find congenial to our own views. We read the newspapers which complement the image we have of ourselves and reinforce our political allegiance and the way we see the world. For example, whose side do we take in an industrial dispute? Workers go on strike because they consider they are undervalued and not being paid enough and see the management as self-serving fat cats, while on the other hand the bosses think more in terms of the success of the business and their annual bonuses, considering the workers to be greedy. Where do we find the criteria to resolve such disputes justly when, in the words of James, jealousy and selfish ambition exist?
In today's gospel reading even the disciples, the people who were in the constant company of Jesus, were factious and antagonistic towards one another, quarrelling as to which of them was the most important and deserving in the group. At least they knew status should not be their concern because when Jesus asks them what they were discussing they are shamefaced about it. And no wonder. Jesus had just told them how he would abandon himself to the will of others, becoming the least in that he would put himself at the service of all, even going as far as dying for them. In that way he would become the greatest, a paradox at the heart of Christianity. So Jesus teaches his disciples how they should behave.
If anyone would be first he must be last of all and servant of all.
Jesus then took a child as a visual aid. The Aramaic word for ‘child’ is also the word for ‘servant’ and to understand the implications of this we must realise that the disciples were looking at a child of their time and not of ours. Then children were totally at the mercy of adults, unlike today when adults are at the mercy of children. The children of first century Palestine were not demanding expensive toys from their parents or clamouring for the latest trainers because everyone else at school had them. Childhood is a recent concept, before which the vulnerability of children was obvious. Many died from childhood diseases which today are no threat to our children. To see what a child from the time of Jesus was like, look at children in the developing world today: babies dying from drinking contaminated water; young children helplessly weak with incurable illnesses; most children lucky if they have enough to eat to keep them alive and well; children scratching a living working in the fields; children helping to run the house and taking care of their orphaned younger brothers and sisters. It is this kind of child that Jesus tells his disciples to receive. He took one of the most vulnerable and powerless members of his society and asked the disciples not to become like one of these children, as he does in the other gospels, but to look after it and make sure it was flourishing. Jesus insisted that the Christian had to extend concern to the weakest members of society, to those who had not the power, authority or means to look after themselves.
Of course Jesus did not intend our love to be limited to children. He said that if anyone would be first in the Kingdom he must be last of all and servant of all. The child, like the servant, was an example of the most vulnerable members of society, people with no power. So we are to receive anyone who needs our help. They may not be destitute or at death’s door but their needs are pressing nevertheless. What we can offer is vital to their well-being and their needs can only be met if we put ourselves at their service. It isn’t always practical - we can’t be at the service of everyone in need because no one can spread themselves that thinly. As often with Christian morality there is no easy answer. When presented with someone who needs help, we have to decide what we can do, weighing up the pros and cons. How much of my attention can I take from my family to help someone else? How much can I afford to give away before I put myself in a position where I can be of no help? What am I physically able to do or what can I physically not do? Recognising the need and being aware of our own strengths and weaknesses is a great step towards doing the right thing.
Only we ourselves know what we are able to do and can bring ourselves to do it. But to help us make that decision, Jesus has put the image of the most vulnerable person in society before us.