A number of years ago, when I was in seminary, my family planned a weekend visit to New York City. We had purchased tickets to “A Little Night Music,” probably my all-time favorite musical, with an all-star cast, and we were very excited. On the afternoon of the performance we went to a restaurant in the neighborhood of the theater. We went nice and early, so that we would be sure to have time to make the curtain. We walked in, and though it was busy, there were only one or two parties ahead of us. We spoke to a staff person, and settled in to wait for a table.
Suddenly, a virtual wall of people came rushing into the restaurant. There were people on top of people. I’d never seen quite so many people converge on a single location at once. And… needless to say, the restaurant staff was overwhelmed, and one thing led to another, and… our little party of four was lost in the shuffle. Almost before we realized what was happening, dozens of tables were being filled with people who had come in after us, and we could not convince anyone who worked there that we had arrived first.
I was furious. We were supposed to be first… well, third, anyway. But we were most definitely NOT supposed to be last. When I think back on my reaction to that experience—really, I find it embarrassing that I even remember it—I am struck by how powerful my emotions were. I was angry, but more than that, I was humiliated. I took it absolutely personally. I was supposed to be first, and instead I was last.
The questions of who will be first and who will be last are very much on the minds of Jesus’ disciples in this morning’s gospel story. We are on the road to Jerusalem with them, and with Jesus, of course. And to be on the road to Jerusalem means something very specific, and Jesus comes right out with it, first thing. He tells his friends, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him…” This is not the first time Jesus’ friends have been confronted with the brutal reality of his impending death, and it won’t be the last. Jesus is pretty consistent with his message. The path he is walking will lead to the cross.
It doesn’t matter how many times Jesus mentions this; the disciples never show any measure of acceptance or understanding. And, really, why should they? It’s not an acceptable, understandable reality. Jesus is their rabbi. He is their beloved, revered teacher, their Messiah, even: he is the one they believe God has anointed to save the people from all that ails them. Jesus is their leader, the alpha male of their pack. He is number one. And he is describing to them the most ignominious, the most shameful, the most humiliating end they can imagine. He is describing a death that is utterly inconsistent with everything they believe they know about him. He is not describing the death of a king, but of a criminal. Even Jesus’ assurance that he will rise again does not seem to matter. They are struck silent. They are afraid to even ask him what it all means.
And, so they walk on, back to their old familiar stomping grounds of Capernaum, where Jesus likes to relax at Simon Peter’s home. Once they are comfortably settled in, Jesus asks a pointed question. ‘“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.’ [Mark 9:33b-34] On first glance, this feels odd and somewhat disconnected from what has just happened. It’s a non sequitur. It’s almost as if the disciples have played the child’s game of sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting “La la la la!” They don’t want to hear Jesus’ bad news (at least, according to them), and so they take an entirely different tack, a new topic, something that’s fun to talk about! Who among us is the greatest?
At least, that’s how I read this moment in the text until someone pointed out to me what probably should have been obvious: Jesus has predicted his own death. He is the leader. After his death, who will be the leader in his place? A discussion ensues, and then an argument, over who is “the greatest.”[i] No wonder they were struck silent.
Notice what Jesus does next. He sits down. This is a signal to his disciples—and to us—to pay very, very close attention to the word he is about to share with them. To sit down before speaking is, in the ancient world, to take the classic teaching position of the rabbi. Jesus is claiming his authority as he prepares to deliver a teaching—what may in fact be the central teaching of his ministry.
He 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.” ~ Mark 9:35-37
This is a delicate moment in the gospel, because it’s a moment we can very easily misunderstand. There are two parts to the teaching, the part about the last being first and the part about welcoming children. Let’s start with the children.
A few weeks ago I was wishing the lectionary had appointed this text for the 13th instead of the 20th. What could be more perfect than this gospel for Rally Day, the day we welcome our children back to Sunday School? But in the end I’m glad it was not the reading for last Sunday, because that would play into a pretty common misunderstanding about what Jesus means when he speaks of welcoming children. The misunderstanding stems from the difference between how we—westerners, in a developed country, in the 21st century—view children and how people in the ancient world saw them. So let’s talk about what Jesus, most likely, did not mean when he spoke of welcoming children.
