Jesus loves children. There's no doubt in my mind. Jesus loves everyone, but Jesus loves children especially. Not that Jesus would ever show favouritism, but, yes, I think Jesus thinks children are the greatest.
And I'm not just saying that because of all those great pictures you see in Sunday school rooms where Jesus is surrounded by happy, healthy, well-behaved children.
There's a terrific story in three of the gospels about the disciples trying to keep children away from the very busy Jesus. But he tells them to let them come, pointing out that we should all come to God with the open, innocent, wonder of children.
Hence the pictures. Happy children, laughing and frolicking with a smiling Jesus, with not a care in the world.
The gospel story this week is not that story.
On the road, the disciples had been debating amongst themselves who was the greatest, the top disciple. Every group has that kind of dynamic, I suppose, whether it's competitive or simply an acknowledgement of where the strengths are on the team, bearing in mind that we're then going to rank them in order of importance and value.
But Jesus tells them that "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35). In fact, says Jesus, holding a child, "whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me" (Mark 9:37).
To follow Jesus is to put others first, to serve others and to embrace them with love, just as Jesus does. In a society where rank and stature seem so important, that already turns things upside down. But there's more.
It's not the innocence and wonder of children that Jesus is pointing to, it's this: in Jesus' day, children were among the most vulnerable and isolated. Mortality was high and they were often not seen as a precious gift, but, at best, a necessary expense, though an unwanted one, at least until they were old enough to work. They were weak, needy and unimportant. A child was powerless.
In the drama of this moment, it's a child that Jesus holds up, not just to be served but to be welcomed, not just to be cared for but to be engaged, not just to be acknowledged but to be embraced. It's what Jesus lives in every story: Jesus welcomes into relationship.
To live the Way of Jesus is to love in action: to feed the hungry, heal the sick, care for the vulnerable and marginalized. It's to welcome into relationship those for whom a relationship may well be the most life-giving thing of all. And it's to do all that for those that most need to be loved, the easiest to love, the hardest to love, even those who society says shouldn't be loved. All are worthy of love.
In our complex and conflicted world, that's a challenge still. Our views of children, the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised and the marginalized may have changed in a couple of thousand years. I hope. But children are still vulnerable, the poor are still poor, the sick still need healing (of body, mind and spirit) and the marginalized still need to be welcomed home.