September 23—Trinity XVI
Jeremiah 11.18-20: A reminder of the lamb being led to the slaughter: justice secured through sacrifice.
Psalm 54: God stands beside us in times of trouble.
James 3.13-4.3 & 7-8a: Blessed are the peace-makers and those who live for others rather than for themselves.
Mark 9.30-37: As Jesus looks towards Calvary, his disciples jostle for status.
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for 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.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
Sometimes people just don’t understand what is right in front of them.
In last week’s gospel reading Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. Who was this strange figure wandering about the Holy Land with a ragtag band of followers: performing miraculous healings, feeding multitudes, teaching with unexplained authority, standing up to the religious authorities.
Who was he? A madman, a religious fanatic? The disciple Peter guessed it right – he was God’s Chosen One (as they said, Messiah) who would come to save and rescue God’s people. But then he went on to explain that being God’s Chosen One was not what they expected. He was not who they wanted him to be. They may have wanted a warrior who would lead a victory, but that was not who God was choosing. Being God’s Chosen One was about dying in enemy hands. Dying, not killing.
Jesus’s followers didn’t understand. So he tells them again. He tells them what must happen to him. He must be betrayed and betrayed to his death. But that death would not be the end – three days later he would be alive again. Oh, what on earth does that mean?! People don’t just die and then come back to life again!
You know, I feel for the disciples in this episode. We all have people we look up to in life, and whose causes we look up to. People do, for better or worse, like to play follow my leader. Death is inevitable for all of use, but we don’t expect our leaders, those we look up to, to go on about their own deaths. And saying they would be alive again after dying? It’s not surprising Jesus’s disciples could not believe their ears. They didn’t know who they were dealing with. They didn’t understand what was right in front of them.
At the end of their journey when they arrive at the house where they were staying Jesus is aware that there’s been some disagreement on the journey. So, he asks them, what they were arguing with one another about on their journey? I wasn’t part of it, so let me in on the secret – perhaps you were arguing about how best to serve your God…how best to help the poor…how to serve your Father and Mother?
But they were silent.
Eventually one of the disciples may have come clean and explained red-faced to Jesus what had been going on. Perhaps Jesus had overheard them on the road, or perhaps he just knew. They had argued about which of Jesus’s followers was the greatest. Jesus had just told his disciples for the second time that he must die, and all they could do was to argue about who had the highest reputation. Perhaps who would succeed Jesus when he had died. Because nobody comes back after death, right?
Who was the greatest? The last time Jesus had told his disciples about his death he had said to them “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Let them deny themselves – not in the sense of denying the world and those around you, shutting yourself away in a safe little bubble away from the dirty reality of the world. Not in that sense. But in the sense of forgetting about your own interests, thinking about others before yourself, in short not being selfish.
But they didn’t care about that. They cared about which one of them was greatest of all! Perhaps they really had learned nothing at all. They hadn’t really listened to what Jesus had said. They didn’t understand what was right in front of them. They didn’t know who they were dealing with.
All they cared about was who the who the greatest was. How on earth can Jesus get through to them now, when they have shown themselves so capable of ignoring what he has been saying? He then tells them again “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Deny yourself. Live without interest for yourself. Be a servant: obedient, obedient to death, and even death on a cross.
But they’ve not done such a good job with listening to what Jesus has said. So then he takes a small child and puts him or her amongst his followers. OK they think, what’s going on now? Is this child the greatest? Now they really have no idea what’s going on! Perhaps the idea is that Jesus sees this child as being as important as his chosen followers. Children in the 1st century AD were not seen as being of any importance at all, and barely even human beings in their own right separate from their parents.
So now Jesus puts this small, insignificant child amongst his jumped up followers who had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest. All humans, all significant to Jesus, all significant to God. Whoever welcomes this insignificant child welcomes Jesus and welcomes God.Jesus, who was welcomed into the world himself as a new-born baby in the stable in Jerusalem. Who, looking at that tiny baby could have known what significance He held? Could they see past the child, to Jesus, to God? Some could, or thought they could. Would we have known if all we saw was a baby? Would we have understood even if we had seen Him right in front of us?
Welcome everyone, says Jesus, no matter how insignificant. It does not matter how great you are, you should be welcomed and treated just the same. Child, adult, man, woman, straight, gay, black, white, rich, poor, priest, bishop, lord, lady, king or queen – all the same to Jesus and to God.
This is probably a fitting reading to have in the week that the Crown Nominations Committee draws up their short list for the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Who should be the senior cleric in the church? Who should be the “greatest”? Whoever it is must be prepared to be last of all, and servant of all. They should be in our prayers this week.