Grace Presbyterian Church
September 19, 2021, Pentecost 17B
Like a Child to Jesus
As we return to the gospel of Mark for the time being, we come back into its offerings as found in the Revised Common Lectionary in a moment at which we are forced, among other things, to confront something rather basic about Jesus’s disciples that is rather unavoidable: they don’t seem to be very smart. To borrow some vernacular expressions on the subject, they’re dumb as rocks, or dumber than a sack of hammers, or as dumb as dirt. They show, throughout the gospel but especially in this central section, as they are following Jesus to his ultimate fate in Jerusalem, that they just don’t get it, and they keep showing that they just don’t get it over and over again.
We might ought to consider a slightly different possibility about the disciples, though. Maybe it isn’t that they don’t get it; maybe it’s that they don’t want to get it.
You know the type. We live in a society where such refusal to comprehend basic facts is now not only obnoxious, it’s deadly. These days it’s hard not to wonder how long it will be before folks start deciding that, say, the law of gravity is a hoax, and start taking it upon themselves to defy gravity. You get the idea. If they don’t like a fact, they deny it, no matter how the consequences.
And to be fair to the disciples, the particular fact that they are struggling with is a deeply troubling and painful one. Jesus has now said it twice, as recorded by Mark, and there’s one more statement coming in the next chapter. Mark 8:31 records Jesus’s first proclamation of his inevitable rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection. This is the occasion on which Peter, in one of his rare “get it right” moments, has just proclaimed to Jesus that “you are the Messiah”, only to turn around and rebuke Jesus for this seemingly contradictory proclamation – and get rebuked himself with “Get behind me, Satan!” for his trouble.
Now here, at the beginning of today’s reading, Jesus is at it again. The “Son of Man” will be betrayed into human hands and killed and will rise again three days later. Do the disciples not get it, or do they not want to get it?
It’s worth remembering what has happened in the interim. Chapter 9 begins with the transfiguration of Jesus, as witnessed by Peter, James, and John (though not the rest of the disciples). Upon coming down the mountain, they encounter a father pleading for healing for his son, which the disciples so far have failed to accomplish. They then head toward Capernaum, and it is on this journey that Jesus returns to this unpleasant theme. The disciples, perhaps remembering the rebuke Peter got last time, don’t answer. Did they not understand, or did they not want to understand?
When they arrive at Capernaum, Jesus asks a seemingly out-of-the-blue question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Their non-answer is telling, and you might guess that Jesus knew exactly what they had been arguing about.
Let’s be clear: that such an argument might come up at this point isn’t that shocking if you remember the context we just noted. Remember, Jesus singled out Peter, James, and John to go up the mountain with him when he was transfigured. Meanwhile, the rest of the disciples were left to contend with this child they could not heal. If you ask me, that’s a situation rife for some posturing about importance and greatness, even among “good church folk”; Jesus’s “favorites” lording it over the ne’er-do-wells who couldn’t get that healing right. And besides, it’s a good way to avoid thinking about that disturbing thing Jesus keeps saying.
Jesus is ready to quash this kind of thinking straight away. The statement is direct and unequivocable: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The statement is shocking enough, in the context of the Roman Empire in which Jesus and his disciples lived. A society in which status and honor were of paramount importance would have no room for talk like this. A good Roman citizen would have greeted this statement from Jesus with more disdain than the old baseball manager Leo Durocher seemed to show for “nice guys” in that quip that keeps him remembered, the one about those “nice guys” finished last. Last was last. Last was nothing. Last had no honor or status or importance or worth at all.
Perhaps still sensing that the disciples didn’t really get it, Jesus resorted to a demonstration. He singled out a small child and called the child over to him, took the child in his arms (maybe even picked up the child), and said the really shocking part: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Now here’s where we have to stop and adjust our readers.
The moment a child is invoked in scripture, our tendency is to get all mushy and sentimental. To hear this scripture as it was meant to be heard by Mark’s readers and hearers, we have to fight off that tendency vigorously. We can’t let ourselves slip into saying “awwww…” at the sight of Jesus taking the child in his arms. That’s not going to allow us to hear what Jesus is saying.
In Roman society, a child’s importance depended upon the child’s age. If the child was old enough to work around the house or in the fields or in the family’s business, the child was useful. Until that age, the child was essentially dead weight, a mouth that had to be fed and cared for by its family, and of fully no status whatsoever outside its own family. Jesus calling and taking the child in his arms – a child of no relation to him – was roughly equivalent to Jesus singling out and embracing the lowest and most menial of slaves, people of no status in Roman society. And it was this – the complete lack of societal status or honor or importance – that was being singled out here, not the cuteness or preciousness that we tend to ladle onto our perception of children.
To a group of disciples who had been caught arguing about who was the biggest deal or the most important or the greatest, Jesus offers this challenge. The one who would be greatest among you must be willing to welcome one like this – of no honor or status or importance whatsoever – as if you were welcoming me. And when you do that, you are not just welcoming me, but the One who sent me as well.
It’s not just a Roman thing to be obsessed with status or rank or with associating ourselves with “important” people. Any society you can think of has had its own obsession with that rank or status-seeking. It’s still not good.
It is in exactly that kind of world that this message comes crashing, throttling our pride at just how important we the church are in the world and how much power we hold in the greater society. Let’s be clear that Jesus is wildly unimpressed with how many politicians jump at our bidding or how many athletes stick John 3:16 references on their equipment. Are we welcoming the child? The homeless person? The unwed mother? The migrant farmworker? The ones with no status, no importance, no significance at all in the larger world we the church are so busy trying to impress?
If we aren’t welcoming them, can we truly say we are welcoming Jesus?
Only when the church – the whole church – can look upon the ones of no importance to society and see them as Jesus saw that child, and the whole church can welcome them the way Jesus welcomed that child; only then can we claim to be following in the way Jesus taught. At the last, we’re only getting this business of following Christ right when the world looks to us like that child looked to Jesus.
For learning to welcome the ones who don’t matter, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #401, Here in This Place (Gather Us In); #822, When We Are Living; #738, O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee