Then they came to Capernaum; and 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. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:33-37)
The Disciples were arguing on the road. They were debating among themselves as to who was the “greatest” of Jesus’ followers. Who did Jesus like the most? Who had the greatest influence with the master? Who, among them, was their Lord’s “right hand man?” They were not listening to what Jesus was saying, and even if they were they were not comprehending the overwhelming importance and implication of his words. Indeed, the very fact that they were having this argument demonstrates that they were “missing it.”
After all, they were Jews of the 1st Century. They were expecting a Messiah, yes, but not one who would be betrayed and killed! They were looking for a Messiah who would be King! They were looking for a Messiah who would defeat the occupying armies of the Roman Empire and reestablish the Kingdom of David on Earth. They were looking for a victorious Messiah, a conquering Messiah, a grand and powerful Messiah ... not a mess in the eyes of the world, not a failure who could be betrayed, arrested, convicted, and put to death! That’s not a Messiah! But that is what Jesus was telling them to expect. Since they didn’t like, couldn’t accept, and wouldn’t understand what he was saying, they began to argue among themselves.
Even today, such a reaction is not at all uncommon or unexpected. When Christians lose their focus on what Jesus calls us to do and be, we often end up arguing amongst ourselves about issues that are of little eternal consequence. Rather than focusing upon the Lord’s will, we get sidetracked into debates on fine points of theology and we start to argue about personalities and church politics. It’s like a family driving in a car on a long road-trip. Because they’re bored or don’t have anything to do, the kids in the back seat start fighting among themselves. At first the disputes start small, but they can and often do quickly escalate from “will you stop touching me!” and “Stay on your side of the car” to “Mom, Chuck hit me!” The church is just like a family: When we lose our focus upon what Jesus calls us to do and be we end up fighting and arguing among ourselves. Not much has changed since Jesus’ day, has it?
“What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus had asked, and the Disciples had no response. They knew that they had been caught, and that Jesus wasn’t at all pleased, and so there was really nothing for them to say. Given the nature of their argument, however, Jesus’ next words must have left them utterly baffled: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
That just doesn’t make any sense. Leaders lead ... they don’t serve! Those who go first go first ... they don’t go last!” At least ... that’s how the world looks at things. And, I’m sure, that’s how the disciples viewed it too. Messiah’s don’t die ... they are the “anointed ones” who whip up on the bad people and deliver victory to he righteous! And, yes, Jesus could have been precisely what they were expecting him to be. He could have overthrown the armies of Caesar and established the Kingdom of God on Earth by sheer virtue of his power as God incarnate in human flesh. But that wasn’t God’s will. Jesus knew that what was needed was more than just a temporal victory over the Roman occupation armies and the establishment of an Earthly Kingdom. What God was producing, in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was a true, eternal victory over the powers and forces of darkness ... over sin and death itself! And to achieve such a victory, Jesus -- the King of kings and Lord of lords -- would have to become a servant of all and die for all.
Jesus knew and accepted this truth, and was trying to communicate it to his Disciples when:
... he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We are called to welcome the least, the last, and the lost. Our focus is to be upon welcoming the child ... both literally and figuratively. We are called to welcome the children and youth of our community as well as all of those who are “children in the faith.” This is Jesus’ call to us are we doing it? Or, are we focused upon the wrong thing and, like the Disciples, are we being naughty children … sitting in the back seat of God’s car ignoring his Word while arguing among ourselves?
Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Mesquite, Texas, and an Ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity Graduate College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Biblical Studies, Languages, Systematic Theology, Liturgy, and the Sacraments. He has taught New Testament Studies, Biblical Greek, and courses on the Theology of the Sacraments in UM Schools of Mission, Continuing Education Seminars, and in undergraduate courses across the country. As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, both of which are available from Koinonia Press through your local bookstore, on the internet at Amazon.com, and in the Grace Incarnate Store. You are invited to read Dr. Neal's academic papers and theological articles on his website at Writings, and you are encouraged to listen to Dr. Neal's Messages online in Real Player format.
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