They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
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."
When I was in seminary, we often left the doors to classrooms open during instruction; however, some of the classes included more personal sharing. Sometimes the things we talked about were difficult to hear and difficult to express and so someone would usually get up and close the door. When people get together and purposely close the doors, it often means that something very personal and private and important is happening, and in this week’s readings, Jesus is the one who wants to close the door.
Jesus often taught the disciples quite publicly, however – this week we are told that Jesus was “teaching his disciples” but “did not want anyone to know it” (9:30-31). This makes reading this week’s Gospel feel a little bit like eavesdropping – and what we are eavesdropping in on is Jesus, on the way through Galilee, telling the twelve that he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and that they will kill him, and that three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31).
This is the second of three of these so-called ‘passion predictions”; the second of three times in which Jesus attempts to teach the disciples about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection; the second of three times – all of them book-ended, or framed, so to speak, by two healings of blind men - in which Jesus tries to open the spiritual eyes of the disciples to truly see him for who he is and to understand that his greatness is not like that of a king leading an army in defeating the oppressor but just the opposite.
We learned about the first passion prediction last week. In last week’s reading, Jesus asked what the talk and gossip about him are in the villages and among the disciples and Peter – courageous and yet still somewhat naive Peter – called him by the right name – Messiah - but tried to impose his own image of what a messiah is onto Jesus. Jesus countered with telling him that THIS messiah isn’t like others, that this Messiah – Jesus – will have to suffer, die, and rise. And this week Jesus tries to teach all the disciples again and this time it is not only Peter who is not listening. Instead of listening, the disciples spend time arguing about who is the greatest. It is probably not so much that they can’t hear Jesus, but that they cannot quite grasp what he is saying and, as the text tells us, they are too afraid to ask him.
Afraid? Why afraid? Perhaps the Disciples share Peter’s view that Jesus is the Messiah, but they don’t want to be rebuked in the same way that he was. Perhaps they feel that they should have been paying more attention and should know and understand what Jesus is saying and asking a question meant to admit that they failed somehow. Perhaps they are worried that Jesus will think of them as ignorant and unworthy and yet they have invested so much in following him and being turned away now would feel like a failure? I think we can all empathize with that – fear of asking questions. I mean, how often don’t we ask for clarification because we don’t want to seem uneducated or inattentive. Or, perhaps, the disciples didn’t’ ask because they knew that having their eyes (and ears) opened meant to deal with the truth of Jesus’s words and that would mean to also wonder: If he had to suffer – would they be asked to suffer, too? If he had to die, would they have to die too? And instead of asking Jesus their questions, the disciples begin to argue – and they argue about who of them is the greatest - but remains silent when Jesus asks them what they argued about. Maybe they knew how wrong their argument was? Jesus, however, has heard their argument and knows, and so he sits down with them behind those closed doors and tries once again to teach them who he is and also who they – as those who follow him – are. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” Jesus teaches them and even illustrates what he is saying by taking a child, putting it on his lap, and telling the disciples that, “Whoever welcomes such a child, also welcomes him and thus also welcomes God”.
If we close our eyes and try to imagine that room and the disciples and Jesus with the child, the image we need to put to this is not the sweet, romantic picture from post-enlightenment paintings, because in the ancient world, Children were at the low end of the social order. Children were considered property and a liability. Children were tolerated as a necessity until such time that they were able to and expected to work or, if girls, be given to another family in marriage. Children had no power and no voice. So, what Jesus is telling the disciples is that true greatness does not rest with being the first or the strongest or the best at anything, but it rests with welcoming the lowly, the powerless, the vulnerable, the ones whose voices are not heard in the world. The world tells us that, “The one with the most toys wins!” and beauty matters – making wealth an indicator of success and ignoring the beauty that likes beneath the skin. We are constantly told what gadgets we must purchase now so that we can keep up with the Joneses - or maybe, even better, be a step ahead of them. All of this makes it so easy to forget that, in God’s economy, a contrite heart, a humble spirit, and a widow’s mite are greater than all the riches of the world – and age, gender, and beauty didn’t matter when God pronounced all of creation “good”.
In contrast to the disciple’s and the world’s images of greatness, true measures of greatness are service and empathy and sacrificing of self-interest for the greater good. And that is this greatness that God is calling us to strive for – not worldly greatness but true greatness; greatness of love, generosity, and gratitude, and this is a word we need to hear so very much, because, if we measure ourselves by the world’s standards, we’ll always come up short. We’ll never have or be enough of anything. By the world’s stands we won’t even have enough faith or do enough good works; we’ll never have enough education or knowledge or be righteous enough to stand in God’s sight. But Jesus says, the first will be last and the last will be first – and whatever it is that we give away or share – be it love or time or treasure - that is what matters when it comes to greatness. Jesus tells us: Want to save your life, then lose it. Want to be truly great – then forget about climbing up any worldly ladders but instead reach out to and love and support others and especially the vulnerable and powerless and voiceless ones.
Jesus treasured what society dismissed. He didn’t care to be called messiah if it put him up on a pedestal, he didn’t care who can quote all the laws, he didn’t care what people left behind to follow him, and he didn’t care what position of power a person held. Instead, what mattered to Jesus was how his disciples served each other and those around them. Did they see the least and lost among them? Did they disregard the marginalized or did they seek to bring hope and healing?”
And Jesus is still asking these questions. He is asking them of us and of the church in every place and time.
How do we serve each other and those around us?
Do we see the least among us, in our communities, and in the world?
Do we disregard the marginalized or do we seek to bring hope and healing?
These are hard questions, and these are difficult questions – and by all means these may be closed door questions - and if we answer too quickly, as Peter did in last’ week’s reading or if we fail to engage the questions – the way the disciples failed to when Jesus asked them what was on their minds, then we might miss the point.
These are not questions meant to point fingers or shame us or tell us we are not doing enough. These are not questions aimed at making us feel inadequate. But they are questions to remind us who we are and whom we follow. And they are an invitation for transformation - the transformation of ourselves and of the world.
Jesus continues to teach us that we are followers by taking up one’s cross, being last, and being a servant of all. Jesus asks us to rise up not in status but in caring for all of God’s children, including the poor, the children, the refugees, the disenfranchised, the differently-abled, the powerless, the voiceless, the victims of hate. And Jesus continues to call us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
What will we do in the name of Christ to ensure that all find the welcome Jesus entrusted us with so long ago? How will we go out of our way and throw the doors of the church open and invite and welcome all?
Spirit of the Living God – fall afresh on us – guide us, and teach us, we pray. Amen.