20 September 2015

Whom Do You Serve?

Artist/Photographer: Standard Publishing 
Mark 9:30-37
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost/ 20th September 2015
When we hear about Jesus taking children into his arms—whether it’s here in Mark 9 or later in Mark 10, where Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14)—inevitably, particular images come to mind.  If you’re a certain age (I won’t say which age, you will know) and grew up in the church and went to church school, your image, our images, probably look the same.  I remember seeing those idealized images of Jesus (who look liked he was born in Northern Europe or Nebraska), surrounded by children that looked oddly like me, who were all clean, well-dressed, well-behaved (of course).  And smiling.  Jesus smiling.  Children smiling.  Today, the images in church school classrooms have been updated, with Jesus looking more Middle Eastern and the children more diverse, at least in terms of their ethnic configuration.

But what if some of our images of Jesus and children do more harm than good?  I mean it’s so easy to romanticize these stories of Jesus and children.  It’s so easy to idealize Jesus.  It’s so easy to idealize children.  When we romanticize something, whether it’s people or the past, we tend to create a fantasy around them.  Sometimes that fantasy corresponds with reality.  Often it’s an illusion.  When we idealize something or when we idealize people we tend to see, well, …the ideal, the perfect; we project on to that person or institution or idea or the past a certain image of perfection.  The act of idealization often distorts the truth.  When we idealize someone, for example, the true picture of who s/he is becomes obscured. When we idealize someone s/he becomes invisible; we see just the projection, not the real person.  When we idealize the past the full picture of what happened gets lost and we’re left with a skewed sense of history. We do this all the time, of course.  Still, sadly, a kind of violence is done when we idealize anything or anyone.

I wonder, therefore, about our idealized images of Jesus and children.  I wonder if our images, the associations we have of these stories, are helpful. What if our idealized images actually hinder us from hearing, keep us from “seeing” the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching here?  Teaching about children, yes, but also about the meaning of greatness and what’s expected of servants in God’s Kingdom.

It might help to remember that the focus of this text in Mark 9 is not children.  A child is used as a sermon illustration, an object lesson, in order to make a radical claim about God’s Kingdom and the nature of Jesus’ ministry.  A child is placed in front of the disciples as a witness against them, as a judgment against them—and by implication, all of us, should we fail to remember what it means to be a servant in God’s kingdom.[1]  This is what this text is about.

Let’s go deeper.  Jewish-Roman society in Jesus’ time was strictly hierarchical; each level of society was achieved and maintained through the exercise of power and economic status.  Society was highly structured.  This text begins, you’ll recall, with the disciples wondering about who is the greatest.  The disciples were preoccupied with the exercise of power and status and influence.  They obviously didn’t hear what Jesus said about suffering and dying!  Jesus was turning their world upside down and inside out and they didn’t realize it.  They had yet to learn that the word “great” in God’s kingdom describes one who serves—not served by others. A person is considered great in God’s kingdom when he or she serves all, especially the least.  That’s when Jesus turns to a child.

And in Jesus’ time children were the least. You’ve probably heard this before but it’s worth repeating.  Children were at the bottom of society in terms of status and rights.  Powerless.  A child didn’t have a special, cherished place in the family.  It was only in early adulthood that a young person was treated as a member of the family group.  Prior to then a child was a nonentity.  Prior to adolescence a child was invisible.  It’s remarkable that Jesus even drew attention to a child.  And it’s absolutely shocking that he would “advance them,” put them forward “as models for his social program.”[2] And Jesus does this not once, but twice in Mark’s gospel.  In the second encounter Jesus blesses the children, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).

And, it’s important to stress, that these “such as these” are not necessarily children or only children to whom the kingdom belongs.  Children are used as an example.  The kingdom belongs to whomever society considers least—least in society, the least in our community, least wherever we live.  This is what Jesus is getting at here. 

Jesus is intentionally throwing his disciples into an enormous moral crisis by putting forth this radical status-reversal dynamic of God’s kingdom.[3]  The first are last; the last are first.  And he does this by launching an assault on the disciples’ concern for power and greatness.  If we think this text is only about children, if we approach this text with our contemporary, far more morally advanced view of children, we will miss what Jesus is really talking about: caring for the least that are still among us.  In our age, children can be in this category (often are), but not exclusively so.

Mark tells us, twice, that Jesus took a child into his arms.  Mark uss a unique Greek verb—enagkalisamenos—to stress the point.  Jesus welcomes the invisible ones, the nonentities, the powerless, the valueless into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes ‘such as these’ in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  For an individual is regarded great in God’s kingdom when he or she is a servant to the least and Jesus invites them (and us) to do the same.

Jesus invites them to look down.  Look down. 

In the musical version of Victor Hugo’s (1802-1885) Les Misérables (1862), in one of the most heart-wrenching songs of the musical, beggars in the streets of nineteenth-century Paris cry out for justice and grace:

The beggars are asking us.  Demanding?

Jesus, however, invites us.  We’re invited, not commanded.  There’s no command in this text.  Not, “You shall….”  Whoever. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Jesus isn’t saying you have to do this.  He’s saying that when you live this way, should you choose to live this way, when you wrap your arms around those whom society can’t see, when you wrap your arms around the invisible, when you put your arms around the powerless, the marginalized, when you look down—down, way down, way below your own social standing and all the power and privilege that comes with your level in society—and see whoever is down there (I’m not going to say who that is because you need to figure that out), when you see them, recognize them, acknowledge their presence and worth as children of God, and you wrap your arms around them and say, “How can I serve you?”—you just might discover that you’ve crossed over into a new world, entered a new life, a new way of living, into a realm that Jesus called the basileia tou theou, the kingdom of God, you realize that you’ve stumbled into the kingdom of God. 

May it be so—for you, for me, for us as people called by the suffering servant to serve.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1988), 267.  I am indebted here throughout to Myers’ powerfully insightful reading of Mark’s Gospel.
[2] Myers, 261.
[3] Myers, 261.
[4] Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer, Charles Hart, and Webber Andrew Lloyd. Les Misérables (MMO Music Group, 1986). 

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