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.”
Now that was embarrassing!
The disciples and Jesus have been on the road. Just earlier, Jesus again predicted that we would go to Jerusalem, suffer, and die. And the disciples again misunderstood him. Now that they’ve reached their destination for the day, Jesus asks what they were talking about on the way. Except they weren’t just talking, they were arguing. And then comes the embarrassed silence. Because they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.
At least they had the good sense to be embarrassed. It’s bad enough that they would care about such things, worse that they would argue about them, and worse still that all this happens just after Jesus told them he would soon suffer and die.
Oddly, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them, but instead seizes the moment as a teaching opportunity and in doing so makes one of the most critical elements of the kingdom of God he proclaims more clear: power isn’t power in God’s kingdom. Or, to say that more clearly, real power in the kingdom of God is the power of service, the power of love, the power that forgoes one’s own rights and possibilities for the sake of another.
That’s not what power looks like in the “real” world. Power is the ability to do what one wants. Power is power over other people. Power is the capacity to enforce one’s dreams, designs, and will on others.
No wonder he was so misunderstood. Jesus articulates an understanding of power that is not just different from the typical construction of power but is downright laughable in comparison. And then to illustrate exactly what he means he draws a child from those who must have been listening and holds her in his arms. This isn’t, by the way, meant to be cute, the kind of gesture politicians and wonder-working teachers do to curry favor with the crowd. Children in the ancient world have little value. They are weak, considered a liability as they do not contribute to the family’s income and survival, and have no rights. This isn’t to say that parents didn’t love their children; of course they did. But it is to remind us that children were terribly vulnerable in the ancient world.
Perhaps especially the one Jesus holds. Given Mark’s description of how Jesus holds the child, and of how Jesus says “one such as this,” scholars have conjectured that the child might be diseased and would be for this reason doubly unlikely to be picked up by a teacher like Jesus.
What does power look like in God’s eyes? It looks like a dignified teacher scooping up a diseased, impoverished child and holding her tight in his arms so that no one and nothing can harm her again. That’s power because that’s sacrificial, parental love. And in case we miss Jesus’ point here, he’ll make it again, this time by spreading his arms wide and hanging on the cross…for us.
Prayer: Dear God, shock us once again with how much you love us that we, in turn, might seize the power of love and serve those around us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.