Forget About the Children
Mark 9: 30-37
You have to forget some things in order to understand this passage. Mainly, you have to forget about children.
Right now, I can hear a Simpsons character pleading, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!” [In case you haven’t seen what I’m talking about, take a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qh2sWSVRrmo] The answer is “no.” We have to forget all about that kind of children-first, precious darlings place we put children in contemporary American society.
You have to forget about Christmas cards that are mere excuses to show off the new pictures of the kids. You have to forget about every trophy you ever got just for showing up and participating. You have to forget about the kids who are allowed to tantrum in public because the restaurant is out of bendy straws. You have to forget about the kind of culture we live in where parents spend more time on the pre-pre-school applications for their children than they did on their own college applications. You have to forget about catering to children with children’s menus, where everything is bland and breaded and beige. You have to forget all that.
You might have to push your memory all the way back to the “seen and not heard” days of our philosophy about children. If you can get there then you’ll be closer to the way children were regarded in the time of Jesus.
At that time children had no rights, no power, no control. As hard as it may be to believe, children at that time had even fewer rights and less power than slaves (Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Hearing Mark, p. 64). Children were not innocent and cute; they were powerless and largely unseen.
I’m not sure we can really get there. When we read a passage like this, it is so hard to get our own cultural norms and assumptions out of the way. We see Jesus pick up a child (So adorable!) and put him on his lap (How sweet!) and our eyes go all fuzzy and we see the scene just like those dated Sunday school pictures of flowing-hair-blue-eyed-Jesus: slightly out of focus and completely innocuous and unchallenging.
I’m not sure we can really get there, that we can forget all of our own assumptions about children, so I am going to suggest that you picture it differently. When you read or hear Jesus reaching for the child and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (v. 37), and you are about to picture the cutest little, sweetest, cuddliest, most innocent child…stop! Put it from your mind. Stop that Simpsons voice and picture this instead…
Jesus is hanging out with his disciples under the highway overpass. It’s cold and damp and the homeless people nearby in their sleeping bags don’t smell good. Someone in the shadows is muttering to himself and he sounds angry. The disciples are not sure why they are here and they are ready to leave. But as Jesus is talking with them, he reaches into a ratty sleeping bag, coaxes the homeless man out, and pats his knee in invitation. Come on and sit on my lap, Jesus says to the bewildered and smelly man. He says to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such [homeless man] in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Or picture this: Jesus and his disciples leave the town square and head to the edge of town, to the nursing home. And with the disciples hanging back and whispering and wondering why they would have any discipleship business there, Jesus goes inside and wheels a woman out. She has dementia and doesn’t know Jesus. She has trouble answering simple questions about the weather. But Jesus holds her hand and looks her in the eyes and sits next to her in the warm sun. And he says to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such [old, forgetful, and forgotten person] in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Or you can picture this: The disciples are covering their faces with handkerchiefs because the stench from the chicken factory hangs heavy in the air. They hope he isn’t headed inside but he is. They wait in the parking lot, still arguing about who will be “director of disciples” and who will win “vice-Jesus.” They are in a heated debate and almost don’t notice when Jesus comes back out again with 100 people following him. Jesus heads for the shade of the trees where he has a sumptuous picnic spread out for the crowd. And he invites all of those undocumented factory workers to go to the head of the line and enjoy the feast. And he turns around to the disciples and says, “Whoever welcomes one such [undocumented immigrant] in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Have you forgotten about the children yet? Can you see what Jesus is getting at?
Jesus is lifting up the powerless, remembering the forgotten, paying attention to the overlooked, respecting those whom others consider “less than.” That’s what he means about welcoming a child in his name. That’s what we are supposed to hear when he gives these instructions for hospitality. We are to welcome the overlooked, powerless, uneducated, forgotten, diseased, vulnerable people as if we are welcoming Jesus – because in doing so, we are. This is our opportunity to demonstrate how much we love God. To live it, in the flesh.
It would have been easier if I would have just let us keep thinking he meant cute little well-mannered kids, wouldn’t it?
Last week I talked about how we sometimes get caught in the “supposed to’s,” where we are so sure about the way things are “supposed to” go, that we refuse to see what is actually happening. We can get stuck wishing our lives would fit some idea we once had and completely missing where our lives are going now. Jesus told the disciples where he was headed. He said pretty plainly that he would be rejected and suffer, be killed and rise again (Mk. 8: 27-38). When Peter tried to tell Jesus he had the story wrong Jesus rebuked him in front of everyone.
This week Jesus gives it another go. He says, again in very plain language, that he, the Son of Man, will be betrayed, killed, and then rise again. And Mark tells us that the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9: 31-32). As one commentator says of this verse, “Yeah, right” – “they understood enough to be afraid to ask to understand more” (Malbon, p. 63 (and Malbon quoting Ernest Best)).
So they fixate on the supposed to’s of the situation. Jesus is a great man and they are his disciples and this other stuff is scary and probably won’t turn out that way and, hey, didn’t he say “Son of Man”? That’s a cool title. Sounds impressive. I wonder if the Son of Man needs a vice president to help him out… The disciples hear one thing and their minds reel with the amazing possibilities of the supposed to’s. We’ll have corner offices and casual Fridays and our own expense accounts! Maybe I’ll get a secretary and paid vacation. People will ask us to christen ships and attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies. We’re disciples!
You can tell this is what they are thinking because all along the road to Capernaum they are jostling and arguing and one-upping each other. When they get there Jesus asks them about their arguments along the way and they say, Huh? Who, us? Talking? Ummm… Actually, Mark tells us they were silent, but sometimes silence speaks loudly, doesn’t it? Of course, Jesus already knows what they said, so, before he even picks up the child, he says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (v.35).
They argue about who’s first, who’s Jesus’ next in command. They aren’t arguing about who gets to go last, behind even the children. They aren’t vying to be the first to welcome the homeless person or the woman who can’t remember who she is or the undocumented strangers. No one is clamoring to be in line – at the end of the line – behind the barefoot and smelly homeless person.
But this is where Jesus tells us to be. Jesus says this kind of person is the kind of person who enters the kingdom. A child. A homeless person. An old woman with dementia. People far from home who live in fear of being deported. Vulnerable, poor, scared, forgotten, unnoticed, powerless.
In November we’ll be worshipping with the women at the Fluvanna prison. It’s a place of forgotten, powerless people. Prisoners don’t even have privacy when they go to the bathroom – every inmate restroom has a little window in it so the guards can keep an eye out at all times. You probably aren’t picturing criminals when you hear Jesus talking about that child. But you could. Jesus says very plainly in Matthew (25:36) that to visit the prisoner is to make a visit to Jesus himself.
It’s the same message: Jesus abides with the poor, powerless, and broken. It’s a guaranteed meet-up spot. I really hope you’ll make that trip with us. When we take the challenge to go into scary, unfamiliar places and meet strange people, it’s because we know Jesus said he’d be there and it’s also because we have each other along for the journey. Notice how Jesus doesn’t tell just one of the disciples – the one with “people skills” – that he should welcome the child/person with Alzheimer’s/homeless man/immigrant/prisoner? He’s got the group there and he says it to everyone.
Forget about the children and take the challenge Jesus presents here. Welcome these people. Provide a place for these people. When you do, you welcome Jesus. You welcome God.
Now, who’s coming to the prison with us to see Jesus?
Thanks be to God!
©2012 Deborah E. Lewis