On his journey to Jerusalem with his disciples Jesus makes three announcements of how he will be rejected, suffer, and be killed by the powers that be. And all three times the disciples do not hear what Jesus is quite plainly telling them. Last week’s Gospel text dealt with the first announcement. Today's text deals with the second announcement. And once again, as with the first announcement, the disciples are preoccupied with position and power and personal greatness. When Jesus speaks of his suffering and death, Mark says of the disciples, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.” The reason they didn’t understand is because they were not ready to hear. On the way to Capernaum in route to Jerusalem where Jesus would meet his fate, the disciples argued with one another regarding who was the greatest among them. They were preoccupied with thoughts of greatness.
So Jesus sits down, calls the twelve to gather round, and he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” I suppose one could still read this with thoughts of greatness, and simply turn this around into a different kind of strategy for achieving greatness. This would be easy for us to do, because this is how we are conditioned to think in our culture. And we are no different than the twelve. It would be easy for us to misunderstand Jesus here and think Jesus is showing us how we can achieve personal greatness. We become great by becoming the servant of all. So we turn greatness into a prize – a reward for being the best servant. Certainly, it would be much better to serve others as the way to greatness, rather than exercising power over others, but it still misses the point. It misses the point because it does not change one’s fundamental attitude toward personal greatness. One might still take pride in being a better servant than others. What Jesus is saying is that the kingdom of God is not about personal greatest at all. It’s not about crossing the finish line ahead of everyone else to the applause of God. It’s not about winning. In this way the kingdom of God is very different than human systems of worthiness.
Author Robert Roberts tells about a fourth grade class that played “balloon stomp.” In “balloon stomp” a balloon is tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game is to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting your own. The last person with an intact balloon wins. It’s a game rooted in the philosophy of “survival of the fittest.” In this particular fourth grade class balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. A few of the less aggressive children hung shyly on the sidelines and, of course, their balloons were among the first to go. The game was over in a matter of seconds. The winner, the one kid whose balloon was still intact was the most disliked kid in the room.
But then, says Roberts, a second class was brought into the room to play, only this time it was a class of mentally challenged children. They too were each given a balloon. They were given the same instructions as the other group, and the same signal to begin the game. Well, the instructions were given too quickly to be understood completely. So, in all the confusion, the one idea that stuck was that the balloons were supposed to be popped. But instead of fighting each other off, these kids got the idea that they were supposed to help each other pop their balloons. So they formed a kind of balloon co-op. One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place while a little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon still for her to stomp. On and on it went, all the children helping one another, and when the last balloon was popped, everybody cheered. No one lost. No one was put out of the game. They all crossed the finish line together. They were all winners. That sisters and brothers is a picture of the kingdom of God.
After Jesus instructs them to forget about personal greatness and tries to focus their attention on serving all people, he gives them a live image of just what it means to serve all people. Jesus doesn’t just tell them just to be servants. He doesn’t give them a choice regarding who they will serve. He instructs them to be servants of all. And to make his point he takes a little child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” That’s true because God, Jesus, and the little child – or the ones the little child represents – are one. They are inseparably connected and united. To welcome one is to welcome all. To welcome the little child is to welcome Jesus and to welcome God.
We can easily miss the meaning and significance of this, because of the differences in the way many of us regard little children, and the way the world of Jesus and Mark regarded little children. Scholars have pointed out that in the Greco-Roman world of that day and time children had no legal rights and were generally held in low esteem. I’m sure parents loved their children as parents loved their children today, but children occupied an inferior place in society unlike today. There were no laws that protected them. They were the property of their parents. So when Jesus instructs the disciples to welcome the little children the symbolism is very clear. He is telling them to welcome and receive the lowest and the least, the weakest and most vulnerable among them.
Now, when I say “lowest and least” I am referencing the wisdom and outlook of the world, not God. Our world, our culture, the society in which we live devises a kind of pecking order. But in God’s world, God’s realm there is no stratification of society. There is no one who is “lowest and least” in God’s kingdom. All are God’s children. All are loved with an eternal love. But in our society, we have folks who are vulnerable. We have folks whom society disregards and marginalizes and oppresses. And these are the very ones Jesus takes in his arms and on whom he pronounces special blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus. Luke’s version simply says, “Blessed are the poor.” Blessed are those who are economically poor.” And “Blessed are those who are beaten down in spirit.” The very ones our society would denounce and reject, God blesses and welcomes with loving arms.
