En route to Jerusalem Jesus made his final stop in Capernaum, the city that became his home-base (2:1). It was where his first public healing miracle occurred (1:21-28) and thus fitting to be the town where his Galilean ministry ends. Of all the Galilean towns, Capernaum was the most Jewish.
In the story today, Jesus placed a child at the very center of his teaching, a scandalous act to many then. Children, as Ched Myers writes, were considered “nonentities,” representing “the bottom of the social and economic scale in terms of status and rights in the ancient Mediterranean world” and thus “quite shocking that he would advance them as models for his social program” (2015, p. 260-261). When you read ‘child’ think of the lowest and least in your culture, the most inconsequential, vulnerable and weak, someone you’d find outrageous to accept and unthinkable to believe that by welcoming them you’d be welcoming the Triune God. Think symbolically as it may not be a child.
Prepare to listen. Prepare to listen to God’s Word and pray: The earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love; teach me your statutes. (Psalm 119:64)
Read Mark 9:33-37
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 about 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.’
The disciples were arguing ‘about who was the greatest,’ behaving more like children than mature adult followers of Jesus! They had a me-first, I’m-the-greatest mentality; the very opposite of humility, so essential for followers of Jesus. The moment Jesus challenged them to tell him about their conversation on the way, they all kept silent, no doubt in embarrassment. They knew they were being foolish. But, there’s far more than immaturity and childishness behind the disciples’ argument. They still misunderstood Jesus and his mission. Despite repeatedly teaching about his suffering and death, the disciples clung to their illusion that this journey to Jerusalem would be the beginning of the end of the Roman empire and Israel’s oppression. Jesus would take over as Ruler and they wanted powerful seats in his new ‘cabinet’. They had aspirations of power and glory that Jesus needed to unmask.
I imagine Jesus sighed at the foolishness of his disciples as he sat down, called them to him, and taught them about leadership and power in the kingdom of God. It’s nothing like what we expect, in fact a radical reversal of common notions of power and status. ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ It seems the ‘me-first’ and ‘America-first’ mentality is the opposite of the Jesus’ way. To help the disciples understand, Jesus used a visual aid, picking one that would shock his audience. He took a child and set it among them. Children in many cultures today are valued and protected. J. F. Kennedy even called them “the world’s most valuable resource.” As a result, we fail to see how shocking Jesus’ action was and we tend to soften the blow by using this verse as evidence children matter in the kingdom (which they do) and therefore we should prioritize, even evangelize them. Of course, we welcome (that is ‘receive’) children in the church today. The image of a child as a model of the social program of God’s kingdom has no shock value for us today.
It’s for this reason we need to change the symbol from a privileged, protected and respected child to something that represents the most despised, ignored and marginalized in our society; the least of the least; someone we’d be horrified to receive with open arms, afraid of what people will think of us if we do. Who might this be for you today? If we welcome (that is, receive) that person in Jesus’ name, we are literally welcoming Jesus and thus also the One who sent him. God’s kingdom isn’t like earthly kingdoms/countries. Power and authority are reversed; turned ‘upside-down’ and the greatest, and those who aspire to be the first and greatest are the least.
Name the ‘least of the least’ in your network, perhaps someone you know you’ll see today, and prepare to welcome (receive) them in Jesus’ name.
Respond to Jesus in prayer
I confess, Lord, that I frequently get your kingdom values wrong and argue about the greatest and being first. Help me better understand your reversal of power and authority and empower me to live in your way, as a servant of all empowering others to reach their full potential. Amen.
Go and live obediently in the world where God’s Kingdom is radically reverses our concepts.