19th September 2021 – 16th Sunday after Trinity [Proper 20]
Readings–Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:8, Mark 9:30-37
Whereas last week we read in the gospel about Jesus’ first statement about his betrayal, death and resurrection, this week we read about the second. Here Jesus again tried to tell his disciples what the future would bring; namely betrayal, death and rising again. Now, and just as in last week’s reading, they failed to understand. On the first occasion Peter challenged him and was rebuked, this time no-one said anything.
Instead they begin to debate something they did understand – who is the greatest. [shades of Muhammed Ali!]. It’s not clear from the text if they were discussing who among themselves was the greatest or if they were arguing about what makes for greatness. It may be that their confusion about why Jesus would talk about dying sparked a conversation about the attributes of great leaders. How could God’s great ‘Anointed One’ be prepared to die.
Jesus understood their conversation to be a misunderstanding of the nature of greatness. Being first, said Jesus, is being willing to be last. To illustrate the reversal of values in what he was saying Jesus took a child, a member of the Capernaum household, and placed the child in their midst. “Whoever welcomes such a one welcomes me… and the one who sent me” [v.37].
A child in Jewish and Greek society had little or no status. Because of the incidence of serious illness and accident, fewer than half of children born lived to the age of six in Jesus’ time. Since the life of a child couldn’t be guaranteed, no-one was considered to be a full person, worthy of respect, until they had reached the age of maturity.
For Jesus to make a child his representative was a radical step. It went against all popular notions of what someone with his status could expect. He was redefining greatness as “servant of all” by placing himself in the position of one who could be called upon to serve any adult member of the household, and one whose life was extremely vulnerable.
Jesus then went a step further. To welcome such a vulnerable one, he said, is to welcome God. God’s greatness lies, not in power over others, but in willingness to serve the creation he has made. The challenge for disciples is to understand greatness as the capacity to care for others.
A hymn for the week – The Servant King [R&S 522]