When Jesus spoke of welcoming children, he was not praising their innocence, or their sweetness, or their beauty. He was not talking about the way the sight of a newborn baby, swaddled in its mother’s arms, tugs at our heartstrings. He was not talking about the sometimes uncanny wisdom children display—the moments when they can cut to the heart of the matter, speak the truth in all its beauty and simplicity. He was not speaking of their playful spirit—the way they can spend happy hours in imaginary worlds of their own creation. He was not speaking of their trusting natures, or their inborn sense of fair play, or their eager willingness to believe, to have faith. All these things may be true about children, as we experience them. But these modern day notions of childhood were not the reason Jesus commanded his disciples to welcome children into their midst.
Here is how one writer describes childhood in the ancient world:
Here’s the thing about kids in first-century Roman Palestine: Children were nobodies, the bottom of the social food chain. Children had no power whatsoever, they weren’t given choices or negotiated with, they weren’t allowed privileges or given allowances. Children could be and were left on garbage heaps to die of exposure. Some of them were collected from the garbage to be kept as slaves. Depending on the hierarchy of the household, any number of people could decide that it was no longer expedient to keep a child alive. And although Jewish parents did not engage in infant exposure, their children had no more position or social standing.[ii]
Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God. Other understandings of “the kingdom” come later. “This comes first: a kingdom of children is a kingdom of nobodies.” It’s hard for us to understand how shocking this was to Jesus’ friends and disciples. Children were expendable. Children were nobodies.
I’ve tried to think of a modern day parallel to help us understand, and the closest I can come to it are these statistics, from a recent story in the New York Times Magazine on the status of women around the world.
39,000 baby girls die annually in China in the first year of life because parents don’t give them the same medical care and attention that boys receive.
In India, a “bride burning” takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry.
Between 60 million and 107 million women are missing from around the globe because baby boys are considered more desirable offspring than baby girls.
In other words, in many parts of the world, women are the nobodies.
More girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.[iii]
I know that statistics like these, while they can shock us, can also numb us. The point is this: In Jesus’ day the nobodies, the expendable, those who could as easily die as they could live, were children. In our day, in some parts of the world, the nobodies are still children, and in some parts, they women and girls, while in other parts of the world they may be those who belong to the “wrong” religious or ethnic group. In this country we have a shameful history of the “nobodies” being the African Americans who were forcibly enslaved. And there are other nobodies, of course. Throughout our long history, we human beings have managed to find ways to marginalize one another, to make one another outcast, to point the finger and say, “They are not us. They are not even human. They are nobody.”
And Jesus is saying, No. No. No. The one you think you can’t welcome, or don’t have to welcome? That is the one you must welcome. You must welcome the nobodies, the ones without power, the ones without status. Not only must you welcome them, he says, even with his body language… you must embrace them. Not only must you welcome them, he says, you must be willing to be their servant. You must be willing to let them be first, and you must be willing to be last.
Oh my. Nobody wants to be last. Nobody wants to lose status. I certainly don’t. I don’t mind telling you… I care about whether I am first or last, I care about my status. I care what people think of me. Even my foolish and embarrassing little story about not being seated in order in a restaurant tells you… the ways I care about this run deep, they are visceral, they are instinctive, they are not entirely in my control. And what Jesus is telling his disciples, what he is telling you and me, is that we have to fight this urge to want to be first. We have to fight it with all that is in us, and we have to be willing to yield our status to those we consider the absolutely last and least. Our ability to bear witness to the enormous, overpowering love of God requires it.
There is a story of a little child who walked up to the preacher, and said, “If God is so big, and God is inside of us, why doesn’t God just… break out?” Why doesn’t God break out, in a glorious kind of contagion of love and mutual forgiveness and kindness and civility? Probably because every one of us—from Joe Wilson to Kanye West to you and to me—really, really has a hard time not being first, not being in charge, and so we keep all the potential of God’s love and goodness locked down, bottle up and hidden away. But it is time. It is time for us to let it loose. It is time for us to let go, and to let God do what God wants to do with our lives and our world. It is time for us to welcome one such child in our midst, whether we mean a child, or today’s nobodies: you know who they are. It is time for us to step back, to be willing to put our status and privilege aside so that the glorious contagion of God’s love can break free and renew the face of the earth. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks, Mark 9:30-37, Proper 20- Year B. http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark9x30.htm.
[ii] Rev. Miller Jen Hoffman, after John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 269.
[iii] Nicholas D. Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn, “The Women’s Crusade,” New York Times Magazine August 23, 2009.