Then they left that place and were passing through Galilee. Jesus didn’t want anyone to know it, for he was teaching his disciples and saying to them, “The Son of Man will be betrayed into human hands. They will kill him, but after being dead for three days he will be raised.” They didn’t understand what this statement meant, and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum. While Jesus was at home, he asked the disciples, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
So he sat down and called the twelve. He told them, “If anyone wants to be first he must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and had him stand among them. He took him in his arms and said to them, “Whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Q: What did John the Baptist, Atilla the Hun and Alexander the Great all have in common?
A: They all had the same unusual middle name – ‘the’.
It’s not a common middle name any more (‘the’), and neither is Alexander’s surname (‘great’), though it’s not hard to come up with a goodly number of ‘great’ historical figures: ‘Herod the Great’, ‘Peter the Great’, ‘Alfred the Great’ and a host of other ‘great’ men (and perhaps some women).
Perhaps there are some who stil aspire to the name, for the truth is that deep down all of us, even if we don’t aspire to the title, would nonetheless like to be ‘great’. And not just great at what we do, but ‘great’ in the sense of perceived as being great, in the same way the disciples in today’ Gospel reading wanted to be ‘great’. It’s sorta natural.
Sigmund Freud was a brilliant man. I know he doesn’t get a lot of good press in church circles, but as R.D. Laing said of Freud, “no one went down further, stayed down longer, or came up dirtier than he did”.
Freud, as you may know, believed that the lust for pleasure was at the basis of all human behaviour. Human beings naturally move towards pleasure and away from pain, and this is the basis of all human behaviour, said Freud. And I’m sure that there is indeed a great degree of truth in Freud’s analysis.
Alfred Adler though, who came somewhat after Freud, suggested that there was an even more fundamental driving force at work in the human psyche – greater still than our natural desure for pleasure, and it is the lust for power!
We human beings want to be significant. We want to be ‘somebodies’. None of us wants to live his or her life as a ‘nobody’ and die in obscurity and be remember for nothing. No, we want to be ‘somebodies’. We want our life to count for something. We want to achieve something, and ultimately, get the recognition and authority and greatness that comes with being a somebody. In the end we want to be powerful. This, Adler suggests, is the fundamental driving, motivating force behind all human behaviour.
Now it’s not my place to promote the teachings of Freud or Adler of course, and yet I think we do well to recognise that there is a great degree of truth in both analyses, and perhaps especially in Adler’s recognition of the role our individual yearning for significance (or lust for power) plays in our behaviour.
We want to be great. We would like to be the greatest. And so we hang out with important people. We aim at securing big jobs for ourselves so that we can earn big salaries and live in big houses, because we want to be big!
And that’s not just true for us, but has been true for every human being throughout human history which is why it should not surprise us to find Jesus’ disciples (even in the midst of a discussion about their masters impending suffering and death) discussing amongst themselves which one of them was to be the greatest.
And how does Jesus respond to this? He presents a child to them and says, “Whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
What an odd thing to do! Why a child? Was Jesus trying to break their concentration by focussing them on something cute? That’s probably not it..
Was He wanting to offer the child as an example to them? He does that elsewhere (“Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God” – Matthew 18:3). But the exhortation here is not to be like little children but to accept them – not to emulate them but to be open to them.
For the whole point of the child is that the child is not great – not in the society in which Jesus was teaching especially. Children are weak, vulnerable, needy, and they contribute nothing to the social process.
In the society of Jesus’ day children were not worth very much. Infant mortality rates were high, and children were always the first to suffer from famine, disease, war and dislocation. According to one study I read, up to 60 per cent of children in those regions did not make it to hteir 16th birthday! Hence a minor was on par with a slave, and only after achieving maturity could they become a full human being and inherit the family estate.
Yet Jesus says ‘this is the person I identify with. This is the person you need to be spending time with. She is the one who needs you. She is the one you need to receive and welcome, for when you receive her you receive me (and when you receive me, you receive not only me but Him who sent me!).
We want to be powerful. We want to be significant. But Jesus’ bias is always towards the marginalised, the powerless, the vulnerable and the insignificant.
“When you do something for the least of these, my brethren”, says Jesus, “you do it for me” (Matthew 25:31ff) and when you receive one of these you receive me.
Here we are, wanting to be great and engage ourselves in important things and hang with great and important people, while Jesus urges us to hang with the weak and the vulnerable, and tell us that “If anyone wants to be first he must be last of all and servant of all.”
And Jesus, of course, doesn’t just teach us this in words. He modelled it. And the proof of that is the fact that He was able to produce a child at all!
I don’t know how you envisage the scene. We’re told at the beginning of the passage that Jesus had been travelling with his disciples and that he didn’t want everybody knowing where they were, as He was spending some private time with them, and yet, in the middle of His teaching them something, he suddenly produces a child!
Where does the child come from? Does he produce the child like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat? No! Evidently there were children there. Even when the multitudes had gone home and it was just Jesus and his closest group of followers with Him, there were evidently still children in the group, (and women no doubt).
Only the twelve get an explicit mention by the Gospel writer, but evidently it went without saying that wherever Jesus was there would always be children and women, and any number of other persons that society would not have deemed worthy of mention, but who were in fact the very persons that Jesus most identified Himself with!
Now, I appreciate that some pieces of Scripture are difficult to understand. This piece of Scripture is NOT one of them, is it, and yet we somehow continue to fail to get the message!
Salvador Dali said, “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since!”
We want to be faithful to Jesus, but we want to be great too – to be successful, to be significant, to be winners – to move in the winners circle, hang with the great ones, and be remembered as somebody who was really somebody. It’s only natural! The only problem is that this is not compatible with the Gospel. In fact it is something more akin to Nazism!
Now I know ‘Nazism’ is a provocative term, and I know when we hear the world ‘Nazi’ we think of murder and violence, the people who tried to kill my grandfather and perhaps, most especially, the horrors of the holocaust.
What we are prone to forget though, I think, is that before Nazism developed into a worldwide machinery of death, it was, in essence, a simple philosophy that, exulted the strong and despised the weak.
Beware! Exulting human strength and despising the weak – this is the path of Nazism, and the road to the cross runs in exactly the opposite direction.
Those of us who would follow Jesus down that road must disavow worldly ambition and the lust for power, and instead we must open our hearts and our homes to the weak and the vulnerable, recognising that when we open ourselves to these little ones, we receive Jesus in the process!
For the first will be last and the last will be first, for He is bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly! And so “If anyone wants to be first he must be last of all and servant of all.”
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, September 2009.