It’s got layers, see, and each one is meaningful and important but isn’t the whole onion by itself. Let’s look at the first layer of today’s gospel—
We start with the kids bit—the disciples are arguing about who’s the greatest and Jesus asks what they’re talking about (probably knowing already as none of us are that subtle and he’s, you know, Jesus). And they don’t want to tell him. So he sighs, sits down, and pulls a nearby child into his lap—from where? Not the point. He says, the first shall be last and the last first. Welcome children and you’re welcoming me. Aaw, we say, we can do that! Kids are great! And they sure say the darndest things, am I right? No problem, Jesus! Sunday School and Vacation Bible School and Precious Moments all on the way! We will have the best programs here at church you’ve ever seen!
But “Jesus isn’t interested in who we say is the greatest or even in who acts like the greatest or looks to be great. Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, compassion, and love.” The first layer of our scriptural onion is good, but it’s not the only thing to consider. Here’s the second layer: Jesus says, “hold up, folks, that’s only the beginning. Yes, teach them the Word with macaroni art and coloring pages—that’s good, but it’s about more than that. It’s not about being the greatest, it’s about service. Look at this cute kid—serving her means serving me. So, go serve some kids.”
And so we did: prayers before bed with loving parents, volunteer gigs with Kids Against Hunger and such to help needy kids around the world. Check. Kids served. Next!
This story isn’t just about raising and treating kids well. Again, the second layer is good and necessary, but not the only message. Jesus is also talking about the disciples’ childish argument about who’s the greatest—he loves me best, does not, does too!—dudes, you’re still missing it! Maybe he’s cuddling a child in his lap and talking about intentionally coming in last because they’re acting like children, that they’re the ones who need to be welcomed into his arms.
That third layer is good and something we all need to hear, no matter how much we don’t want to hear that we are acting childishly. Yet again, that is not the final interpretation. The next layer of the onion is about hospitality. Not the mint-on-the-pillow, free-continental-breakfast, coffee-in-the-church-lobby kind of hospitality, though that’s lovely and needed. No, he’s talking about a deep, way-of-life kind of hospitality. The kind of hospitality that requires sacrifice.
Let’s talk about rats for a moment—don’t worry, we’ll get back to the onion… The recent book How Children Succeed discusses research on rats showing that the single most important determining factor for the health and thriving of adult rats was how much their mother rats licked and groomed them. Infant rats whose mothers took care of them more were more likely to take risks when at play and ate more than those whose mothers did not. And not only that, the researchers discovered "big variations in the size and shape and complexity of the parts of the brain that regulated stress" (30). Obviously, it's more complex than that—all research is, and I commend How Children Succeed to your reading—but put simply, and translated into human behavior, children whose mothers cuddle them, praise them, take care of them in a consistent way grow up healthier and more resilient. Our brains, our bodies are physically transformed…by love. These researchers have found the gospel writ large in the brains of rats.
Getting back to our scriptural onion, here’s the thing, we all know that raising children is difficult. And we know that it involves sacrifice on our parts. These first few months of my new baby Jackson’s life have been delightful but also very difficult. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t cried a lot—partly from sleep deprivation, partly as I see clearly the life I had outside work shrinking and changing into changing diapers, nursing, and tummy-time. I have had to sacrifice time with friends, time to work on art projects, time to do whatever it was I did before I had kids. And it’s not just about kids. The things worth doing in this world require sacrifice. One of my former students enjoyed cooking for us while on mission trips—he’d spend the afternoon making a huge amount of food, then insist on going last through the line. When someone needs to talk when I need to write an article or finish a report, I sit and chat—sacrifice. The coffee in the lobby isn’t just coffee, it’s a symbol of our willingness to engage deeply with newcomers—we sacrifice time with our old friends to gather new people in to our community. When we at Good Shepherd begin our annual stewardship drive in the spring because we value sharing our resources with folks who need it—sacrifice. When, dare I say it, your tax bill comes due, you probably feel the sacrifice, but again, it’s because, the details of the tax code aside, we as a nation find helping one another worth doing. And so we have a system of sacrifice. And that sacrifice is precisely what we mean when we talk about hospitality. And what Jesus is talking about with the children. We make ourselves last to put someone else first—hospitality.
These sacrifices we make for one another, for our loved ones, for the least of these around the world, they transform us. Our bodies are physically transformed by our sacrifice, by our love. The hospitality we show to the stranger, whether it be a newcomer to this church, the children at Taft Elementary, the gays and lesbians in our communities who think we Christians hate them, the families around the world who don’t have clean water to drink—the hospitality we show to these strangers we show to Jesus himself.
And so we come to the center of the onion—the core of truth that Jesus offers us in everything he said and did. Love is our driving force, and love demands something of us. Often more than we’re prepared to give. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, after all, and I don't think he meant that in a purely abstract way. Yet that love is what we ourselves yearn for, that love is what God offers us freely with Jesus own sacrifice, and that love will transform us body and soul.
Who is the stranger you meet? How can you love them? How can you sacrifice for them to show them hospitality? What can you give up to show them how much you and God love them? And how will you be transformed by that love? Like an onion, it will bring you to tears if you give it a try.