Sep 22, 2012
Greatness = Cross, Servant & Child (Late and rushed this week) The full text is below rather than just a blog. There are a couple of questions near the end.
Focus reading: Mark 9:30-37
When we think of children in Australia in the 21st century we think of them very differently to how they were thought of in the ancient world. The world of the Bible. For us children are precious. They are human beings like us adults with almost the same set of rights that adults have. They do not have the same responsibilities but they have many or most of the same rights. Indeed there is even a United Nations convention on the rights of the child. When there is a divorce and there are children involved, in our culture, the children's well being is put ahead of the parents. The children their needs and not the adults and their needs come first.
The world of the New Testament was very different. In no culture did children have any rights. In Greek and Roman culture children were considered to be property. The Father of the household could sell, kill, beat, neglect, or hire out his children without any fear of being brought before the courts. Moreover Children were lower down the pecking order than the household slaves. A slave who had charge of a child could and was often expected to beat a child if he or she misbehaved, or if they did poorly at their lessons. In Jewish culture you couldn't kill a child but you could do pretty much anything else with them.
If we turn to servants, we find a similar picture. Many servants were slaves, and free servants were often freed slaves. A servant could be part of a household, but an adult servant was of the least importance in that household. Least important were the children, next the slaves, next the free servants, and then the adult members of the family with the Father or Grandfather as the head. In some ways though servants were in a worse position than the children, because even though they had more rights, we know from the historical record that children have always been loved by their parents. Inscriptions on gravestones tell of the love of Fathers and mothers for their young and even infant daughters or sons. You will not find many if any such ancient inscriptions about servants. We see this even in the saying of Jesus "no servant is greater than his master" Jesus says in John 13:16.
In Jewish culture the most despised of all people was the false prophet. While someone who died in battle or was martyred could be honoured in death, someone who was declared to be a false prophet or a blasphemer and was put to death, and publically exposed was regarded as under the curse of God. To be condemned by the elders, chief priests and the scribes and then to be Killed publically by exposure on a Roman cross condemned as a false prophet and a false king was just about the worst thing that could happen to a Jewish man. Only someone who was under the curse of God could suffer such a fate. Yet that is what happened to Jesus. The notion that a cross could in any sense be seen as a sign of love or forgiveness or hope let alone life would have been virtually impossible for the people of Jesus time. It is not surprising that the disciples did not understand him. No-one in his culture could or would have.
They wouldn't have understood what he was saying about servants either. Greatness in the ancient world was about position. In our world it is about wealth or fame. In Jesus' world it was about your position in the community. The closer you were to the King, or the priest or the great teacher, like Jesus who may have been both a great teacher and the next king, the greater you were. That's what the disciples were arguing about on the road. Which one of us will be the closet to Jesus when he becomes King. Which one will be the next high priest, which one will be his general, which one will be Elisha to his Elijah, his sucsessor. They know that Jesus doesn't really think that way so they are a bit embarrassed when he asks them what they're talking about. So he then talks about being great being a servant. There's really no equivalent to this in our culture but the closest I think I can come is a Junior working at McDonald's. It is possible to build a career at McDonald's but for most young people who get a job there it is just a bit of cash while they are at school to spend now or save for later studies. It is not a real job and it is not a real restaurant. Moreover lots of people look down on McDonald's as being unhealthy, and part of an exploitative global juggernaut. No one aspires to have that job as their lifelong vocation. Jesus is saying then something like the greatest person in the kingdom of God needs to become like a junior sales assistant in a fast food chain and hold that job for life.
Now in the ancient world humility before God and people in authority was important, so just to make sure the disciples can't miss the message he tells them that they must welcome the child. They must honour the one who is even lower than a servant or a slave. There is a great temptation, even in the church for us to want the important people to come amongst us. I don't know anything about Mr Berghoffer except that he's a very wealthy property developer. But imagine if he came to faith and decided that he would worship at St Stephen's. Or imagine if the world's richest woman Gina Reinhart moved to Toowoomba and decided to worship here, what would that mean to us? I've heard more than one member of the congregation say they wish someone in the church could give us a grand piano, but Jesus says that it is in welcoming the least that we welcome him, and when we welcome him, we welcome the one who sent him. We welcome God the Father.
What makes this even more powerful is that the early church, the Gospel writers and I all have the belief that Jesus was the Son of God, truly God and truly human. God chose to become one of us to live our life and die our death. God chose to become a helpless child who could give us nothing in his first weeks, if not years of life except his need. At the end of his life he dies, helpless and exposed on a Roman cross, with noting to give except his death and his vulnerability. Whenever we welcome someone like this, someone who is helpless or vulnerable we welcome Christ and we welcome God. We welcome the little helpless one. We welcome the child.
A young child in the 21st century and in the 1st century can not give us anything of monetary value. They will not put money in the offering plate. They can not meaningfully volunteer for the garage sale. They can not preach a sermon or read the bible. And as I said earlier - in the ancient world, they did not really count for anything. We are called then to serve the children amongst us. We are called to serve the least. The least may not only be children. They may be anyone who can-not contribute to the church but brings only their need. This may be an older person on only a pension. It may be a person who has been knocked down by the circumstances of their life, someone recently divorced or bereaved, someone deeply hurt. It may be someone with a disability or a mental illness. Indeed it is any person who comes with only their helplessness and need.
Who are the little children, the outsiders, in our community who we should be serving and welcoming?
What can and will we/you do to serve them?
Finally, as I did three years ago I want to finish with a word of encouragement. There are times when all of us are the least, are the little children. There are times when we are helpless, when we have nothing to give, but must receive. This was true when we were born. We were helpless, unable to give anything but our need. It happens too when sometimes when we are exhausted or grieving. It can happen when we become very ill or lose our job, or even when we get lost in a strange place. It is at those times that Jesus says you are the most important, the most welcome. It is at those times that God is the closest to you and says identifies with you. This after all is the New Testament story of Jesus. The one became a helpless child and died helplessly on a cross that even in our helplessness we are embraced by the love of God. Amen.