Sometimes I think the most amazing thing about Jesus is the patience he has with his disciples. Today’s Gospel reading is a good example. Jesus is trying to tell the disciples something important.
He knows that his time on earth is nearing an end, and he wants to prepare them for his death. “Someone will betray me,” he says. “I am going to be killed.”
But he also wants them to know that his death is not the end. “Three days after I am killed I will rise again,” he says.
This amazing revelation is met by blank stares. Maybe, perhaps understandably, the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. Maybe, like most of us, they are uncomfortable talking about death, particularly the death of someone they love.
For whatever reason, the disciples seem to be afraid to ask Jesus any questions about his startling statement. Instead, they change the subject, beginning to talk and argue among themselves.
Jesus lets the moment pass. But when they reach their destination, he asks his friends, “What were you arguing about on the way here?”
There is a long moment of embarrassed silence. Then finally someone admits what the argument has been about – who among them is the greatest.
No one is closer to Jesus than the disciples. They travel with him, eat with him, pray with him. He teaches them and gives them authority to heal the sick in his name. And yet, they all too frequently just don’t get it.
Jesus calls the disciples to follow him, and they do, thinking that their closeness to him will provide them with opportunities for privilege, power, and position. Jesus tells his closest companions that he will be betrayed, will suffer and die – they respond by arguing who among them is the greatest.
Sometimes I am amazed at the disciples’ lack of understanding, and wonder why Jesus puts up with them. But then I have to remind myself that the disciples are, indeed, a lot like us. Their concept of greatness is not unlike ours today.
Privilege, power, and position. Whoever has the most of these things is the greatest in the disciples’ eyes, and in ours.
Those who we single out for greatness are most often. those with money, fame, and power – those who can fulfill their own desires or impose their will on others. That was the disciples’ measure of success and greatness, and it is ours today.
But Jesus measures greatness not by power or fame or strength or wealth, but by service. He looks at his disciples and says, “You want to be great? This is how you do it. If you want to be great, if you want to be first in the kingdom of God, you won’t get there through competition or shoving others aside, or amassing power and wealth.
“If you really want to be great in God’s eyes, then you’ll settle for being last. You’ll quit trying to see how many people you can get to serve you, and instead look for ways that you can be of service to others.
“And the less important and powerful a person is, the more you are obligated to serve them.”
And then to prove his point, Jesus takes a child, embraces her in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”
It is hard for us to understand the impact of this example. In Jesus’ day, children were non-persons with no rights at all. To place a child in the midst of a circle of adult men was a tremendous breach of social custom.
Children were supposed to be invisible in the world of men. They were separated, part of the realm of women’s work and world.
Jesus is not holding the child up as an example of innocence, trustfulness, or naiveté. It is the child’s lowly status that Jesus points to.
“Whoever welcomes this lowly child welcomes me,” Jesus says. The vulnerable, powerless, socially invisible child is a stand-in for Jesus and for God. How we treat children determines our greatness in God’s eyes.
Maybe we think that if that’s how God measures greatness, then we must be doing OK. After all, our children are not socially invisible – they are the center of our lives.
We make sacrifices to make sure they get the best education possible, we expose them to every opportunity we can. Most of us gladly put their needs before our own.
But just a glance at any week’s headlines tells us that too many children in our country are still vulnerable, still of low status, still invisible to the powerful of the world. We may say children are a high priority in this country, but too often our actions say otherwise.
Children going to school across the country are at risk for the coronavirus, but many governors and school boards refuse to require students and teachers to wear masks, or to require vaccinations for those old enough to get them. Meanwhile, ICU beds in children’s hospital are filling up and children make up almost a third of new Covid cases.
One in six American children lives below the poverty line. Millions of children in the richest country in the world go to bed hungry or do not have access to adequate health care.
Educator Jonathan Kozol has spent his life writing about the needs of our nation’s poorest children. He tells of kids who stuff their pockets with chicken nuggets in the school cafeteria on Friday so that they will have something to eat on the weekends.
He writes of students in our nation’s capitol who show signs of battle fatigue from living in neighborhoods that are literally war zones.
One doctor calls them “children under siege.” They are, he says, “always suspicious, fatalistic, and impulsive. They live surrounded by the vivid symbols of their undesirable status: drugs and death, decay and destitution.”
Even children who live in safe neighborhoods may feel under siege at school, as they watch time and time again as their contemporaries are victims of mass shootings and the adults who are supposed to be their protectors do nothing.
And our children who have all their physical needs and wants met are under siege of a different kind — the pressure to succeed at all costs.
These children, though rich in possessions and opportunities, are also powerless and vulnerable. Their struggles to succeed can in their own way be as difficult as a poor child’s struggle to survive.
Jesus tells us that he is present among the powerless and vulnerable in our midst. When a child goes to bed hungry, Jesus’ stomach aches.
When a child cries in fear, Jesus’ face is wet with tears.
When a child begins to unravel under pressure to succeed, Jesus, too, is anxious.
Children, no matter what their circumstances, are still the most vulnerable people in our culture and throughout the world. And all too often those who devote their lives to caring for them — child care workers, teachers, stay-at-home moms and dads – are among the least regarded members of our society.
But in God’s eyes, they are among the greatest.