In the context of this story the question isn’t so much who is great and who is not, but who is welcome. Put another way, Jesus doesn’t care who we say is the greatest or even in who acts like the greatest or looks like the most likely to be great. Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, compassion and love. For Jesus to place a child in the middle of his class on humility forces the twelve and us to consider our welcome to others, to the outcasts, to the unproductive and especially to the most vulnerable.
As Jesus and the disciples were traveling Jesus wanted them to understand what lay ahead for him and for them. And according to Mark what Jesus was trying to teach them wasn’t for the general public. It was for their ears only. Some interpret Mark to mean that they had actually been taking back roads to avoid the general public because by then Jesus was a very recognizable figure. The text reads: “They 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.
Despite the fact that for us Jesus’ words were too explicit not to understand, they didn’t. And to compound the problem Mark says they were afraid to ask. Did they just not want to know? Did they just think or hope that their master was delusional?
Amy Oden suggests that the questions that the disciples were afraid to ask are the question that led the church to adopt various theories about the work of Christ. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die? That’s docetism. Maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part was untouched? That’s gnosticism. Christians struggle with what sort of deity lets her/himself get into a corner like that. We want an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies. Within these verses are the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God.
Matthew Skinner brings this home by suggesting that if pondering Jesus’ crucifixion doesn’t make you uncomfortable you aren’t doing it right. And he wasn’t referring to the gore and humiliation that makes crucifixion repulsive no matter who is the victim. We need to ponder the significance of Jesus’ death. And when you look closely at these theories advanced about the cross – that in it we get a glimpse of redemptive suffering, faithful obedience, sacrificial love, etc, we are soon staring at some pretty disconcerting notions about God. Show me where suffering has ever been redemptive? What kind of parent would demand such obedience from a child? For what would an all-mighty and loving God need a sacrifice in order to express mercy? He says these questions should keep us from accepting simple explanations and open us to yet more questions, especially to questions that make us uncomfortable. He says that we should “be wary of anyone who comes up with a too neat and tidy theory about exactly how Jesus’ death and resurrection changes the cosmos and God’s disposition toward the world.”
What happened when the real questions were side stepped? When the questions the disciples were afraid to ask went un-spoken? Amy Oden says the disciples turned to arguing with each other, squabbling over petty issues of rank and status. Mark tells us that they focused on posturing about who is right. Sound familiar? Had they asked Jesus their questions how would this story be different? What else might they have been discussing instead of who is first in the Kingdom, how would the relationships between them have been different? So, how would our stories be different ? Where would our conversations with Jesus lead us were we to ask Jesus our questions? How might our lives together be different? As a result it was probably pretty embarrassing for the disciples when they got home from traveling with Jesus.
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.”
When asked about their conversations on the road back to Capernaum they kept silent. They were ashamed. Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Greatness comes through humility.
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 child isn’t a model to be copied as if our faith should be childish or child like but rather it is an object, a symbol, of how all whom that child represents should be treated.
A little context might help. In a typical Roman family of the day the oldest living male had absolute rule over the children born into his family. He could disown, sell into slavery or even kill the child. At birth the child was literally set on the ground by the attending mid-wife, exposed, and only if the head of the family picked it up was the baby accepted into the family. The exposure of a newborn was like a late term abortion. This was the usual way with babies born with a deformity. Even the thought that the additional mouth to feed would be an unacceptable burden on the family would be reason enough to leave the child where it lay. Such babies would either die and be disposed of or picked up by another and raised as a slave.
Children who died before they developed teeth were considered as never having lived. And in that time a fourth of all live birth babies didn’t survive their first year. And half of all children died before reaching ten.
To Jewish families of Jesus day children were seen as fruits of God’s call to multiple. To care for an infant was to care for a gift from God through which one’s linage and eternal life was preserved and continued. At least that was the theology—the reality was the same as that for a Roman family. The child represents the future, the next generation and social security but in the meantime a child was a huge liability. When old enough the maturing child would begin to share in the household chores but from infancy to years in the future they were mainly just another mouth to feed. Not considered adult until about fourteen they were a pretty risky investment which could all be lost in a single bout with a childhood illness.
One writer said it this way; children were insiders left on the outside. So Jesus sets a little child before his disciples and says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” In the context of this story the question isn’t so much who is great and who is not, but who is welcome. Put another way, Jesus doesn’t care who we say is the greatest or even in who acts like the greatest or looks like the most likely to be great. Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, compassion and love. For Jesus to place a child in the middle of his class on humility forces the twelve and us to consider our welcome to others, to the outcasts, to the unproductive and especially to the most vulnerable.