Written by Daniel Hazard
Sunday, September 23
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
First in Caring
God of unsearchable mystery and light, your weakness is greater than our strength, your foolishness brings all of our cleverness to naught, your gentleness confounds the power we would claim. You call first to be last and last first, servant to be leader and ruler to be underling of all. Pour into our hearts the wisdom of your Word and Spirit, that we may know your purpose and live to your glory. Amen.
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 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." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
All Readings For This Sunday
Proverbs 31:10-31 with Psalm 1
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 with Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
1. What do you do to avoid things you would rather not know?
2. How would you have felt if you had been one of the disciples in this scene?
3. Do you think children are valued in today's society? Why or why not?
4. How would you describe greatness? Is it different in the reign of God?
5. What does it mean to you to be "the servant to all"?
by Kate Huey
Away from the crowds (at least for the time being), here in the seclusion of a house, the disciples are getting a private lesson from Jesus. They need some quality time with their teacher, because things have been rather up and down for awhile now. There have been mountaintop experiences, like seeing a blindingly radiant Jesus standing right next to Moses and Elijah, and other wonders as well: another crowd fed on a few loaves of bread (with leftover abundance), more healings, and still another bright, shining moment when Peter boldly recognized Jesus as the Messiah. On the other hand, there have been some perplexing, even disturbing, moments. Jesus and his followers, it seems, are not on the same page. He speaks more than once about his coming suffering and death, and scolds Peter harshly when he balks at such unpleasant talk, while the disciples continue to be absorbed in measuring their own greatness, especially in relation to one another (some things cross boundaries of place, time, and culture). Peter, James, and John must be wondering, for example, whether they're somehow more important because they were up on that mountaintop with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Who could blame them for feeling just a little bit special?
And then Jesus turns and asks them what they're talking about. They must be embarrassed, because their awkward silence is palpable, or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, "deafening." We would probably feel similarly uncomfortable in their place; Harry B. Adams suggests that we, too, might be silent in the face of such a question from Jesus, or if we examined how consistent our own lives are with our identity as disciples of Jesus. Talk about a lesson in humility! We do well, then, to heed Richard Swanson's caution as we read this story that is not, he says, about their flaws in contrast to our supposed superiority. We could find ourselves distracted by measuring our own righteousness against that of the disciples, and somehow judging ourselves greater, more aware, more faithful.
We know something important is coming when Jesus sits down, like a traditional Jewish teacher. This isn't just a casual conversation but something critical, something profound, that he hopes his followers will remember long after he has died and risen again. At this point, they seem to suffer short-term memory loss when it comes to Jesus' words about suffering and dying. They would rather think about glory, but then, who wouldn't? However, many of us learn, as we read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end, that this journey toward Jerusalem and the cross is a long one, and understanding does not come easily to these disciples. We have a sense from the larger New Testament narrative that they never do "get it" until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fills them with the understanding that eludes them throughout the Gospels. In the meantime, they're human, just like us, and their sights are set much lower, on the high places of honor.
Jesus uses visual aids
As he so often does, Jesus uses more than words to teach his lesson. He likes earthy illustrations: mustard seeds, lamps on stands, and even dogs eating crumbs under the table. But he has also taught through his encounters with human beings, touching them in order to heal (even spitting on the eyes of one man), feeding them when they are hungry, and bringing them, as promised, the good news that will liberate them from every kind of bondage, including sin. He's healed Jews and those outsider Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor. This time, his illustration (today we might say his "visual aid") is a little child who happens to be nearby.
When I read that this part of Mark's Gospel is taking place privately, away from the crowds, I wonder where that child came from and why he or she has been allowed to hang around a group of men who are wandering through town. (Some scholars say that Jesus had a house in Capernaum, the setting for this passage, but in any case he hasn't been around much, and he always brings a band of strangers with him.) But such a question occurs to a 21st-century mother who thinks children should be watched over constantly and carefully.
However, John Pilch sheds helpful light on the customs and culture reflected in Jesus' actions and words. A child in our culture is deeply valued and put first in our priorities (at least, we insist this is so, in spite of the number of children in poverty). However, in the time of Jesus, a child was lowest on the priority list (no "women and children first" here). Even in medieval times, Pilch writes, Mediterranean cultures put a low value on children: "Thomas Aquinas taught that in a raging fire a husband was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his young child."
A tender scene, or a perplexing teaching?
Our own Western culture would reverse that order, so it's tempting for us to sentimentalize the action of Jesus in picking up a small child and exhorting his followers to welcome "one such child" in his name as a way to welcome him. Isn't it a sweet scene, when Jesus tenderly cuddles a child and, we imagine, appeals to the soft hearts under the tough exterior of these big, rough men? It is indeed a sweet scene that we imagine, but that's not what's going on here. Jesus is once again saying something not sweet, not sentimental, but perplexing, even disconcerting, and certainly provocative.
Those poor disciples are experiencing one more boat-rocking paradox, one more radical up-ending of the way they think things ought to be, and hope they will be, when Jesus comes into their idea of glory. He's already told them that if they want to gain their life, they should lose it (8:35). Now, when they want to find their way to the top, to claim greatness, he's telling them to lay claim instead to the last and lowest place. To illustrate his point, he takes a child in his arms and tells them that when they welcome this little one, they welcome him, and they even welcome the One who sent him.
This latest command makes no sense in the world of the disciples. Wait. What? Welcome someone who doesn't have the power or ability or place to welcome us in return? No expectation of reciprocity? We might say, no return on our investment? No quid pro quo? First, our Teacher/Messiah keeps talking about suffering and dying instead of victory and glory, and now we have to welcome and even value small, insignificant, powerless people?
