The Christian writer and activist Shane Claiborne – whose book ‘The Irresistible Revolution’ is a great read, and highly recommended – tells the story of his time working with Mother Teresa’s charity in India. He used to help regularly with the lunchtime food project which provided a hot meal for the destitute of the city, and was struck by the behaviour of one of the other helpers, who regularly gave an extra generous portion of the curry that was usually offered. When Shane queried whether it was right to load up the plates when so many were coming to be fed, the helper replied: ‘Of course I give out an extra helping – after all, Jesus will be coming to eat it today.’
Claiborne was profoundly moved by this reply, and the truth of this helper’s remark is borne out by today’s passage. We pick up where we left off yesterday, as Jesus gently challenges the disciples about what true devotion to their Lord consists of – not prestige or privilege, but humility and service.
To make his point, he gives them an example: calling a child to him, he declares: ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.’ This might seem innocuous enough to our modern ears: children now have a special role in our culture, a place which is furthermore protected by law. But this is very far from the situation in first century Israel. Children had no such place, no such protection; they were seen as the property of their parents, so for Jesus to give them special honour was, quite simply, a radical notion. In effect, he took ‘the least’ in his culture and said: if you welcome them, you welcome me.
In the following chapter of Mark, Jesus took this idea even further, commending child-like faith as the only way we can enter his kingdom. But today, let’s marvel at this quiet revolution Jesus begins with this seemingly small gesture. Future generations of Christians came to understand that Jesus was, by this simple act, declaring that all people were equally valuable to God; and that, whenever we give our time, attention and blessing to anyone considered to be on the margins, we are, in some marvellous way, meeting Jesus himself.
I, too, had such an encounter in Bristol ten or so years ago. Helping on a soup run I had the same experience as Claiborne, that profound sense that I was meeting Jesus in the homeless men and women I served that day. Perhaps you have, too. And may today’s lovely story encourage us all to keep reaching out to those in need: for it is there that we might, miraculously, meet Jesus himself.