The Gospel lesson recounts a fuss among the disciples about who would be the greatest among them. In the midst of Jesus’ teaching about his own destiny, fraught with danger, they blithely focused on personal ambition rather than the vision Jesus was charting.
When he inquired about their argument, they were silent—perhaps embarrassed about their self-interest in light of his self-giving. At least they had the spiritual perception to recognize that their dispute was not appropriate given the gravity of his passion prediction. Then he said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
This is a radical reversal of status, one that is still hard for us to hear and enact. In the Reign of God, greatness is correlative with humility and service.
Then the most moving part of the pericope occurs: he took a child from the household and holding him or her on his lap said: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (v. 37).
Why does the child become the centerpiece to this story about greatness? The text almost seems as if something has been left out.
Welcoming a child is welcoming Jesus himself, he said. This suggests that Jesus so identifies with the “little ones,” the ones pushed to the margins, that the way to greatness is to act as he does. Children did not have the status in first century Palestine that they hold today—at least those born to financially secure parents. That one was even hanging around while the Teacher was present was probably due to Jesus’ welcoming attitude.
Can a nearly invisible little one really be a stand-in for Jesus? It will require great humility to treat the child as they would treat their leader with the fast-growing reputation.
A few years ago a local corporation decided to make their financial decisions according to how it would affect children in the metro Kansas City area. It was a brilliant marketing strategy, and the simple, elegant question “What about the children?” raised the consciousness of our whole community.
Greatness in the Reign of God is not achieved using the standards of our economically and politically charged world. One must recalculate his or her own sense of importance in light of Jesus’ call to become a servant of all.
There is a faculty member at Central who is usually last in line for a meal, last in leaving the building because he is making sure the chairs and hymnals are put back in place, and often last to speak in the midst of contested issues. I am blessed by his humility and hospitality. Oh, he really likes children, too.
Molly T. Marshall
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