Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 23rd September 2012
It was not their finest hour. Like last week, we find Jesus and his disciples “on the way,” touring through the Galilee preaching the kingdom and healing the sick. They eventually make their way to Capernaum, the center of Jesus’ ministry situated on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. He waits until they get inside the house, away from the public, then Jesus has his own “come to Jesus” meeting with them. “What were you arguing about on the way?” he asks. He overheard their argument while they were out there on the road. It was not their finest hour.
Their silence betrays their shame. “But they were silent,” the text says, “for on the way they had argued with one another.” This wasn’t a theological argument, it wasn’t a debate about the interpretation of scripture, this wasn’t a dispute about worship. It was pretty childish, actually. They were fighting over who was the greatest among them. And their hesitation about ‘fessing up tells us they weren’t too happy with their actions out there “on the way.” Their silence and hesitancy in answering Jesus suggest there was some embarrassment and shame.
This is important to note here because what stands behind this text and the entire New Testament was a powerful shame-honor dynamic – it might seem odd to us and not immediately apparent, but this shame-honor dynamic permeated every level of society. It was pervasive in Palestine because it was the norm throughout the Roman Empire. Roman society was rigidly hierarchical. One’s sense of honor or shame was contingent upon how one was viewed by the larger community, particularly those in your social level. To be publicly humiliated was one of the most painful experiences one could endure. To lose a sense of one’s honor, to be publicly shamed, to be dishonored felt like death. And many a Roman preferred to take one’s own life instead of face dishonor or shame.
On the one hand, organizing a society this way, cultivated a growth in civic participation, one that encouraged living a life that is honorable in the eyes of the wider society. Honor virutus preamlum. Honor is the reward of virtue. On the other hand, human nature being what it is, this approach inevitably leads to secrets and schemes to keep the shame-producing truth from ever emerging. “In shame cultures it is the group that has the conscience, not the individual. Thus when a group accuses one of violating its standards, deep shame is the result.”
It’s quite natural, therefore, that the disciples would have been curious about where their movement or ministry was placed in the larger social context and, internally, they would have wanted to know who was the “greatest” among them. Status meant everything. Status brought power. Status brought honor. Status meant height, being “high” above others who were below you. Once you figured out where you were in the pecking order you were encouraged to stay there. That’s what was meant by “being humble.” It meant, “staying within one’s inherited social status, not grasping to upgrade oneself and one’s family at the expense of another.” In Jesus’ world you knew who was at the top – the emperor – and you knew who was on the very bottom – the slave – and somewhere in between was you.
Now, all of this is important to keep in mind because what’s going on in this text is radical. And what Jesus is up to here is quite astonishing. We get a glimpse of what his ministry is all about. In the privacy of this house, not out in the public, Jesus doesn’t judge them for their discussion. Instead, he intentionally undermines their societal assumptions of how the world “really is,” and shows them a still more excellent way. He challenges their assumptions about what matters and doesn’t. He destabilizes the foundation, the structural core of their moral universe. That’s why Jesus was radical, literally meaning, of or pertaining to the root. He gets to the root, the core of what matters. He does this by lobbing at them the curve ball of curve balls, something so counter-intuitive, something they would never have considered valuable or possible or sane or even desirable. Jesus unmasks the power structures of his society and their aspirations for power and then undermines their value system. It’s as if Jesus is taking on or hoping to heal the damage inflicted by a society based on shame and honor. How? Where? When Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” That would have left them speechless. Knowing something of his world, it leaves us speechless too.
This is the grand reversal that Jesus comes to proclaim to the world. This is what the kingdom of God is and does and what we’re called to embody. This is what grace does. This is the way the world ought to be and is becoming. This is justice. Jesus reverses the pecking order. The Gospel always questions the prevailing morality of any culture. Jesus challenges the assumptions of his society. The first shall be last and the last shall be first (Mark 10:31). If you want to be first, if you want to be great, if you want something to really feel honorable about, then give up your status, move in the opposite direction of where you are, choose downward mobility; instead of wanting to be served, serve – serve all, especially those who are below you or those you consider are below you. If you want glory, then be who you were created to be – serve one another.
And with that Jesus reaches over and places a little child among them and then he puts his arms around the child – Mark uses one of the most unique verbs found in the New Testament – and takes the child in his arms and says: See, like this. This is where you start. This is how you do it. And this gesture, too, is wildly radical and even subversive. Unfortunately, we have domesticated it. We all have our images of Jesus welcoming the children. We have those images from Sunday school curriculum and flannel-graph pictures of the children gathered at Jesus’ knee, smiling, well fed, well dressed, well behaved, clean, and cherub-like. These images are seared into our brains. But I wish we could get rid of them or cast them aside. We must not romanticize this text; we must not romanticize children here. And we must not dehistoricize this text by lifting it out of Jesus’ time and placing it in ours or taking our views of children and projecting them back into the text.
