[Jesus and the disciples] 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.’
“There was a human being in the first century who was called ‘Divine,’ ‘Son of God,’ and ‘God from God,’ and whose titles were ‘Lord,’ ‘Redeemer,’ ‘Liberator,’ and ‘Savior of the World.’ Who was that person?” Jesus. I suspect that many of us here would say “Jesus.” No. That’s not the right answer. Who was the human being in the first century who was called ‘Divine,’ ‘Son of God,’ and ‘God from God,’ whose titles were ‘Lord,’ ‘Redeemer,’ ‘Liberator,’ and ‘Savior of the World’? Caesar Augustus. Long before those titles came to be applied to Jesus, they belonged to Caesar. (I’m drawing here on the scholarship of the Irish theologian, John Dominic Crossan.i) Before Jesus was born, there was Caesar Augustus, the ‘Son of God’ and ‘Savior of the World’ and a great deal more.’ Before he was (that is, Jesus), I am (that is, Caesar). And so, to apply this recognition to Jesus the Christ was thereby to deny this to Caesar the Augustus. Christians were not simply using ordinary titles applied to all sorts of people at that time, nor unique titles applied to the Messiah. Rather, the followers of Jesus were taking the identity of the Roman Emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant. Either that was an ill-advised and condescending joke made by a rag tag group of low lifes who were subject to Roman authority, or it was what the Romans called majestas, and what we call high treason, and that’s asking for trouble. And plenty of trouble came to Jesus and his followers, particularly in the first two centuries following his birth.
Jesus turned power upside down, which he does in a number of ways, including what we hear in the gospel lesson appointed for this evening’s liturgy. Along the way, Jesus’ disciples had been arguing with one another about power, and who was the greatest. Jesus sits down, gathers his twelve disciples and says to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ That’s a reversal of the norms of power. And to make his point, Jesus takes a little child into his arms and says two rather shocking things: in welcoming a child you welcome me; in welcoming me you welcome the God who sent me, the God whom Jesus calls ‘Father.’ii We move from Roman treason to Jewish blasphemy.
Now about children. Children in Jesus’ day were worthless, that is, they did not have worth in their own right as children. At best, their worth was in their potential as future adults. And so children who were not promising – not promising because of their birthright, not promising because of their brightness, or their appearance, or their gender (females being inherently inferior) – were like chattel. Children who were promising were recognized for their potential future but not for their presence in the here-and-now. Jesus’ point here in raising up a child in his arms is not about our educating children, nor is his point about our encouraging the best out of children, as important as that all is. Jesus’ point is far more radical and subversive. Jesus publicly embraces a child with care – which in itself was a “lowly” action reserved for women. Jesus embraces a child. Is it a boy or girl? The gender would have made a difference given the cultural norms, but we’re not told because it does not matter to Jesus. Jesus commands his disciples to welcome children, all children, which, because children are the lowest rung, means we as his disciples are to welcome everyone.iii Everyone has a place within God’s embrace, which is a drastic reversal of the norms.iv Jesus radically confronts the existing structures of power and privilege and piety: Jesus (not Caesar Augustus) represents the God of Gods, and children represent Jesus.
I’ll draw three points from this Gospel passage about our relationship to children, our relationship to adults, and our relationship to God.
First, concerning children. Children need the respect and protection of adults who take them seriously, love them, and honestly help them to become oriented in the world.v I’m drawing here on the insight of Alice Miller, the great developmental psychologist and advocate for children. Alice Miller says that when these vital needs are frustrated and children are instead abused for the sake of adults’ needs by being exploited, beaten, punished, taken advantage of, manipulated, neglected, or deceived without the intervention of any witness, then their integrity will be lastingly impaired. Children know injustice in their hearts long before they can understand injustice in their minds or speak to it with their mouths. I’ll quote again Alice Miller in what she calls the “leaden rule” (not the “golden rule” but the “leaden rule”): “Children will do unto others what was done unto them, long before they could do anything about it.” In our world today, there is an onslaught of violence being perpetrated, no small amount of it at the hands of children and youth. They are oftentimes violently asserting their place, their voice, their justice, their power, their future in ways which are so fraught with diminishing returns and self destruction. Most often they have been set up by the sins of adults: sins of commission and omission.
Jesus himself was a marked child. As a newborn infant, he was marked for murder by Herod and the courts of Roman power. And though Jesus seems to have been so well guarded by Mary and Joseph, I can’t imagine he ever got over the trauma of his infancy and childhood: the possibility of his own murder and the reality of many children around Bethlehem having been killed on his account.vi (When now would the shoe drop for him?) He who speaks for children had been a child himself… which makes his own words all-the-more poignant about children’s worthiness, about children being a living revelation of the God whom Jesus calls “Father.” We see and hear in Jesus’ witness something profound about our posture towards children. They have inherent dignity, and we, like Jesus, need to raise them up. Jesus addresses our posture towards children; he also addresses our practice towards children. Surely all of us need to take on the care, in some way, of at least one child. Whether we are parents, godparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, neighbors, friends, advocates… in some way to be doing some thing in the raising up of at least one child, and for the love of God.
Secondly, concerning our relationship with other people. Children, in Jesus’ teaching, are also metaphors. Children, in Jesus’ day, were the lowest, and so he uses the image of a child to speak about those who are least or last or lost, of lowest worth to us, whatever their age. We who are followers of Jesus have it within us to bestow dignity on others, not because they are like us, and not because they will like us, but because they are. Our own lifetimes have been extended up to today for the sake of conversion. Not the conversion of others – to make others more like us – but for our own conversion. That our own hearts be broken open with the love of Jesus as Jesus loved. That love is for everyone, especially those who might last catch our attention.
Thirdly, about our relationship to God. Where is God to be recognized and known in these days in which we live? Many people are living with confusion, and maybe even you some days. Where is God to be recognized and known? In the Gospels we are given some clarity by Jesus, some specific way to see him and serve him and, thereby, see and serve the God whom he calls Father. Jesus takes the question: “When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” And Jesus answers: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” vii Jesus calls us to love our neighbor. Everyone is our neighbor. And in so doing, not only are we following in Jesus’ way; we also meet Jesus face-to-face… which is oftentimes not very fancy. It confronts the norms of power and privilege as radically as in the days of the Caesar and may meet an equal resistance from the halls of power in our own culture.
We live in very challenging, even frightening days, and these days are full of opportunity, endless opportunity for us to see God and serve God whom we recognize in Jesus. Jesus tells us that the least and last shall be first in the kingdom to come. Let is be so, on earth as it shall be in heaven. Let it be so by us.
i John Dominic Crossan in God and Empire, p. 28.
ii Mark 9:34-37.
iii Eugene Boring in Mark: A Commentary, p. 281.
iv Hans-Ruedi Weber in Jesus and the Children, pp. 34, 37.
v Alice Miller in The Untouched Key; Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness; pp. 68, 168-170.
vi Matthew 2:13-18.
vii Matthew 25:37-45.
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