On the 25th Sunday of Ordinary time the lectionary skips ahead most of a chapter to Mark 9:30-37. (A little bit of the skipped part came up earlier in the year: Mark 9:2-9 was the Gospel for the last Sunday before Lent, the Transfiguration.)
Last week in chapter 8 Jesus started predicting his passion and resurrection. That continues, in a slightly different mode, in the first part of chapter 9 with the Transfiguration and its aftermath.
Then we come to Mark 9:30-37. At a glance it looks like two stories:
- Jesus teaches about his coming passion.
- Jesus teaches that greatness comes through servanthood.
I find I’m not drawn to ponder the passion prediction. Clearly I’m not alone: The disciples were much more interested in talking about which of them was the greatest.
So my attention goes to verses 35-37. I’ve always read these as two parts of the same bit of teaching:
- Jesus says the first must be last, and the greatest is the servant.
- Jesus illustrates this by bringing in a kid.
As I lingered over this on Monday morning, it struck me that the second bit does not illustrate the first very well at all.
Take a look: Does what he says about the child have anything to do with going first, coming last, being great, or being a servant?
No. He switched topics. Mark doesn’t explain why.
So the lectionary passage is three stories stuck together, not two.
- Jesus teaches (again) about his coming passion and resurrection.
- Jesus says the greatest disciple is the servant of all.
- Jesus says that welcoming children is welcoming him.
I’ll skip the passion prediction and consider these last two bits separately.
1. First and Last, Greatest and Servant
The disciples were so keen to establish their own importance. Jesus so wanted them to rethink the nature of importance.
Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35 NRSV)
If we were really wanting to go Jesus’ way, we would do as Jason Allen suggested. Jason is a friend in Canada who gave my wife some sage advice when she moved to the states:
When you go looking for a church you should join Last Presbyterian Church. That way, when Jesus comes again, you’ll get to be first.
As well as highlighting our eschatological hope, Jason’s comment points to an odd fact of history: we Presbyterians choose the most boring possible names for our churches. Not a marketing bone in our collective bodies. (Here in Pittsburgh they go at least as hight as “Sixth Presbyterian.”)
But I digress. Jesus’ words have a great deal to say, both to individual disciples and to churches. Most of us always need a reminder to pick up that towel and serve someone. That someone might be right in our home or workplace. They might be on our block or farther away.
But clearly Jesus favors taking action that lifts others up. I suspect we would do well with John the Baptist’s slogan,
He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30, NRSV)
Of course John was talking about Jesus.
But wait: Jesus said that what we do to the least of our neighbors we do to him. So… maybe seeking actively to be less so another can be more is right on target.
But don’t expect it to get you a promotion, or a new car or anything. We’re talking strictly about what Jesus wants from you.
Let’s face it though: it is much more natural to revel in being served.
2. Accept a Child, Accept Jesus
That’s one of the things that highlights the change of topic. I’ve spent some time around kids and a whole lot of them are not striving to serve others — until they are led to do so as a fun activity by some clever youth minister, teacher, or cub scout leader.
Some of the little kids I’ve seen are a bit more like those disciples who argued about which one is the greatest.
And in this passage Jesus doesn’t say “…so be like a little child.”
No. He’s talking about how we treat children.
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37 NRSV)
Welcome a child, says Jesus, accept that child joyfully into your presence, and you are welcoming Jesus — and in doing that you are welcoming God, who sent Jesus.
That’s a really interesting bit of teaching, eh?
I think parents should be encouraged by this. Having responsibility for a baby, choosing to welcome a little child into this world and into your life, is a lot of work.
I don’t think anybody feels like they are first and greatest when they are changing a diaper.
But anybody who has kids around, in their neighborhood or their church, can do the same.
Just be kind to them. Welcome them. Let them know you are glad they are around.
Jesus says when we welcome that kid, whether a baby, a toddler, a pre-schooler, or a grade-schooler, then we are welcoming him — and God.
The Surprising Takeaway
Now I don’t think we get full marks for simply having a kid. I know that on my bad parenting days it doesn’t look much like really welcoming them.
Jesus took the child in his arms, he let the kid know that she was truly a delight, a welcome presence.
So that’s the surprising call of this passage.
Welcome the children. Let them be who they are. Enjoy them. Let them know they are wanted, valued, treasured.
As we welcome them and help them, realizing they are made in God’s own image, we welcome Jesus.
Sounds a bit like
love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31 NRSV)
It just applies that great command to children.
And that isn’t bad parenting advice.
My new online prayer class for Fall is coming really soon! One week of registration, six weeks of fun, practicing the best lessons of prayer from the most prominent Reformers of the 16th century…
I’d love to send you my Monday Meditations, as well as all my other new articles and announcements. Just scroll down to the black box with the orange button and subscribe to my weekly(ish) newsletter and they’ll come straight to your inbox.