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 about 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.’
Nobody Wants to Be Last In Line: Mark 9:20-37
I want to describe to you today what was a nearly daily experience at my elementary school. Our teacher would ask us to leave our desks and go stand in line to go to lunch. The tricky thing about lines, though, is that there is always a beginning to the line and an end to the line. And, nobody, nobody wanted to be last in line. It's like we worried that they'd run out of food by the time we got in the cafeteria. Or, that there would be no seats and we'd have to sit on the floor. Trust me... neither of those things was going to happen. And, yet, here we were jostling and conniving to try to get to the front of the line. We all wanted to be as close to first as possible. Thankfully, our teachers did not let us have a free-for-all as we left our desks to line up. We had to walk. We couldn't punch anybody. We weren't supposed to skip line. As you can tell, standing in line was very serious business back in the halls of Carter Elementary School.
I couldn't help but think of angst of the lunchroom line when I read today's scripture from the Gospel of Mark. There is definitely some serious arguing about line placement happening in these verses. Except, instead of third-graders vying for more quick access to the water fountain, we have adults, grown people who have been following Christ, arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Now, you might expect kids to argue about something like who gets to be first in line. You probably hope that the first followers of Christ wouldn't be so petty. I mean, they're grown-ups... and they hung out with Jesus. But, let's not forget, grown-ups are ridiculous sometimes, and this particular set of grown-ups are often portrayed as quite the knuckleheads.
So, we probably shouldn't be surprised that they decided to argue about status right in the midst of their healing ministry in Galilee. Some important, scary things had been happening, and it was probably far easier for them argue about silly things than to deal with the very serious things that had been going on around them. I think they needed a distraction because Jesus had been talking about death and resurrection, and they were really not prepared to deal with that. So, they argued, and tried to distance themselves from all of the hard things happening around them. I guess I could cut them a little slack. Their life with Jesus was getting increasingly tense. They'd spent a bunch of time in Gentile territory, a place that is not usually safe for them, and had watched Jesus perform some amazing miracles for people that they had all been taught to fear. Jesus had also begun to ask them serious questions, like who do people say that he was. They were hearing all kinds of wild things: some people thought he was Elijah or John the Baptist come back to life. Peter said that he was the Messiah and then Jesus told all of them not to tell anybody else about him.
Some other weird stuff had happened, too. A couple of them had seen something weird with Jesus up on the mountain. He might have been glowing and maybe two holy visitors appeared. It might have been Elijah and Moses. Maybe they even heard the voice of God while they were there. But, they weren't sure. They couldn't trust their eyes. And, they weren't supposed to talk about it. Jesus asked them not to, at least until later. Then other disciples had tried to heal a young boy, but couldn't. He yelled at them. He then healed the boy. But, they still didn't know what was going on.
As if all these strange visions, thwarted healings, and secret revelations weren't enough, Jesus had begun to talk about dying. He told them about the Son of Man having to suffer. They were all sure that he was the Son of Man, and death was no welcome news. He said that the Son of Man would be rejected and killed. When Peter heard him talk about this, he was scared and rebuked Jesus. Jesus rebuked him right back, saying that Peter was too distracted by his fear to understand the whole picture. He also told them that to truly follow him would mean that they would risk danger as well. They would need to lose their lives in order to gain true life. Now, I don't know about you, but this sounds pretty daunting to me. I think it did to the disciples, too. Daunting enough that we he brought it up a second time, as we heard at the beginning of today's reading, they were too afraid to ask him to explain what he meant. If he clarified himself, they might have to hear that yes, he was really going to die. They definitely weren't ready for that, so they decided to argue instead. They decided to argue about who was the greatest. They decided to push and pull to try to get to the front of the line.
Jesus seems to have heard their argument. He rather pointedly asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" They were so embarrassed that they didn't even answer. They knew that this argument was silly and not worth their energy. They couldn't even bring themselves to apologize because that would mean that they'd have to admit what they'd done. Jesus then answered the question that they were too embarrassed to ask. He explained how you become great. He said, "Whoever want to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Now, in the days and weeks prior, he had already explained that following him meant losing one's life. The explanation that he offered that day took that image of sacrifice one more step. He explained that sacrifice isn't just suffering for suffering's sake. He described sacrifice with a point... sacrifice with service in mind.
Let's return to our example of our lunchroom line. Jesus asked his followers to let everyone cut in line ahead of them. When you let someone in front of you, you make the statement that you are comfortable getting access to whatever you wanted after other people get access to it first. It means that you are willing to let your classmates get first crack at the grilled cheese sandwiches and fried okra that you're having for lunch that day. It means that someone else gets to be the first one outside on the playground to claim a swing. It means that you have learned to step aside and say, "You can go first" in order to make sure that the new kid gets a turn with the jump rope and that you get at the back of the line on purpose because other people might need to get a drink out of the water fountain before you do. You have learned to see being last not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to allow someone else to go first.
Now Jesus uses a different example when he talked to his disciples, but one that still involves kids. He grabs a kid, and holds the little one in his arms, saying "whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." Now, it must be noted, that this kid probably looks a little different than the kids you are imagining right now. This is kid is not the little neon-clad, scrunchy-sporting kid that I would have stood in line with back in elementary school. Childhood was very different during Jesus' era. Infant and childhood mortality was very high. Most of the people he spent his time with would have been very poor and would have had a hard time feeding their children. And, there was a good chance that some families had more kids than they could care for, given that they do not have the benefit of modern-day contraceptives. These children's parents would have had to work hard everyday to scrape together enough to get by. The average child that Jesus would have met would have been scrawny, dirty, and sickly. In the social hierarchy that shaped every daily interaction, children would have been just one step from up the bottom. Children were not coddled or catered to. They were among the most vulnerable people in the whole population and had very little status.
When Jesus spoke of welcoming children, he was telling his followers to serve the people who were most in need and least able to return the favor. He was saying that we need to help people who need it, not people who will then turn around and do something for us return. We aren't called to serve others to make ourselves to look better. We are called to serve the people who need it regardless of their ability to respond in kind. This is the kind of service that Jesus said makes you great. True service is service that sees those most in need. It is service that helps them, whatever the cost. Even if it means that you get stuck at the back of the line. Even if it means risking your life. What does that mean for us today? Who are the people who are at the bottom of the social ladder, and have the least ability to return any help they receive?
In our time, if we are welcoming people the same way that Jesus welcomed children, that means that we can't just look at refugees from the drug wars in Central America and the civil wars in the Middle East and ask if they really deserve the asylum that they are begging for. I think it also means that we examine our current drug policies and ask if they are actually helping addicted people change their lives. Our current policies treat people with addictions primarily as criminals, with far too little attention to treating addiction as a disease. Using all of our community resources to arrest people, while taking money from treatment programs will not actually help the people who struggle most with addiction. People with addiction, especially if they have committed crimes to feed that addiction, are at the bottom of our social ladder right now. If we are following Christ's example, we will find a way to serve those who struggle with addiction. They are the least of these right now. And, we have been called by Christ to let them in line in front of us.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Micah D. Kiel's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2620
Karoline Lewis, "The Nature of Faith," https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3682
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Amy Oden's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1356
Alyce M. McKenzie's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=393
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.