17th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 20B)
But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. (Mark 9:34)
TEXT: Mark 9:30-37
One of the reasons often given for following the lectionary cycle is that—over the course of three years—it’s supposed to lead us through the entire Bible (or it would, they say, if we used all four readings every Sunday). Except that isn’t exactly true.
Take our gospel lessons as an example. If you’re liturgically-aware, you may know that we’re in the latter part of Year “B” (Year “C” begins on the first Sunday in Advent). And, if you’ve really been paying attention, you may recall that through most of August we were reading from John’s gospel.
But then we broke off—suddenly—after chapter six of John, and plunged into Mark’s gospel, beginning at chapter seven.
Today, we continue reading in Mark, picking things up at verse 30 of the ninth chapter. Yet, we have not read the first 29 verses! And that’s a pity. Because there’s some amazing stuff in that first half of chapter nine.
It begins, in fact, with the Transfiguration account—where Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus to a mountaintop. Once they’ve climbed up there, Jesus begins to radiate a brilliant light, and he has a conversation with Moses and Elijah—both of whom have by this time been dead for centuries!
Then a cloud descends upon the mountain, and God’s voice booms out of it, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (Mark 9:7).
Heady stuff! Peter, James, and John must have been bursting to tell the others about that vision and that voice—but Jesus had strictly ordered them to say nothing about it to anybody.
Think about it, though: if they had been able to report on their mountaintop experience … Well, that surely would have pointed them out as VIPs—the innermost members of Jesus’ “inner circle” … the greatest disciples of all!
But, apparently, that isn’t quite good enough. Because on the way back down from the summit, the three of them begin to argue about … “Who’s number one?”
Which of them is the greatest of the greatest?
However, when they get back to Capernaum, their lofty dreams come crashing down to earth. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asked them (even though, clearly, he already knew). Then he sat down and tried—yet again—to get through to them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Right. They had argued about who was greatest of all … and now Jesus calls them to be last of all. Their eyes must have started to glaze over … just like Sunday morning in church …
They’d heard this spiel before—to save your life, you have to lose it; to be first, you have to be last; to be great, you must become a servant. Jesus was always talking this way.
When you were in high school, was this the way leaders were measured—by being last of all? The last to be noticed? The last to be picked? The last in line? Did the popular kids get popular by always being last? Of course not.
And consider the political arena. We Canadians are nearing the end of a federal election campaign, and Monday is decision day. I ask you: do candidates get ahead by being last? Last in the polls? Last in advertising? Last in debates? That’s laughable.
Professional sports teams don’t win championships by being last. Maggie MacNeil didn’t win gold by treading water.
Clearly, Jesus is describing a totally different way of being and doing than what we mean when we talk about “first” and “last.” All along, Jesus has been teaching his disciples what it means for him to be the Messiah: that he must be rejected, suffer and die—and then rise again. Clearly, the disciples don’t get it.
So he takes a little child in his arms, and brings it into the middle of their circle.
Whose child was this?
Perhaps it was the child of one of the women in Jesus’ community. Perhaps it was the child of one of the disciples, or a relative of Jesus. Whoever the child was, Jesus saw the child. Jesus honoured the child. To Jesus, this small person was as important as Moses and Elijah up on the mountain.
“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).
Earlier that same day—on the Mount of Transfiguration—Peter, James and John had heard the voice from the cloud. They knew exactly who it was that had sent Jesus. Now, juxtaposed with this heavenly vision, they see Jesus, holding this kid on his lap.
Jesus wants them to see the child—and to welcome the child. Not because the child is innocent or perfect or pure or cute or curious or naturally religious. No. Jesus wants them to welcome the child because the child was at the bottom of the heap, socially. It’s worth noting that, in Mark, children are often sick or disabled.
Jairus’s daughter is near death when her father pleads for help.
The Syrophoenician woman’s little girl is possessed by an unclean spirit.
And, just before today’s gospel text, a man brings his son to Jesus. Since childhood, the boy had suffered from terrible convulsions—and Jesus’ disciples had been unable to heal him. But Jesus commanded the spirit to leave the boy, then lifted him to new life.
Children in Mark are not so much symbols of holiness or innocence as they are victims—victims of poverty and disease.
Jesus brings the child from the margins into the very centre. This child is not a symbol, but a person—albeit an insignificant person; one easily overlooked, often unseen and usually unheard. That’s the way it was.
But that was then—and this is now! Surely we are different. We value children, do we not? Especially in church.
Church growth strategies always include children. When surveys ask, “What do people look for in a church?” right up at the top—right after “adequate parking”—is “childcare space that’s cheerful and well-supervised.”
And yet, if we listen to Christian voices in the public square, we may find there is far greater passion about unborn children than about the well-being of children once they are born.
Here’s a quote from Joan Chittister, who is a well-known American author, speaker, and Benedictine nun:
“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born, but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” *
I see her point. Sometimes—perhaps more often than we like to admit—almost the worst thing that can happen to children is getting born. Before birth they are valued and cherished, but … after birth … Well, then they’re on their own!
Jesus, though … Jesus wants us to see the children. He wants us to bring them from the margins and hold them on our laps.
“Do you see this child?”
Jesus is asking us this question, too.
“Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
Isn’t it up to us to provide this sort of care? And to offer it—as the Letter of James (3:13) says—“with gentleness born of wisdom.”
Was Jesus being unrealistic that day in Capernaum, when he set a little child in the midst of his disciples? I don’t think so. Today, as in Jesus’ day, it is quite possible to effectively care for the marginalized. To be sure, doing that demands commitment. It requires energy, and time, and money, and—most of all—faith.
Remember that Jesus calls his disciples into action. He said, “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I have been doing …”(John 14:12a).
Consider the works that he did. Jesus swung open the doors of his Kingdom for those whom nobody wanted to see. He extended hospitality to those who were considered nothing more than property. Jesus did not blindly follow social conventions or rules. He healed when he wasn’t supposed to. He touched people he wasn’t supposed to touch. And after a wonderful moment of glory on the mountaintop, he spoke of suffering and death.
Jesus taught us that the Kingdom of God is not up, but down. All of our arguments about greatness—all of our pretensions of righteousness—mean absolutely nothing if we do not stoop down to see the lowly ones in our midst.
That day in Capernaum, Jesus held a little child in his arms and brought the words of heaven down to earth: “This is God’s Beloved Child.”
Then Jesus looked over the child’s shoulder at his disciples. He’s looking at us, too.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
I realize this is not as simple as it sounds. It means caring for children—even if we have none of our own. It means being committed to the welfare of children before and after they are born.
Jesus wants us to care not only for our own children and grandchildren, but also for the children of migrant workers sleeping in the field. He wants us to care for children who arrive in our midst as frightened refugees—and for the Canadian child who, every night, moves from one homeless shelter to another.
In order to do this, we have to do what Jesus did. We have to stoop. We must bend down low enough to see the child of God in every person.
May it be so for us. Praise the Lord who helps us bend!