Pentecost 16, September 24, 2006
30They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise." 32But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
33They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" 34But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." 36He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."
Who is the greatest? What an interesting debate the disciples entered into. Perhaps they never intended Jesus to hear their debate. Whoever started the debate probably was really embarrassed when Jesus called them onto the carpet. Who is the greatest? Who is the most spiritual? Who prays the most? Who can follow Jesus the farthest without his sandals aching? Who can nod the hardest when Jesus tells off a Pharisee? Who deserves to sit on the front pew? Which begs the question: who is the worst? Who is pathetic? Who is the worst preacher? Who needs Jesus to cut his salary with the board of elders? Who lost his job and can’t help pay the bills? Who lost her husband and can’t stop grieving? Who has doubts and questions and problems and can’t cope with life on their own? Who is the best, who is the worst?
Don’t we ask the same questions? How long did you pray? How much of the Bible did you read? Why don’t we rank ourselves 1-12? As if spirituality could be ranked. As if Christianity was about numbers, and salaries, and how many books you’ve written. And then the elderly and children – they can’t help mow the lawn – are they worth anything at all? Where do they rank?
To make matters worse, Jesus continues to shame the 12 rankers. Jesus responds, “ to be my disciples, you must abandon seeking position and rank.” In verses 36-37, he tells them that welcoming a child in my name is to welcome God himself. In Greek and Aramaic the word for child can also refer to a servant. Whoever receives a servant receives the master. Whoever receives a child receives Jesus, and whoever receives Jesus receives God. Both child and servant are without status. They can’t pay you back.
In antiquity, childhood was a time of terror. 1/3 of live births ended in death. 2/3 of children died before the age of 16. Disease and hygiene wiped out 2/3 of the child population. This might be a cultural norm we don’t understand, but ancient Middle Eastern cultures denigrated children as nearly useless. Even medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that in a fire a husband was first obliged to save his father, then Grandma, then his wife, and then if he had time save the children. During famine children were also last to be fed….survival of the fittest. Survival of the greatest. Survival of the best. When Jesus tells the people to become like little children, he insults them, he insults their culture, he insults their values. When children finally reached maturity they finally have value. At least the boys. This continues in cultures today. The world is not interested in a world where rank and stature don’t matter. We make victims out of the powerless.
But here’s the Kingdom of God again. Give to the stranger, love the Gentile, value the children, value the servant. There is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. You guys can’t follow me any longer unless you reorder your ranking system
Theophylact was a theologian and scholar in the 11 th century – 1,000 years ago. He also dissected this passage noting one thing in particular. Jesus stood a child among them because they must become childlike. A child has no desire for honor, it is not jealous, it does not remember its injuries. You see what great things humility, together with simplicity and guilelessness, can accomplish. It causes both the Son and the Father to dwell in us, and with them comes the Holy Spirit also.
Every culture has its biases, its greatest and its worst, and God attacks them all. And all of this is in the context of geography. Jesus’ destination is Jerusalem, but the finish line is really the cross. If the disciples are really to understand the significance of a suffering servant, a bleeding and dying savior, they have to see his humility as power. The cross must be on Jesus’ mind because this is the 2 nd of 3 predictions of his crucifixion. Once again the cross casts a shadow all over this reading. To serve the powerless is the deepest meaning of the cross. The disciples share in the dying and rising of Christ by serving the least. By giving everything, maybe even death, we as his disciples continue his redemption within the cross’ shadow. “To be first you must become last.”
To drive home his point Jesus gathers the disciples in the home and brings a child into the center, the middle. The disciples are circled around this child and then Jesus sits and embraces the child in his arms. The circle is not a place of honor but one that might have brought back memories. Memories of the elite gathering around a sinner in the center ready to punish. This is the formation of stoning someone to death. The judges circled around the accused, only this time they can’t look down on the least of these because the Son of God is holding that child. Jesus and the child become the object lesson. If you are going to spend another day following me, you better welcome the least. If you welcome the least, you welcome me, and the one who sent me.
Jesus continues his object lesson in verse 42 with one last warning about the way we treat children. 42 "And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. Harsh for sure, but don’t be so quick to write this off as hyperbole. Violating a defenseless child is horrific. Violating the defenseless destroys mankind. Approximately 20% of males are sexually abused before the age of 16. What do you think is one of the most common links between the people currently in prisons and on death row? 25% of females will be raped in America sometime in their life. What effect do you think this has on marriages, on other forms of abuse, on the suicide rate in our nation? When people neglect, beat, and sexually abuse our children, they are starting a tornado of sin that multiples itself in future generations. Jesus loves this child in his arms, he loves each of my 3 children. The neglect and abuse tornado is a sin we as a society are passing onto our children. It would be better for us to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around our necks then to ruin God’s dream for humanity. That’s not hyperbole. Our love for sin without God’s Law is destroying us.
The last great battle is for the first to become last. The call of the disciple is to fall under the shadow of the cross. Get in the middle of the judgment circle and embrace the least of these in your arms. There is a Kingdom breaking into our world that reorders life. It begs us to look deeply into our hearts. Who is the least of these in our society? How are we ranking people in America? How are we ranking people in our church? How does your soul need to be reordered to see people as God’s children, defenseless, needing your love, needing to feel the cool shadow of the cross.
I have felt that shadow before. It is a place of peace and forgiveness. When I’ve felt that shadow I feel humbled. Humbled enough to play soccer with illegal immigrants. Humbled enough to let a foster child sleep on my chest. Humbled enough to pray with a senile man and his down syndrome grandson in a nursing home. In that shadow I saw transformation flowing and cooling, and God was doing it to me too. I pray that the shadow would fall on our community of faith. Otherwise I’m out. I don’t want to do Christianity the other way, the empty way. No more ranking. No more debating. More embracing. More holding.
Do you know what’s really absurd? I actually believe one church can make a difference. I actually believe we can help 1 child, or 10, or 20 children, and in our embrace we can drive sin out. I believe the shadow of the cross can wipe out the color of sin. Let’s be the very last, the worst, the least of these. Let’s be the least church in Austin. The worst. Giving glory to God alone. Let’s be the servants of all.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.