When I mentioned earlier that slaves were at the bottom of the rung, well, children were just a little higher than slaves. Like slaves they were nonentities, they were invisible. They had no status, no rights. “Childhood in antiquity was a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent. Another 30 percent of live births were dead by age six, and 60 percent were gone by age sixteen. Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease, and dislocation, and in some areas or eras few would have lived to adulthood with both parents alive. The orphan was the stereotype of the weakest and most vulnerable member of society. Childhood was thus a time of terror, and survival to adulthood a cause of celebration.” That’s why rites of passage ceremonies were so important too because they survived childhood. “Children had little status within the community or family. A minor child was on a par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was s/he a free person who could inherit the family estate.” To call someone a child could also be a serious insult (Matthew 11:16-17). This is not to say that children were not loved and valued. They were. Having children promised continuation of the family, as well as security and protection to parents in old age. Still, it was at time of terror.
When Jesus embraces the child it’s a symbolic action that demonstrates what Jesus is all about, what matters most in the kingdom of God; he shows us the kinds of values and questions that matter to God. We should not be arguing who is the greatest. Instead, we are called to question the moral structure of society if that structure does not allow for the care of the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). What is more, we have to work against that structure if society is not willing to care for the “least of these.” We are called to serve, not the rich and powerful, not those with status and honor in the eyes of society, we are called to serve the children, to embrace them, care for them.
While it is true, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said, “the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Yes, we are called as people of faith to ensure that our children are safe and secure, that they are cared for, that they are offered the prospect of a future to grow and develop and love; while all this is true, Jesus is not really talking about children as we consider children today. Jesus is really talking about welcoming, embracing, holding the most vulnerable segment of our society: the weakest, the marginalized, the ignored or excluded, those without power. That’s what the work of God’s kingdom is about. These are the people we are called to serve – the least of these among us.
In his last speech, vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey (1911-1978), was channeling this kingdom ethic when he said, "...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” In other words: the most vulnerable.
Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948) caught the vision of the kingdom when he said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, has tirelessly reminded us, “If we don’t stand up for children, we don’t stand up for much.”
But Jesus is not talking about nations or governments, he’s talking to the church, to the people of faith who are in seats of power and have authority in nations and governments, people of faith who through their voice and actions have some influence upon the way we care for the most vulnerable in our society, for the marginalized, for those women and men and children who are invisible to us, whose plight is unknown to us because have not stepped into their lives, or maybe have not stooped down low enough on the social ladder to consider their plight.
There are many “weak” segments of our society we could lift up here, the contemporary “children” of our age who need our care and love. Close to home here in Baltimore, I’m thinking particularly of the work of The Samaritan Women in Catonsville, providing sanctuary for women coming out trafficking and space for homeless veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Did you know?
· One out of every 10 homeless vets under the age of 45 is a woman.
· The number of female veterans who end up homeless–estimated 6,500–has nearly doubled over the last decade
· According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 23% of the homeless population in the United States are veterans and 3/4ths of which experience some type of alcohol, drug, or mental health problem. Among women vets, it’s estimated that 60% have addiction issues.
· In Maryland and Virginia, the estimated number of homeless female veterans in 2009 was 466; the number of available beds in our area is only 24.
Marian Wright Edelman was channeling Jesus when she said, “Service is what life is all about.” It’s what the life of faith is all about. The motto of Hard Rock Cafes, found all around the world, perhaps says it best: “Love all – Serve all.” Serving all God’s children. Serving the least of these, the most vulnerable.
To welcome a “child” – to embrace the most vulnerable in our society – means that we are at the same time welcoming Jesus: to welcome him is to welcome and embrace the One who welcomes and embraces us all. This is what the kingdom of God is all about. This is the Gospel. This is what we’re called to. It’s tough. It’s not popular. It requires courage. Nevertheless, as followers of Jesus, this is what we’re called to do – we’re called to serve.
 See Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
 Malina & Rohrbaugh.
 Malina & Rohrbaugh, 237.
 Malina & Rohrbaugh, 238.
 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994), 260ff.
 These statistics may be found at The Samaritan Women website: http://thesamaritanwomen.org/tsw-residence/veteran-womens-program/.