In the previous chapter of Mark we engaged last week, Jesus reveals his Messiah calling will require suffering- and he explains why there is no resurrection promise without first the cross. Then he says you and I are to take up our crosses too- because even in our suffering, God is at work crafting stories of redemption. Powerful, right? Well Jesus is at it again this week- offering a new take on an age-old human problem. This time, it’s a pesky little thing called ego.
Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus is pouring his heart out on their long walk to Capernaum, teaching yet again of the way his body will be tortured, his emotions betrayed, his very existence threatened, and what is on the minds of his disciples?
"Anything you can do I can do better; I can do anything better than you” They’re arguing over who’s the best.
This, AFTER they hear Jesus speak about suffering leading to redemption. The disciples don’t quite get it yet, do they? I wanna say, “Cmon James and John, why aren’t you seeing it by now? Hasn’t Jesus’ miraculous presence been enough for you to understand that Jesus cares for society’s least as much as the greatest? That social status has no bearing on who is great in God’s eyes? But then I pause and ask another even deeper question- the thing that ACTUALLY matters when we study the bible.
Do I really get it? Do I ever judge my pastoral greatness by comparing myself with other preachers? You bet I do. Do I take a look at ministries happening in other churches and get a little envious? Sure. Do I look at other folks’ prayer lives and wonder why I don’t always carry that same level of faith? Of course. So then do I actually get what Jesus is saying? Well, maybe not quite yet, not fully. Do you? I wonder what area of life you find yourself comparing to others? In your workplace? Among your family members? Maybe in a social club? Or even in front of your own mirror? That subtle gnawing thought: I could be better, do better, look better, perform better, love better. God, I wish I was the greatest.
Yeah, James and John aren’t the only ones a little embarrassed by Jesus’ question: What are you arguing about? Jesus knows that none of us quite get it, and maybe that’s okay. That’s why we keep coming back to these sacred texts for direction. To be reminded that God doesn’t value what our egos seem to care a whole lot about. Who is the greatest? Nah, that’s not the point of it all. Who’s willing to see greatness in everyone? Now we’re getting somewhere, Jesus says.
Jesus sits down. He gathers those curious and wayward hearts of his disciples, and says it again: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." That's it. I'm not playing favorites, Jesus says, because you are ALL beloved. Don’t believe me? (I take Theodore into my arms)
"Then he took a little child and put her among them; and taking her in his arms, he said to the disciples: 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.'"
A child, with no social status at all. Regularly hushed, placed on the periphery of the community, assumed less worthy of attention than adults. And Jesus places her front and center.
"Do you see now?" I hear Jesus whisper, as he rocks the little girl back and forth, "It’s not about status at all, or what you’ve earned. I value the least among you as much as I value those of highest social esteem. Isn’t that the type of belovedness worth giving everything for?"
It is, of course it is, because I believe James and John and you and I arguing over greatness simply want to know deep down that we are worthy of being loved. And because unlike little children, we've been hardened by the world’s unrealistic expectations of greatness.
What are our egos taught? That winning the game matters most. That being the bravest or most charming gains us higher social status. That being the greatest is something we MUST strive for, no matter how eccentric or obscure our giftings may be. The era of Youtube stars and American Idol reaffirm what the world cares about most: exceptionalism. That being a forklift driver isn’t enough. We must be a star!
Unless, that is, we listen to Jesus set the record straight.
Jesus takes a little child into his arms and says, “it’s all smoke and mirrors.” Being greatest in the eyes of the world isn’t fulfilling after all. See this child? She’ll lead you to a kingdom way of life.
Now for Jesus’ object lesson to be fully effective, it’s important to realize that children in Jesus’ day were valued even less than women, who were valued only marginally above livestock. Lovely, I know. So to scoop up a nearby child and place her in the middle of a group of important men was as effective a visual aid as Jesus could offer. (He’s so clever.)
"Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
So what if we took Jesus seriously? What if we redirected our gaze away from talent contests and pageantry of all sorts, toward the natural exuberance of children? What might we learn, how might we grow into Christ’s kingdom way of living?
You’ve heard me say, it’s soccer season. Briggs and his orange crush team have won every game this year. Greatness. :) But I wanna focus on the blueberries. The 4-5 year-old girls (including our own Blaire & Veronica Bremser) who have yet to win a single game. That’s who Jesus is calling me to learn from, especially since I’m helping coach that team. You wanna see competitive Emily emerge? 10am Saturday mornings. :) And oh how I grit my teeth as I watch those darling girls cheerfully lose every time. Here’s a mental image for you: At one point last weekend, three of our four blueberry players on the field formed a “ring around the rosy” as the other team scored a goal.
Too young to know what the world values, too wise to let something pithy like winning get in the way of truly enjoying the gift of one another on a beautiful day. The question “who is the greatest” is completely absent from those little girls’ minds, and we ought to take notice. In fact just yesterday, after losing by a LOT of goals, we gathered those girls together, and I asked: How do you feel about the game today? And each one looked at me with an earnest smile and said, “Great! Awesome! I had fun!” They’re the greatest, friends, the absolute best.
In Jesus' new world, the one he invites us to co-create, that question "Who is the greatest?" is totally obsolete. Hear this as good news today: we will NEVER find our spiritual center in trying to be better than others. We will never be great if we buy into the lie of comparison culture. Never. So you can stop trying, the contests of ego can quit. Not one of us will find union with God apart from following the example of Jesus: The first made last, all for the glory of God who calls each human beloved, every darn one of us. You’re great, because God chooses to love you just the way you are.
If you need a reminder of how broad Christ’s welcome truly is, take in the pure greatness of a child this week. For whoever welcomes a child welcomes Christ. Amen.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.