30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
Who Is the Greatest?
33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:30-37 (ESV)
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
Jesus placed a lot of emphasis on children in his day. It was unusual. Children were more or less despised in his day. They were often considered a burden, and when they weren’t considered a burden they were considered slaves. If it was raining cats and dogs out, you sent the kids into the orchard to pick up the figs that were falling on the ground before they were washed away, spoiled or stolen by the neighbors. If pigeons were making a mess of your harvest in the hot sun, you put children in charge of throwing rocks at them. They had no rights. There was no concept of child abuse. Oh, as is natural most parents loved their children and raised them with love. It was for this reason, and not just the command of God, that parents would circumcise their children on the 8th day and bring them into the covenant people of God, and raise them in the faith. Raising children up in the faith, in the love of God is the most loving thing a parent can do for their children, it is the reaction of love in response to the love of God who died for our sins, in response to the love of Christ who first loved us. It is the love a parent has for their own child that inspires them to share their love of God, to share God’s love for them in the waters of holy baptism, in morning devotions before school, it is what inspires them to wake up early on a Sunday morning to bring them to Sunday school, and sit with them in church. To raise a kid in the gospel, with the confidence that God loves them above all others, that despite all the hardships of this life, despite any failures they have to own in life, despite the messed up relationships, and high school drama, here is Christ redeeming you, restoring you to your Father in heaven, a love that surpasses all love, here is Christ reserving for you a place at his table to feast on forgiveness, to celebrate peace. To raise them in this gospel, in this good news, in this relationship with God the Father, this is the epitome of receiving one such child in the name of Jesus Christ that causes one to receive the Father.
But all of this discussion happens with a background to it. Jesus is asking the disciples about what they were arguing about on the way back to Capernaum. What was this discussion you were having in the hushed excitement of heated debate behind my back as we came down to the shore line? Jesus knows they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. Mark uses this discussion to emphasize just how much the disciples did not understand concerning the teaching of Christ that he must suffer, be given over into the hands of men, slain and killed, about the resurrection after three days. They don’t understand this. Jesus is keeping as low a profile as he can as he passes through Galilee. He wants to devote his time to teaching the disciples, to prepare them for the cross. He is teaching them from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, the book Luther often referred to as the fifth gospel, so clearly was the life of Christ foretold in it. Yet, it was so counter intuitive to the thoughts of man, it hid the path of the Messiah, the Christ, it hid the cross in plain sight. The people could not see it. It didn’t fit with their fantasy of Armageddon. Oh, modern day Mormons with their doomsday prep, the millenialists of our generation who pee their pants excitement every time a rock chucking Palestinian hits an Israeli in the head, the Walking Dead enthusiasts giving into every fantastical desire as they play out the zombie apocalypse in their head, these guys have nothing on first century Jewish millenialist fanatics, and their messianic fantasies. And it didn’t matter how many times their revolts were put down, the zealots kept on coming with their daggers. The Romans could raze the city of Sepphoris to defeat Judas of Gamala and spike the heads of everyone who rebelled against the census of Quirinius the governor, the one that led to Jesus being born in the little town of Bethlehem, but the zealots would continue to carry knives under their cloaks, to assassinate political leaders. They made Timothy McVeigh to look like a child playing with a fire cracker as they tried to usher in the golden age, to bring about Armegeddon. Fancying themselves warriors for the Christ, they would be slaughtered indiscriminately under orders of Pontius Pilate as they gathered for the paschal sacrifices in the temple as the Son of Man made his way to the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, dying for the sins of Ponitus Pilate himself. Later they would even bring about the total destruction of Israel as the temple burned in 70 Ad. This was the Messianic fervor, the rebellious milieu of Jesus’ childhood. Sepphoris would have been razed when he was about 11. But Jesus rejected this kind of rebellion. This wasn’t what Christ was about, this isn’t what Christ is about. That is what the world is about as it seeks for glory and fights to be recognized as great.
This is the back drop. The disciples not understanding any of this about suffering, any of this about death and resurrection, they argue for who is the greatest. Jesus calls forth a child, so easily dismissed, taught to be quiet when adults are speaking, the kind from whom nothing worldly could be gotten, no favors to be given, you ask them to do menial tasks and gather figs in from the rain because there isn’t anything they can do to you, not much they can do for you, nothing they can hold over your head. They represent the poorest of the poor that we can’t understand. Take in one of these in his name, he says, and you receive the Father, you receive me. If you want to be first, make yourself last, a servant of all. Take the freedom Christ won for you on the cross and make yourself a slave to children, a servant to all. For Christ himself came not to be served but to serve. Offered the nations of the world and every political advantage, he chose the cross, and died for those who put him to death, he chose your salvation that he would usher the kingdom of God into your heart, your soul, and bring to you the forgiveness of sins.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.