Jesus uses a child to illustrate something of God’s realm.
I have a confession to make. I have a guilty pleasure. There’s one TV show that I like to watch, which is quite unbecoming of a minister called, “Game Of Thrones.” While it’s at first glance, just a violent adventure series, the reason I like it is that many times after watching, I stop and think about what’s said by the characters. For a show that’s supposed to take place in a fictional fantasy world, it actually offers interesting insight into humanity. There was one scene where two people were discussing power and who holds it. Is it someone rich enough to hire an army, is it the general of that army? Is it someone who can inspire or as is often said, is knowledge power? The discussion ends with the assertion that “power resides where people believe power resides.”
Is that all there is to it? This would imply that power is simply an illusion. As soon as people stop thinking you’re powerful, your power is gone. And then, by extension, could we not say the same thing about respect or goodness? Even intelligence is hard to define. We tend to see people as intelligent when they agree with what we already believe. What about greatness itself? Is all of this just based on opinion which is fleeting? Great today, and no one tomorrow?
In today’s Gospel reading we have the disciples arguing about greatness and who will be favoured above all. They’ve been journeying through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem and Jesus has already told them what’s coming. It doesn’t seem however that the disciples are taking all this very seriously. This is the second time Jesus tells them that he’s going to be arrested and killed but they just don’t get it. Maybe this is just so far outside their expectation that their brains won’t let that information in. This is Jesus after all. He’s the anointed one who’s going to lead the people of Israel into the proverbial promised land, the age to come, God’s realm. Arrest and die? Must be another on of those metaphors. Jesus is after all, the greatest of the great and no one could possibly arrest and kill him.
Well a few of them are wanting to share in this greatness and they’re arguing amongst themselves which of them is best of all. It’s likely that they were talking about someone within their own group but Jesus’ response goes farther than Peter and company to all people then and now who wish to follow the way of Christ. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant to all.”
Well, that’s a bit of a switch. If greatness resides where people believe it resides, we only have to look around the world and through history to see who’s great. Sometimes it seems that greatness, power and prestige all depend on appearances. While I’m slowly recovering, I used to always want to latest electronic gadget. A newer, faster laptop computer would make my life just so much better and productive and if smart phones were available then, I would have certainly wanted the newest G4S+ gold edition super phone. I’d probably tell myself that I’d need it because it could do amazing things, but if I was honest with myself, it would partially be that I’d look pretty important if I was holding expensive tech up to my ear.
Our world is full of this kind of messaging. Houses get bigger and bigger, not because our families have increased in size but because of the need to outwardly show that we can keep up with those darned Joneses. It’s of course good to have all that space anyways because those same Joneses, keep buying more and more things in which to fill those houses. A bigger truck will make me more manly, a constantly ringing, beeping, vibrating phone will make it seem like I have more friends.
But it’s all illusion. Instead, Jesus tells us that greatness resides in children. I love this and it really reflects what I wish for the church. This is the home for God’s family and in any good family home, the sound of little footsteps and voices should not only be welcomed but celebrated. I’ve always said that a church that doesn’t welcome children, doesn’t welcome me.
What Jesus is saying here though is more than just instruction to be nice to children. Hidden in this reading is a startling commentary of his society. In first century Palestine, children died. They died all the time. One of the reasons women had to have so many children was because the majority of them never made it to adulthood. Therefore, you couldn’t really afford to get emotionally attached. Also, children were seen as a burden. They were another mouth to feed and a mouth that couldn’t help with hard labour, take produce to market or work the fields. They had a potential value in who they might become, but in the mean time, even slaves and cattle contributed to the good of the family. Children were simply worthless.
Now here comes Jesus saying that if we turn away these children, we turn away him. He says this as part of the conversation of who is the greatest and so in essence, Jesus is telling us that if we want to look to true greatness, forget the wealthy in their nice homes, forget kings in their palaces. The greatest in God’s world are those completely dependant on those around them, those who are seen as utterly worthless. And if we wish to have a share in this greatness, we’re to become servants, not to those who hold illusionary power but become servants to those who God favours – the lowly, the destitute, the helpless. They are the ones, after all, who really need our help.
Not an easy message, is it. This though isn’t a message that Jesus saw as applying only to others. There’s no double standard here. Jesus served. Here he is, the most amazing person that ever lived and he’s the one to spend his days with tax collectors and prostitutes. Here he is, the one who was embodied with God’s power but he insists on washing the feet of lowly peasants. And here he is, the one who spoke with the voice of God’s grace, regardless of whether or not the disciples understood, walking to his death in Jerusalem.
This is God’s reversal of the world, this is God’s complete overturning of the social order. The wealthy and powerful become servants to the poor and outcast. The people who have the most reason to feel proud become humble and the low are elevated by God’s grace.
I know this seems a bit foolish but lets look at who we’re still talking about after 2000 years. No one had more reason to feel proud than Jesus – a brilliant teacher, a genius at observing the human condition and how it relates to our faith story, and in some mysterious way he carried a deep essence of God. But he lived a life of poverty, humility and service. He believed so strongly in the truth of his message, he was willing to die to deliver it. If he was wrong and power does indeed reside where we believe it resides, in the biggest, loudest, most famous or well armed, would we still be talking about him? Do you know the name of any general in the Roman army from Jesus time? You might know the name of the emperor, but likely only because of how he relates to Jesus story.
Power and greatness resides where God places it. It resides in the muck and darkness. It can be found where people are hungry or afraid. God’s power is with those running for their lives from people who have no idea what authentic power is. Greatness is in the tears of those who know only desperation.
Would you like a portion of this greatness? Then maybe we’re going to have to get our hands dirty, be ready to offer comfort, and have some hankies ready to wipe away some tears.