Sunday 23 September 2018
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25B
In last week’s gospel passage, we found Jesus struggling with his identity as God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah, God’s Christ. He knew that he was the Messiah. His disciples agreed that he was the Messiah. But they didn’t agree on what the Messiah was. Peter and the other disciples were expecting Jesus to be a warrior, an insurrectionist. They knew that he had been gathering larger and larger crowds. He had been cultivating support in all of the towns and villages around Galilee. They expected that once he had enough support, he would call his followers to rise up in rebellion against Rome, that they would free Israel from Roman rule, that Jesus would become the new king in Jerusalem and usher in a golden age for the Jewish people. That’s why they keep spreading the news about Jesus, so that his support will grow and he can accomplish his mission.
But that is not what Jesus has in mind at all. He has a very different understanding about who the Messiah is supposed to be. He knows that whatever he does, Rome is going to see him as a potential rebel leader. That’s why he tells his disciples to keep quite about him. The quicker his fame grows, the quicker Rome is going to decide that he is too dangerous to allow to live. And Jesus isn’t planning to fight back. He’s going to keep on preaching the revolutionary message of God’s Kingdom, but he’s not going to take up arms. When the authorities finally come for him, he will make no resistance. He will allow himself to be betrayed, captured, tortured, and killed. He will die a martyr’s death. But then, to the surprise of everyone, he will be raised, proving that his message is stronger than Rome. His message is even stronger than death.
Of course, this is all nonsense to Jesus’s disciples. They seem to really think that he has lost sight of God’s mission for him. Peter takes him aside to privately correct him, to make sure that he doesn’t forget that he is supposed to bring God’s justice by establishing God’s Kingdom here on earth. How can one do that without an army and some military victories.
“Enough with all this crazy suffering and dying talk, Jesus,” Peter says. “You’re scaring the crowds. You’ve got to pull yourself together and get on with the business of revolution.”
But Jesus will have none of it. And he utters those immortal words to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You have your eyes on worldly things, not Godly things.” And so now in today’s reading, when Jesus starts up on his suicidal tirade again, everyone is too afraid to call him out on his absurd ideas.
So if Jesus can’t figure out his proper place in the world, at least the disciples can try to figure out theirs. And so they spend their time walking along the road trying to sort out their pecking order. If Jesus isn’t going to step up, then someone has got to get this movement going, at least until he comes to his senses. And so they need to know who their leader is, and who will be second in command, and who will look after the money, who will be in charge of rounding up new recruits, who will handle publicity. It’s a very reasonable thing to do. If this movement is going to grow, it’s going to need organization, it’s going to need leadership. And so they very naturally discuss among themselves who is the greatest.
But when Jesus asks them what they’re talking about, they all know right away that he’s not going to approve. And sure enough, he doesn’t. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” This is not the news they want to hear. I mean it’s one thing if Jesus wants to be a self-effacing nut, but now he’s trying to turn the whole world upside down. Whoever wants to be first has to be last? What kind of sense does that make? These are blue collar working men. They’ve spent enough time being last; now it’s finally time to be first.
But Jesus really is turning the world upside down, and he proves it with what he does next. He takes a little child in his arms and gives them an object lesson. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me but the one who sent me.”
To us today, this story sounds sweet. It sounds touching. It inspires all kinds of soft-focus paintings hung in church nurseries and Precious Moments cartoons on the covers of children’s bibles. We love putting children at the center of attention. We love hearing all the cute things they say and watching all the endearing things they do. Look at Jesus and the little children. Aren’t they sooo cute. Like. Share.
It was quite different in the ancient world. Children really were at the bottom of society. The Greek word used here for “child” is the diminutive form of the word used for slave. And children were considered slaves until they became adults. Children were property. With infant mortality rates at 30% and only 4 in ten children surviving to age 16, it was best not to get too emotionally invested. Children, while important for ensuring the family legacy, were essentially disposable. No one would bother with welcoming a child, or accepting a child, or offering hospitality to a child. It was simply not the way of things. In order to understand the meaning, we might need to think of someone who is at the bottom of our society. Perhaps imagining Jesus encouraging us to welcome a homeless person or an illegal immigrant in his name.
Jesus really is turning the world upside down. He’s telling anyone who wants to be first that they have to be last. And he’s telling his followers that if they want to do a favor for him, the very Son of God, then they should try serving the people at the very bottom of society, the outcastes, the powerless. The powerful being brought down, the powerless being lifted up.
We are often quite good at twisting Jesus’s words, though. I can just imagine Jesus’s disciples turning to one another after Jesus has walked on, and saying, “Well you know, I really am the humblest one here.” I can’t help but think of Weird Al’s song, “Amish Paradise,” and the lyric, “Think you’re really righteous, think you’re pure in heart? Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art.” We really like being better than our neighbors, and if that means fighting over who is the most humble, we certainly will not let irony get in our way.
But perhaps the worst way that this text has been twisted is by using it to convince the powerless that they should be satisfied with their lot in life. It’s precisely the opposite of what Jesus is trying to say, but still we have too often convinced the oppressed that if they want to be first in God’s Kingdom, then they should be quiet about what they have to endure here on earth. And then it is used as an excuse and a means to exploit vulnerable people even more. Women and people of color in our society have been especially targeted with this false message of false piety, and many have suffered abuse in silence for years because someone like me told them that it was their cross to bear. My sisters and brothers, that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus encourages his followers to become servants, not slaves. In fact, the word Jesus uses, διακονος, is where we get our English word “deacon.” Jesus calls his followers into a sacred service, a service that does not seek glory or praise, but a service that does not countenance the continued oppression of the underclasses, a service that does not abide the widening gap between the rich and the poor, a service that does not stand idly by as those with the most exploit those with the least in order to take even more for themselves.
And so yes, we are called to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ, especially those who are most forgotten by society: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the alien. We are called to service, not to slavery. We are called to humility, not to humiliation. We are called to endure whatever may be necessary to follow Jesus, but not to seek out trouble in order to make ourselves appear more pious. And we are called to do all we can to advance the transformative and liberating power of the God’s Kingdom in our midst.
Not an easy thing to do. The first disciples didn’t understand it right away. And we also often get confused. But now is the time. Jesus is calling. If you want to be first, then become the servant of all.