30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for 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.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then 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.”
During China’s Tang Dynasty (600–900 CE), there was a Prime Minister who, despite all his power, prided himself on being a humble follower of the Buddha. He’d often visit a Zen master to further his study. Every time they met, his master would say, “Experience the world, turn your eye inward, and let yourself be pushed into new ways of thinking.” As they spent many hours together as revered teacher and humble student, his position never came up.
Then one day, as the master instructed him once again to “turn his eye inward”, the Prime Minister asked, “What do the teachers of Zen say about the human ego?” After a silence, the Zen master slowly turned his head to face his questioner, sneered at him angrily, and shouted, “Only the greatest of fools can ask such a stupid question!” Proud of his astute question, the Prime Minister didn’t think he deserved the insulting tone; he grew red and trembled in anger. He fell silent; his face showed great turmoil. At that point, his master revealed a peaceful smile and gently said, “THAT, Mr. Prime Minister, is what I teach about the ego!”
The Prime Minister, in his desperate effort to be praised, experienced that he hadn’t quite learned to be humble, and in that he reminds me of the argument the disciples in Mark 9 try to hide from Jesus. When confronted, “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’” (verses 34-37).
My friends, I had opportunity to ponder these verses a few years ago. I had fallen in love with a smartphone that was just being rolled out by the Palm Company. The new gadget was never a complete blessing, but I was in denial. When the phone stopped working in the middle of a call, I comforted myself with being a “first adopter”, and when I had a hard time hearing people who called me, I accused them of mumbling. I owned the phone that dazzled the world, and I could dazzle others because I had one … until that fateful night four months after I received it, when, as I was about to go on a trip, I managed to drop the cherished phone in the toilet.
Upon my return I moved heaven and earth to get the phone replaced, but after FedEx delivered it, the new phone didn’t last a day. I dropped this one in the toilet just like the first one five days before.
When I told my father about it, he said, “How could you be so careless?” But when I told my friend Grady, all he said was, “You really don’t want this phone.” I was furious, and as I protested, he simply said, “It’s obvious that your higher self has decided this phone is not for you … that’s why you drowned it twice. Before this occurs again, learn from it.” It dawned on me that I was learning a hard lesson about my ego. I called my wireless company and told them I was ready to return to my previous phone.
Our text from Mark 9 became an object lesson for me, about the disciples’ striving to be the greatest, and my striving as well. I had to surrender. “All to Jesus I surrender, humbly at His feet I bow.”
Once I had surrendered, I read our text with a new pair of eyes. The verses that seemed so old and familiar looked strangely new this time, especially the part about the child: “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.’”
Why did Jesus associate the act of receiving a little child in his name with being first in God’s eyes? Jesus normally turns things upside down when he speaks to people; he often answers questions with more questions. When people try to pin him down, he makes up stories instead of giving them the straight goods, and above all, he defies conventional wisdom about how the world operates.
In our story it’s a bit harder to find the upside-down effort that Jesus normally demands of his disciples when he tells his stories. The scandal in our story is the presence of the child, that Jesus pays attention to it, and his expectation that all his disciples do so.
During the days of Jesus, children were considered second-class citizens, along with tax collectors and sinners. Children were considered unproductive and burdensome. For Jesus to receive a child was somehow to lower himself in the world’s eyes and to be considered foolish because of it.
That attitude persists to our day. In conflicts around the world, children have become frontline targets, used as human shields, killed, maimed and recruited to fight. In Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan and Myanmar children are raped, abducted, enslaved and forced into marriage. But to witness the targeting of children we don’t have to leave the United States.
Not only are many children in the US frequently abused physically and sexually, now our own government has become a perpetrator of abuse. Between April and June, government officials routinely removed the children of immigrants at the border and put them in detention. As if abducting them wasn’t enough, the children were frequently caged, beaten, and tranquilized with powerful psychotropic medicines. Even now, almost two months past the court-ordered deadline for the administration to reunite families, there are more than 500 children still waiting to be reunited with their parents.
Jesus received children, mistreated throughout history, and when the disciples began to bicker and argue about who was the greatest, he set a child before them, saying, “Whoever receives one such child receives me and the one who sent me.” If we want to receive the kingdom, we must receive our king. This king is not received by pomp and circumstance, but by humility and servitude; he is received by those who are willing to receive a child the way he did.
Like the disciples, we all know fear, insecurity, resentment and judgment; those are the things a human ego feeds on. But as Jesus expected his disciples to tame their ego, he expects it of us as well. Being number one in God’s kingdom is not about conquering one another. It’s about the love of God, an almighty God who stoops so low to a sinful world to be beaten, mocked, and killed so that lost ones like you and I might be found, forgiven and made whole.
- Being forgiven and set free, we can forgive and set free.
- Being loved we can love.
- Being seen for who we are, we can see others for who they are.
- Being fed, we can go out and feed others.
That lesson is best taught by one who doesn’t scheme as yet: a small child. Children don’t edit themselves; they don’t calculate: they just tell it as it is. A child can teach us to play, to undo the schemes of our ego. To receive a child is to receive a vision of the way the world is meant to be.
In the “Peanuts” cartoon, Lucy’s baby brother Linus asks his sister, “Why are you always so eager to criticize me?” Lucy, being very self-assured, responds, “I just think I have a knack for seeing other people’s faults.” Linus then asks Lucy, “What about your own faults?” Lucy responds with confidence, “I have a knack for overlooking them.”
When we stop clinging to what we know and what we are, we can go out into the world without fear, insecurity, resentment, and judgment, as true Children of God. The image of a playing child helps us see alternatives to our childish attitudes (self-centeredness, pettiness, rivalry, and overconfidence); we are invited to learn child-like attitudes we may have forgotten: wonder, faith, simplicity and trust.
Let us pray. Almighty God, heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children: Give us strength and wisdom that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, and that we may learn from them as well. Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, and especially the hardened hearts of those who rule this land, that we may cultivate wonder, faith, simplicity and trust, so that the barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease. Grant us to never stop dreaming of a world in which our divisions are healed, in which we can live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.