[Jesus and his disciples] 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 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.”
It was an uncomfortable moment for the disciples. Jesus had told them while they were in Caesarea Philippi that he was going to be killed. The first time he’d said it, they didn’t believe him, and Peter even scolded him for it, as we heard last week. But then he’d done it a second time, and after that, the disciples seem to have taken his words to heart. So as they were walking from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum, which probably took them two, maybe even three days, they talked about it. If it’s really true, and Jesus was going to be killed, they thought, we need to start making some plans in order to keep this movement going. We need to have some kind of a plan for succession. One of us is going to have to become the new leader. So as they walked, they debated who that new leader would be, based on who was the greatest, who was the most important among them; all the while trying to keep their conversation quiet, without Jesus hearing them, because that would have been a bit awkward.
But the awkwardness came anyway, when they got to Capernaum and Jesus asked them what they’d been talking about on the road. Maybe it was Jesus’ divine knowledge, or maybe the disciples just hadn’t been as discreet as they’d thought, but one way or another Jesus knew what they’d been talking about, and he asked them about it. And at first, when asked, the disciples just stood there, looking a bit sheepish, and feeling ashamed, and not knowing what to say.
A lot of people who have written about this story have said that Jesus’ response to them was to criticize them and to say that their discussion about who was the greatest among them was inappropriate. That might be true, but honestly, I don’t think that’s right. The passage doesn’t really say that Jesus was criticizing them; I think that’s us reading something into that probably isn’t there. I picture this scene, and hear Jesus’ words, as they’re written, and I think it’s Jesus actually *validating* their conversation. At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has shifted gears from trying to gain followers, and he’s been trying to teach these disciples about deepening their discipleship and preparing for when he wouldn’t be with them – so what the disciples were discussing would have been completely appropriate. I believe that in this story, we’re seeing Jesus trying to help them along, telling them how they should think about what discipleship really is, and how greatness is really measured.
In order to help make his point, Jesus showed them a little child. Now, the people of Jesus’ time loved their children every bit as much as we love our own, but in that culture, children were completely at the bottom of the pile. They were powerless. They were voiceless. They had no real rights; they supposed to serve, not to be served. They were supposed to stay with the women. They were to be seen and not heard, and truth be told, not even seen by the men when they were doing supposedly important “men things;” especially things like discussing deep subjects of God, and religion, and determining how to lead and continue a new movement.
So it was odd when Jesus stood this dirty-faced little kid in front of them in the middle of this important conversation and told them – serious adult men, now part of the great teacher’s inner circle – and told them “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me, but the one who sent me.”
Just like that. Twenty-three simple and totally unexpected words that encapsulated for the disciples how to order their lives of following Jesus, and how to measure true greatness in God’s eyes. Whether a literal child or otherwise, humble yourself and welcome the powerless. The weak. The friendless. The one most in need. In my name, he said, serve those who are the least, and that will make you great.
It was 1963, in Warsaw, Poland, and memories of the horrors of World War II were still raw, and fresh in the minds of many people. The old man was one of those people. He was a doctor, running a clinic in his neighborhood, highly respected by the community as a man of learning and status. Life had definitely thrown him a twist, though, when his daughter had married a young German man. A German! One of those people who had nearly wiped his beloved city off the map; one of those people who had been responsible for untold human carnage, including the deaths of many in his own family. Granted, the young man himself seemed to be nice enough, and he was only a toddler during the war; he hadn’t hurt anyone – but still, his father had served in the army during the war, and had taken part in only God knows what.
The man had been terribly upset about the wedding, which was bad enough. Then, shortly after that, the couple had had a child. But now, barely a year after the child had been born, the young man had been killed in an automobile accident, leaving an uncertain future for the old man’s daughter and her child. At this same time, she had been accepted for advanced study in the United States. It would open up a world of opportunities for her and her child, but it would have been all but impossible for her to complete her studies while also caring for the child all by herself, and in a completely foreign environment. So she asked her father, the old man, could the child stay with him and her mother, there, until her studies were complete; then she’d send for him?
Impossible. Unthinkable. It would never work. But then, he looked into his grandchild’s eyes, so full of wonder, and love, and curiosity, and no small amount of fear. Yes, his other grandfather may very well have even killed some of this grandfather’s own brothers and sisters. But this child – this utterly helpless child with the troubling bloodlines, and whose future looked bleak otherwise – this child hadn’t hurt anyone. He needed someone. So the old man said yes.
From the very beginning, and contrary to all social expectations, the old man formed a very strong bond with the child. In that time and place, taking care of a child was totally women’s work, not a man’s, and for a man of his stature, a distinguished highly respected doctor, it was completely inappropriate, degrading, even scandalous. But for some reason, despite all of that, the old man did it. He cared for him. He dressed him, and changed him, and bathed him, and laughed and played with him, in a completely undignified manner. As the child grew, the old man let him help with the gardening, and visit with him at the clinic. For the next few years, the two spent countless hours together like this, and whenever people told the old man he was being undignified, he disregarded it – he just didn’t care. He’d found very deep meaning, and great love, by humbling himself and not caring what society said, in order to care for this little one. If he didn’t help him, who would?
Decades later, the little child, now a man who had grown up and lived in the United States for most of his life, stood on the street corner in Warsaw where his grandparents’ house had once been, long since replaced by an apartment building. Standing there on the same sidewalk where years before his own much smaller feet had stood alongside his grandfather’s as they tended to the flowers in front of a house that was now just a memory, he recognized that his grandfather – who wasn’t a religious man at all; his faith had been a casualty of the war – had actually personified those all-important 23 words of Jesus: “Whoever welcomes such a child as this in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sends me.”
When we think about our own lives of faith, it’s good for us to go back to the source, to always reflect on just what Jesus himself taught, and what he said was important for us to keep in mind – and how we could show gratitude and love for the God who has shown us such great love and mercy. If we want to be seen as great in God’s eyes, we need to be ready to humble ourselves and to welcome and help the helpless and the powerless, even if it means raising a few eyebrows in the process. And we don’t do it out of a sense of duty or obligation or burden; we do it out of gratitude – because long before we could ever offer that kind of welcome and acceptance to others, the helpless, dirty-faced child who stood in front of God, and who received that kind of welcome, was us.
Thanks be to God.