A long list of the "devalued"
Children in the culture that shaped the disciples' worldview weren't the only ones who were devalued; they shared space on the margins with many others in their society who were both powerless and vulnerable. Megan McKenna provides a long list of such people who didn't "count": people "who were old, handicapped, sick, illiterate, cast out as unclean. This group included peasants, farmers, shepherds, widows, slaves, the unemployed, aliens, immigrants, prisoners, homeless." How many of these people still don't count in our own society? But what a wonderful illustration for Jesus in this setting--someone (literally) small and probably not aware of what was going on around him or her.
In Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text, "Last of All" (in her book, Bread of Angels), she calls these ancient-world children "fillers, not main events." Their value was in their potential, that is, if they even survived to adulthood, and the odds were against them. At this point, however, they're more like servants. In fact, the Greek words for "child" and "servant" have the same root, and both, Peter Marty writes, "live life on the receiving end of things," not the giving end, and that, Marty claims, is where the power to control lies. In our culture, we organize our structures with a diagram that charts the power, where it comes from and where it goes (usually in a triangle, which neatly depicts a hierarchy with a few at the top and many below). However, Marty says that Jesus up-ends that "flowchart" and puts children at the top. Ironically, Marty makes the provocative claim that Jesus is fine with "rank" just as long as that system of ranking has been reversed, with the lowest at the top, and the high and mighty brought low, with the first being last, and the last first. As always, when Jesus talks about the reign of God, he reverses a whole bunch of our expectations and assumptions.
How much do we really value our children?
While we might think that things have dramatically improved since those long-ago days when the lives of children were devalued, we are still hard-pressed to defend the suffering of children today whose lives and well-being have not been put at the top of our communal priority list. In our own families, we may love and cherish our children, but can we say the same about the children in our communities, especially our cities and rural areas, and in nations in the developing world? Do the children of South Sudan rank high on our priority list? And even in our youth-obsessed culture where many children are indulged materially, do we still think of children as, in Marty's word, "apprentices" who are not yet fully persons? Do we appreciate them for who and what they are today, rather than seeing them only in terms of what they will become someday?
Taylor would respond by describing our children as already "full-fledged citizens of God's realm." She suggests that we spend some time with them in order to spend some time in God's presence. Not to imitate them (that's not what Jesus said, she reminds us), because they're human like us, so they, too, can be "noisy, clinging, destructive, self-centered, and surprisingly cruel." In this sermon, "Last of All," and elsewhere (see her book, An Altar in the World: A Spiritual Geography), Taylor writes about what is good for our souls, and here she advises us to attend to our own growth toward "greatness" by tending to our behavior when we are alone, to our treatment of the little ones of every kind, those "who [do] not count" in our society and the circles we run in.
This passage from Mark's Gospel is both short and powerful. Jesus' teaching is clear, but Marty notes that Jesus speaks of "requirements" rather than "desire," of "a new community with altered priorities" in which "the least of humankind would count....[and] be embraced." Or, as Taylor puts it, Jesus didn't just tell them but showed them who was greatest: "twenty-six inches tall, limited vocabulary, unemployed, zero net worth, nobody. God's agent." In other words, "there is no one whom we may safely ignore." No one whom we may safely ignore.
"From rejection to welcome"
Focusing so closely on children in any culture should not distract us from an even larger truth. Richard Swanson sees "the operative flow in the passage" as "something more like from rejection to welcome." After all, Jesus began this passage by warning his disciples that he would be betrayed and killed and then would rise again. How much more rejection could there be? And yet the passage ends by describing a welcome that extends not only to the little ones but also to him, and to the One who sent him. It also describes a welcome that is an expression of service.
We might not consciously think about aspiring to greatness, let alone claim it openly among our friends and colleagues, but many of us long to see ourselves as faithful, and righteous, in the eyes of God. Dianne Bergant thinks most people, however, are more concerned with success, beauty, strength, confidence, and fame, and those who enjoy all these things, the people "who have made a name for themselves, those who entertain us." All of these, it seems, are more important than "righteousness," that is, being "gentle and merciful, faithful and sincere...lovers of peace....willing to take the last place." The righteous will be the ones who are first in caring for others.
Taking the message to heart
The road to Jerusalem is a long one, and there is plenty of time for lessons, but the disciples still don't grasp the meaning of what Jesus is saying. David Watson observes that while Jesus instructs his disciples to be the servants of all, the word "diakonos here in 9:35 and in 10:43" is not used to describe them later; perhaps, Watson suggests, they never did grasp that part of Jesus' message. As usual, the first disciples of Jesus resemble us in many ways. For us, too, the way of discipleship is long and much is expected of us, and we too would rather think and talk about our reward than the price that will be exacted. Jesus laid down his life for us, and we are asked to offer our lives, our priorities, our gifts, our very selves, along with the honor, the power and place and prestige that we long for. The repetition throughout Mark of where all of this is leading--to Jesus' suffering and death--reflects the deep human resistance to the transformation to which we are called, the gift of radical transformation of our lives that is offered to us. Please, we ask, let us contemplate honor, not the cross. And yet, how else can we ever experience the resurrection and new life that is promised? How else can we experience true joy?
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found on www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
For further reflection
Bill Watterson, 20th century
It's not denial. I'm just selective about the reality I accept.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
A great [person] is always willing to be little.
Helen Keller, 20th century
I long to accomplish a great and noble task, ut it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble.
Carson McCullers, The Square Root of Wonderful, 20th century
The closest thing to being cared for is to care for someone else.
William Shakespeare, 15th century
[One] is not great who is not greatly good.
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