In one of the beginning scenes in the movie Forrest Gump Forest is mistreated when he gets on the school bus. Forest is wearing braces on his legs and he is different, and none of the kids want to give him a seat. As he starts toward a seat the kid next to the empty one says, “Seat’s taken.” Then he starts toward another, and the kid there says, “Taken.” Still another says, “Can’t sit here.” But then a little cute blond girl speaks up, “You can sit here if you want.” Reflecting later on this experience Forrest says, “You know, it’s funny what a young man recollects; I don’t remember when I was born. I don’t recall what I got for my first Christmas, and I don’t remember when I went on my first outdoor picnic. But I do remember when I heard the sweetest voice in the whole wide world.” Forrest says, “I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. She was like an angel.”
As the story unfolds, however, the little girl whose name is Jenny always seems to be searching for something, but never finding—always turning away and leaving the one who loves her unconditionally. But in that scene on the bus, where she defies the pecking order of her contemporaries and welcomes Forest as a friend, she acts as God’s angel, God’s messenger. She is Jesus embracing the little child.
Jesus modeled and taught the wisdom of God, which is very different than the wisdom of the world. Jesus embodied and incarnated the wisdom of God. In the little epistle of James, the writer contrasts the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God. James says that the wisdom of the world is marked by envy and selfish ambition. When the disciples were caught arguing about personal greatness they were reflecting the wisdom of the world. In the system of worldly wisdom some are regarded as worthy, others are deemed as unworthy. It sows disorder and injustice of all kinds. But the wisdom that comes from God, says James, is gentle and full of mercy, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. It’s sows peace and reaps a harvest of righteousness, where all that is done is good, right, just, and loving.
L. Gregory Jones was dean of Duke University Divinity School when he shared an amazing story about Maggie in the Christian Century. Maggie’s story begins with the civil war in Burundi, when the Hutu militia came to her Tutsi community and massacred most of her extended family and many of her friends. She escaped with her seven adopted Hutu and Tutsi children, finding refuge with Hutus in the compound of the Catholic Bishop. Then a group of Tutsis came to the compound to kill the Hutus there. Because she was a Tutsi, she was spared, but as punishment for her adoption of Hutu children they stripped her, tied her up, and forced her to watch the massacre of 72 people. Eventually, she found her seven adopted children hiding in the church sacristy.
I can’t even bring myself to imagine going through such an ordeal. And I can’t imagine how I would cope with such a horrorific experience. Maggie coped by becoming an agent of change. She decided that she would rebuild her village as a place of peace. Even though she had never married, she adopted 25 more children, paying a significant price to the militia for their freedom. She built huts for the children, developed a health clinic and a school, set up microfinance initiatives and instituted business training in hairdressing, auto mechanics and other vocations. She taught sustainable agriculture. She also built a swimming pool and a film theater. The swimming pool was constructed on the site of tunnels that had served as a mass grave for casualties in the war. She says that she wants those waters to cleanse the children’s imagination of the violence and immerse them in an alternative, joy-filled imagination. The film theater, she says, reminds the children that life is meant to be enjoyed, not merely endured, and that they are not simply victims of wars, but human beings with dignity. Maggie even found funding for “Hollywood-style” theater seats.
On one occasion, rebel soldiers held the theater hostage. They demanded payment, or they would destroy the theater. Maggie didn’t have the money to pay them, so she invited them to watch some movies instead. The rebels decided to watch the movies, instead of destroying the theater.
The town has a hospital and a nursing school—and a morgue. The morgue is important to Maggie because she believes that one teaches people how to live, in part, by taking care of those who have died. Maggie draws upon the power and grace of God to foster reconciliation and create new hope and bring life out of death. This little village is called Maison Shalom (meaning House of Peace) and over 30,000 children have benefited from it. Some of the first children there have went on to become teachers in the schools and community leaders. The huts are set up so the older children can become the caregivers for younger children. Maggie tells people that Love made her an inventor.
Dr. Jones’ learned of Maggie’s story from colleagues who had visited the House of Peace. Those who told him about Maggie, also told him about Maggie’s driver, who first came to the House of Peace to kill Maggie. But Maggie somehow managed to talk him out of it, and convinced him that if he killed her, he would never be happy living in the bush and being defined by hatred and violence. So instead, she invited him to come and live in her community – to be her driver, and to help care for the children. And so he did.
Maggie, just like Jesus, is an incarnation of the wisdom of God. It’s wisdom that is pure and peaceable, full of mercy and good fruits. It turns the common, conventional wisdom of the world upside down. Alan Culpepper calls the teaching and actions of Jesus reflected in Mark 9 “revolutionary.” We could say the same thing about the life and work of Maggie, who created a community pervaded by love and service to all. I wonder to what degree this could be said about us? I can’t answer for you, but I know I spend too many days trying to cross the finish line first, and not enough days being the servant of all. I too often live by the wisdom of the world, rather than the wisdom of God.