Sunday, September 20, 2009

It’s the Little Things

It’s the Little Things

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder
September 20, 2009

Mark 9:30-37

“...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 who was the greatest.

Twentieth century author Nancy Mitford is reported once to have said, “I love children, especially when they cry so someone will come to take them away.” This may sound cold, even cruel to us, but is probably a fairly accurate description of common first century attitudes toward children, as even in Mark’s gospel, the small child whom Jesus takes to place among the disciples is referred to as “it.” No name, no gender, not even a suggestion of its age, just an “it.” But by his next words, Jesus calls into question the utilitarian means by which people commonly deal with each other, especially those who strike us as somehow amounting to less than we do. “By insisting on attending to them, the very picture of powerlessness, the antonym of greatness, Jesus challenges his followers to think of others as something besides a means to an end, and see them as the end itself.”

“Do you want to spend more time with God?” one preacher asked. “Then get down on the floor with Sarah over there. Get finger-paint all over your clothes and laugh at her dumb jokes and never mind that you have more important things to do...She is not filler. She is the main event.”[1]

When Jesus began to speak about his call to be rejected by those he came to serve, to suffer and die, the disciples looked the other way, determined to continue the human greatness game. “What were you arguing about on the way?”Jesus wanted to know after a day of walking. He already knew, he’d probably overheard them, but they were sullen in their silence. That’s when he put the powerless, nameless, genderless child in their midst, as if to say, “Want to see the greatest? Here is the greatest in the kingdom, the one to whom you owe your debt of service, the little thing, the one who could never repay.”

And why is that, do you suppose? It is because that is the very model of the way God is toward us. There is nothing we can do for God to earn God’s love, God owes us nothing, but chooses to love and give himself for us anyway. If we want to be like God, Jesus explains, then we need to be just the way God is when we think of power and greatness, and recognize that in gospel terms, greatness is measured solely by a willingness to serve those who can never repay.

The disciples are not so much confused by Jesus’ prediction of his own death, as they are resistant to it, along with his other ideas that don’t subscribe to an earthbound idea of what constitutes true greatness. Jesus consistently associates the title of Son of Man with suffering and death, and the disciples don’t want any part of it. Perhaps they hope he’s not serious, that he’s just engaging in a little hyperbole, and that when push comes to shove, he’ll see the need to define greatness the way the world has always defined greatness.

As one preacher, in a sermon at my seminary alma mater a couple of years ago, reflected on this passage to the students gathered in the chapel, saying, “In the Gospel of Mark those idiot disciples are at it again: dense, scared, whining over which of them earned the highest GPA. Thank God, that does not look anything like us...Let us heave a relieved sigh that we are beyond all that...Lord have mercy: We are Princeton.”[2]

Isn’t it amazing that Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for their continuing blindness, their willful desire to continue to see greatness as the world sees it? Instead, he continues patiently to serve them, using the child as an example of the way to greatness if we would follow him. It’s an amazing moment. The disciples — and we, to be honest — measure greatness by success and the ability to demand service from others, Jesus measures greatness not by success but by service to others. The object of a disciple’s ambition should not be influence and authority, but usefulness to others.

Augustine — the 4th century priest and theologian — reminded us that we so easily get things turned around. What we ought to be using — money, career, power — perversely, we love. And those whom we should be loving, we seek to our use for our own selfish advancement. Jesus announced that in God’s kingdom, there will be no place for dominion over other people, and the desire to be somebody special will be fully realized when we treat others as special.

A few years ago a story appeared in the Houston Chronicle about a judge in that city whose signature summons required a two year-old child to appear for jury duty. It was one of those wonderful computer errors made, no doubt, by a sleepy public records clerk on the night shift, who probably added a digit in front of the child’s actual age, or entered “89” instead of “99” in the space for the child’s birth year. The child’s parents called, of course, to tell the court clerk that the person by that name was a two year-old. But no one believed them! After all, it was in the computer! It clearly indicated that he was an adult and eligible for jury duty. They would be required to bring the child to the court, or a bench warrant would be issued. Exasperated, the parents took the child to the courthouse.

Faced with this farcical turn of events, the judge decided to use the situation to make a point. Though it must have seemed ridiculous for a two-year old to appear for jury duty, he held up the child and said to those gathered in the courtroom, “A child is the jury before which our civilization must stand. The way we treat our children, and what we pass on to our children, speaks volumes about who we are as a people.”

I think of this story as I watch our beloved state and nation allow our schools, healthcare system, and other services once deemed non-negotiable to go underfunded and understaffed, as the old colonial battle cry “No taxation without representation” has been turned on its head, into, “No taxation period.”

Jesus took a child and placed it among them. Among them.

The disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ definition of greatness, in some measure, because they didn’t want to understand. It simply wasn’t in the plans they had made for themselves in the kingdom they saw coming. They were too busy making advance arrangements about who was to be Secretary of State and Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff after the revolution to pay much mind to Jesus’ dark sayings about impending death. They had a new kingdom to get ready for.

We shouldn’t be too hard on the disciples, because that would be too easy on us. It’s too easy to point the finger at a tattered group of 12 misfits from 2000 years ago and cluck our tongues and remark that they were awfully slow to get the picture. We shouldn’t be too hard on them if we are part of a denomination in which the majority of churches offer two or three, and sometimes four glorious services on Easter, yet none at all on Good Friday — the day of the cross. We may be in the same camp with the disciples, claiming the promises of the resurrection, yet avoiding the demands of the cross.

The fact of the matter was — for those 12 disciples as it is for us — that our leader, our Lord was hung upon a cross for our sakes, and he calls us to share the same depth of commitment. Mark wrote his gospel to a suffering church in which people were frequently disappearing off to the local police headquarters and made to answer for their faith with the ultimate price. Some in the church wondered if it was worth it. Mark wanted them to know that this suffering wasn’t an aberration of their faith, but something which Jesus had to endure, and for which he called on his disciples to be ready.

Probably the key to understanding our lesson from Mark lies in a picture of Jesus with a child on his lap. Not some Sunday School art picture with a bright-faced little cherub perched upon the Lord’s knee, but the Greco-Roman picture of children, which is to say no picture at all. No group in that society were more voiceless than children. Jesus does not so much want to point out that we are to adopt a childish attitude in order to receive him, rather it is precisely our attitude toward the child, who stands for all the world’s helpless, that nominates us for great office in the kingdom of God.

We share the disciples’ fear when we are afraid to take up our cross and, obeying Jesus, support the helpless, to throw ourselves in the way of governments and economic interests that would bully those who cannot defend themselves, to take up the part of the homeless, powerless, voiceless, loveless, worthless creatures of humanity. That is what the child is meant to represent. If we do not understand why Jesus was so insistent about the inevitability of his suffering and death, we must return to the image of the child, the helpless one, who in the most ultimate sense, sits on Jesus’ lap in our place.

It’s the little things.

“Menachem Schneerson, a famous Lubavitcher rabbi from Brooklyn, used to stand every week for hours as thousands of people filed by to receive his blessing or his advice about matters great and small. Once someone asked him how he, who was in his 80s, could stand for so long without seeming to get tired. The rabbi replied, ‘When you’re counting diamonds you don’t get tired.’”[3]

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Last of All,” in Bread of Angels, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1997, pp. 131-135.

[2] C. Clifton Black, “Return of the Double-Mind,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, February, 2001, p. 85

[3] Joel Markus, “Counting Diamonds,” Christian Century, August 30-September 6, 2000, p. 861.