We have been walking together through the center of the gospel of Mark in the last few weeks. We started out agape at the Syrophoenician woman’s audacity to call Jesus on his uninclusive ministry, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And the wideness of God’s grace was shown.
Then we got to overhear the question and answer session Jesus held with the disciples on “Who do people say that I am?” and more pointedly, “But who do YOU say that I am?” Peter blurted out the correct answer “You are the Messiah” but then immediately showed that he had the wrong concept of what that Messiah might be like. And the deepness of God’s love began to emerge.
And now we arrive at today’s lesson. A lesson that has Jesus pulling a child into their midst and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” And we could all go into our “Aww” stance, and we often do when Elliot is in the house.
But we have some work to do before we get to the children. Jesus is still talking about the not so nice things that being Messiah might entail. This is the second time he makes his jarring (at least to them) prediction that he will be betrayed, killed, and then rise again.” “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
It seems a common enough human reaction. You fear that there might be something wrong with you, seriously wrong, and yet you don’t go to the doctor—you are afraid to ask. You sense that there might be a problem with a significant relationship, it just doesn’t feel right, but you continue on as you always have, not talking about it—because you are afraid to ask. You don’t understand what your teacher is telling you, or you don’t get the joke that everyone else is laughing at, or you just can’t seem to figure out what life is all about—and you are afraid to ask.
They didn’t understand. There was the one who had done all this incredible healing, who seemed to be able to get to the crux of God’s word to us today, who was passionate about true justice and righteousness, and they were afraid to ask. Maybe because the last time someone had pushed up against this death and resurrection thing they had been called out, “Get behind me Satan!” Maybe because asking would mean acknowledging they were afraid. Maybe because asking would mean showing they weren’t bright, they didn’t get it. Maybe Jesus would get fed up with them and choose some new disciples, some people who would be smarter, faster, better.
And what kind of world was it if Jesus couldn’t stop bad things from happening? What kind of God was it if the Messiah didn’t just wave a wand and make it all better? Sure, there might have to be battles, but they were battles that Jesus (and they) would win. And then there would be the glory, the prize of choosing the right side, of sitting at the head table, on the right and left of the One of God. Why wasn’t that the plan?
Maybe this was just a test—are you with me through thick and thin? Are you willing to give it all away, risk it all, bear your cross? Maybe to ask a question would disqualify you from continuing the journey. They had come this far. Maybe it would all become clear later.
Meanwhile, instead of asking questions, instead of being honest, they got into a discussion, one of those LOUD discussions, should we say arguments, about who was the greatest. This is also a very human thing. We are bombarded with the “est” mentality. For some people everything has to be the greatest, the biggest, the “bad”est, the longest, the widest, the BEST. We conjure up lists of sexiest, richest, most powerful, you know what I’m talking about. We want the cream of the crop on our fantasy football teams. We want to dress up as the latest greatest superhero. And we want to toot our own horn, especially if we are in the company of a couple of friends and someone says, “Well, you know I just do that better than you…” and we are off and running. Who has the best cake recipe? Who has the sexiest black dress? Who has lost the most weight? Who makes the most money? Who has the best date story? Who drives the fastest car?
What kind of greatness were the disciples arguing about? How were they deciding? Who got more time with Jesus? Who hadn’t had Jesus call them Satan? Who “got” it better? Who answered more questions correctly? Who was picked first? Who had given up more? Who had been born into the right tribe, the right family, under the right stars?
We don’t know how the argument went, or who thought they had won. But Jesus seems to have been wise to what was going down. “What were you arguing about on the way?” And now no one wanted to answer. Of course, Jesus knew anyway. I like that Jesus doesn’t scold them outright. He pulls a little child into their midst and starts talking about first and last and being a servant. He talks about welcoming a child, vulnerable in any culture, and in the world of Jesus, children had no legal standing; they were dependent on the care and goodness of others.
Here was their example of greatness—a child. Very few people in that culture would have agreed. Very few people in any culture actually. Greatness is seen as something achieved, something honed, something worked on, something judged. What does a child have? Sure they can be cute. But they haven’t lived long enough to prove their worth. They haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, or shown they have the stick-to-it-ness of longevity. They haven’t DONE much, or SAID much, or BEEN much. And that’s the point.
Jesus is redefining their world. God’s grace gets wider than ever before. God’s love gets deeper and more costly than ever before. God’s vision of our world, and what means the most, turns upside down. The first are last and the last first. The greatest, the most important, are the least and the lost. The Messiah, the Son of God, will not rule the world, but be ridiculed and mocked and eventually annihilated. But that won’t be the last word. He will rise again.
It’s a brave new world for sure. No wonder the disciples didn’t want to ask any questions. No wonder they would rather perform the common place tussle of who’s better, no, who’s the best! No wonder the Apostle Paul called the cross “scandalous.” It is all crazy in the mindset of most. It is also exactly what Jesus preached, and exactly what the gospel writers are trying to convey to us, to those of us who are on the road with Jesus, who don’t quite get it, and might be too afraid to raise our hands and ask, who get drawn into the much more familiar conversations about rungs of the corporate ladder, and levels of status, and who got into the Who’s Who.
That is what the child is supposed to do. Not make us go “Aww,” but be shocked that THAT is what greatness is in the eyes of God. THAT and the leper and the bleeding woman and the tax collector and the blind man and all those other dregs of society.
As Karoline Lewis of Working Preacher says,
…God becoming human, the incarnation, upended every assumption of greatness that the world deemed as definitive. …God becoming human decided that greatness is not about separation but solidarity, not about better than but relationship. Not about self-adulation but empowerment and encouragement of the other.
Greatness is determined by weakness and vulnerability. By service and sacrifice. By humility and honor. By truthfulness and faithfulness. We are called to preach this kind of greatness, we are called to embody this kind of greatness, so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness born out of love.
That is the challenge. To rewire our brains so that we remember what greatness is in God’s realm. To catch ourselves whenever the temptation arises to play that alluring game of “Where do I fit in the hierarchy?” To repent, to return, to recommit, to Jesus and Jesus’ Way. To be willing to see wisdom in what the world calls foolishness, to be willing to hold up as strength what the world calls weakness, to be willing to honor as greatness what the world calls low and despised and nothing special.
That is how Jesus lived. That is the message he preached. That is what we are called to. May God walk with us every step of the way, and constantly prod us to ask until we finally understand. Alleluia--