The story in today’s lesson happens in Capernaum. In Mark’s narrative, Capernaum is where Jesus performed his first healing miracle (1:21-28) and where he ends his Galilean ministry (today’s lesson). He will, after this, embark on his final journey to Jerusalem where he will fulfill his destiny—death on the cross. It also became Jesus’ home-base during his ministry (2:1). Of all the towns in Galilee, it was the most Jewish. As you reflect on this story, keep before you that it marks the end of Jesus’ first stage of ministry and begins his final stage.
Children, writes Ched Meyers, were considered “nonentities,” representing “the bottom of the social and economic scale in terms of status and rights in the ancient Mediterranean world” (Binding the Strong Man. 1991, p. 260-261). When you read ‘child’ think of the lowest and least in your culture, someone you’d find shocking to accept and believe that by welcoming them you’d be welcoming the Triune God. Think symbolically as it may not be a child.
PREPARE TO LISTEN. Be still for as long as you need, then pray: Dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:28)
READ: Mark 9:33-37 ‘The greatest’
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!” This is what little children, not mature adult followers of Jesus do, or so we think. It’s a self-centeredness that says, ‘me first’ (or even ‘America/South Africa first’) and, ‘I’m the greatest.’ The moment Jesus challenged them to tell him about their conversation on the way, they all kept silent. I think the disciples knew they were being foolish and childish. But, there’s far more than immaturity and childishness behind the disciples’ argument. They still hadn’t gotten Jesus’ mission correct. Despite his repeated teaching about suffering and death, they clung to their illusion that this journey to Jerusalem would be the beginning of the end of the Roman empire and Israel’s oppression. They still believed that Jesus would make Israel ‘first’ and ‘great again,’ and they wanted powerful seats in Jesus’ new ‘cabinet’. They were doing the sort of things politicians do each election year, vying to be the right-hand man or woman of the elected leader. Jesus needed to unmask their illusions about and aspirations to power.
In Capernaum, Jesus sat down, called his disciples to him and taught them about leadership and power in the kingdom of God. His teaching on this subject is nothing like our concepts of power and authority. In fact, Jesus’ teaches is a radical reversal of power and status as we normally think of it: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” It seems the ‘me-first’ mentality is the opposite of Jesus’ way. He then used an image to teach, 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 in his day 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 ‘evangelize’ them. Of course, we welcome (that is ‘receive’) children in the church today. The image of a child isn’t shocking to us.
It’s for this reason we need change the symbol from a privileged, protected and respected child to one that represents the most despised, ignored and marginalized in our society; the least of the least. Someone you’d be horrified to receive with open arms, afraid what people will think of you. 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 ‘up-side-down’ in God’s kingdom
Name the ‘least of the least’ in your judgment and practice welcoming them in Jesus’ name.
RESPOND TO JESUS IN PRAYER
I confess, Lord, that I frequently get it 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 servant of all empowering others to reach their full potential. Amen.
GO AND LIVE IN OBEDIENCE TO CHRIST and the radical reversal of his kingdom.