Mark 9:30-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
When I was a kid my friends and I would occasionally play “king of the hill.” The goal of this game is to get to the top of the pile and then keep everyone else off. It’s a game we continue to play throughout our lives, each of us jockeying for the top spot. If that means giving an elbow to another, well that’s the cost of doing business in a “dog-eat-dog” world. If you need help in getting to the top, well there are all kinds of books and seminars that will inform you on how to do this. The Gospels, however, cannot be counted among these “self-help” books.
In the previous lectionary reading Jesus had defined what it meant for him to be the Messiah. He then called his disciples to continue on that path of discipleship. In that previous conversation Jesus revealed to his disciples that his path led through the cross, and suggested that the same would be true for them. (Mark8:27-38). In this reading we begin with another attempt by Jesus to relate to his followers that his path led to the cross, and from the cross to resurrection. Unfortunately, they still didn’t get it. They didn’t understand and they were too embarrassed to ask him one more time to explain what all this meant.
One sure sign that they didn’t get it comes in the next scene. They finally make it back to what I’ll call their home base—the fishing village of Capernaum, which lay on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Having been told several times that the way of discipleship involves the cross they were still thinking in terms of gaining secular/political power. Not only that but they, the disciples, appeared to be jockeying for power in what they hoped would be Jesus’ new administration. They were arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest. Somehow Jesus concludes from all the noise in the background that his disciples, his master students, the future of his church, were arguing amongst themselves. He questions them: “what were you arguing about?” Again they were silent. It’s never fun to be found out, especially when you are fighting about who sits on the top of the hill. It’s so unbecoming of a religious leader!
There are innocuous debates about greatness. It’s fun to argue about whose team is the best. Even the fans of teams that never seem to get to the top will argue the finer points of their team’s history and accomplishments. I can gloat that while the Dodgers haven’t been to the World Series since 1988, the Giants have been there five times, winning the last three visits. There are, however, less innocuous versions of this that we participate in. None is more dangerous than nationalism.
Down through history nations have sought power and influence at the expense of other nations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States proudly declared itself to be the “sole super power.” No country could rival ours. “We are the champions of the world.” The question is—has that made us safer or enhanced the quality of our lives? In fact, has it improved our own self-image? I would argue that it hasn’t. As a nation we are anxious, afraid, angry, and more polarized politically than ever. We climbed the mountain and then it seems that we have turned on each other, fighting to climb another mountain, in pursuit of the title “The Greatest.” Even as we raise the banner of “American Exceptionalism,” we see other nations including the “other super power”—Russia—try to exert its influence so as to challenge our top spot.
Of course churches do the same. I remember a conversation as a teenager with a pastor of a mainline Protestant church. I was part of a Pentecostal church at the time. This pastor, who was the father of a classmate informed me that my denomination filled a role previously filled by the Methodists. That is, he viewed my Pentecostal church as the natural home of the less informed and lower economic classes. He said this with an air of superiority. Of course today, today it’s mega-church pastors who trumpet their success and invite us to replicate their models so we can be great, even as they are great. But is that pathway that Jesus has set out upon?
Jesus turned the conversation about who is greatest on its head. If you want to be first, then be last. It’s that simple—or is it? Pastors are called to lead, but how do we lead? We hear about “servant leadership,” but the truly successful don’t appear to be “servant leaders.” In fact, we seem to like our leaders loud and brash. Trump is loud, and he’s getting all the attention of late. In fact, polls suggest that we want our President to be more like Putin than Obama, and Trump surely fills that void. How do we succeed if we take the role of the servant?
What does this look like? Jesus invites into their midst a child, and taking the child into his arms, Jesus says to the disciples “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” If we wish to know God, then we are to welcome the child into our midst. In that day children were valued, but not in the same way as today. They were valued more for the economic potential than for themselves. In welcoming the child, he suggests that God has chosen to identify with those whom society has deemed less valuable. They have potential, but as of yet they are merely a burden. In fact, children are largely invisible in that society. As Mark Stamm puts it: “Jesus makes them visible just as he made lepers and women visible” [Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, p. 281]. We may coddle our children today, but such was not the case then, making this message all the more powerful. Having said that, I do need to acknowledge that even in the United States many children face the dangers of abuse and neglect. And churches often prefer the children be out of sight and out of mind, except perhaps for the occasional “children’s moment,” which we enjoy not because it informs the children about God, but makes us feel good that we actually have children in our midst. But then, it’s best if they disappear!
When Jesus says that it is the children who most embody the presence of God, it’s not their behavior that he’s talking about; it’s their person. Welcome the children, the least of these, and you welcome me, and if you welcome me you welcome the one who sent me. As Paul puts it in the letter to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-6 NRSV). So, let us, it would seem, be like a child so that we might be like the one who calls us to discipleship. Or, as Brian Wren puts it:
When God is a child there’s joy in our long. The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong, and none shall be afraid. [Chalice Hymnal, 132].