Digging in Deeper: Mark 9:36-37

“He took a child, had him stand among them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one little child such as this in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but him who sent me.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Are you a humble person? That’s kind of a tough question to answer honestly. I mean, on the one hand, you don’t want to say, “No,” to it because you’ll be outing yourself as prideful. No one wants that. On the other hand, if you say, “Yes,” you’re also outing yourself as prideful because surely no one who was really humble would claim such a mantle for themselves. But, if you say, “No,” and you really are a pretty humble person, you’re lying about it and humble people are fundamentally honest about themselves and so you’re either humblebragging or being dishonest which are neither one marks of true humility. Next question please? Well, how about this one: How can you spot a humble person? That seems like it should be an easier one to answer, but sometimes people who act the most humble in public are the least humble in private. Thankfully, Jesus gives us a pretty good litmus test here.

The disciples were concerned – as all of us are – with being the best. They each wanted to be great. They knew they were associated with Jesus which automatically gave them a leg up on everyone else around them, but they needed to figure out what their internal pecking order was going to be. Jesus caught them debating this and took some time to offer them a worldview corrective. We started talking about this yesterday. Jesus told them that true greatness in the kingdom of God is found not in power and prestige, but in service and submission. As we said then, there really weren’t many things Jesus could have said that would have been more starkly countercultural than this. The idea that achieving greatness is accomplished chiefly by putting ourselves in the least recognized and most abused positions just seems silly.

Jesus didn’t stop there, though. Mark tells us the next thing He did was to call over a child and pick him up and sit him on His lap. Now, just to put a bit of a personal spin on what was happening here, remember this was all taking place in Capernaum. Capernaum was Jesus’ home base. But He didn’t have a home there Himself. If you’ll remember back two chapter 2 when we talked about Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus was staying there while He was in town. There’s a good chance that Peter’s mother-in-law’s house was where Jesus stayed whenever He was in town. Peter would have considered such a thing a high honor. If that was the case, this scene was likely unfolding in Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. Well, what young boy do you think might have been close by that Jesus could have called him over and given him a big hug? Perhaps one of Peter’s own children. Can you almost see Peter relating this story to Mark with a happy tear in his eye as he remembered the time Jesus so loved his own son?

In any event, Jesus calls over this young boy and says, “Whoever welcomes one little child such as this in my name welcomes me.” Listen with first century ears here. Jesus was the Messiah. The disciples were all clear on this point. Given that, in the culture of the day, welcoming someone into your home was an honorable thing to do. The higher the position of that person or the greater the reputation of that person, the greater the honor it was to welcome them into your home. Well, who was there with a greater position and reputation than the Messiah Himself? Welcoming Jesus would have been an incredibly honorable thing to do. Such an honor would have truly made someone great. It would have made someone greater than anyone else around them.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. “And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but him who sent me.” And who was it that sent Jesus? God the Father. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of Moses and Elijah. The God who created the world and everything in it. Well, God is the greatest being in the whole of creation. There is no one greater than Him. Period. If welcoming Jesus, the Messiah, into your home was an incredible honor, welcoming God Himself was even better. Someone who offered hospitality to the God of the universe – like Abraham did in Genesis 18 – would be the greatest person in their community for all time.

I say all of that because we don’t see this through the same lens the group gathered there around Jesus did. It doesn’t immediately make sense how Jesus’ call to serve others is connected to this call to receive children in His name. This is how. Showing hospitality in that culture was a path to greatness in a way it isn’t in our culture. On the other hand, it sort of is. If the President called and said he wanted to stay in your house (and if you don’t like this President, just go back in administrations until you find one you do like), you would consider that an incredible honor. It would give you an up on all your friends and neighbors for years. No matter what else might happen, the President stayed at your house. They couldn’t beat that. The same thing was true back then but even more so.

Let’s get back to Jesus’ point, though. How did He say a person could come by this incredibly high and greatness-conferring honor of playing host to not only Him, but God Himself (which, of course, was Him, but the disciples’ understanding didn’t go quite that far yet)? By welcoming “one little child such as this.” Now, keep that in mind for a few weeks, because in chapter 10 we are going to encounter a story that reveals the disciples didn’t remember this lesson much to Jesus’ frustration, but for now, let’s think about the position of children in the world. Today it’s pretty high. In fact, in some ways it is too high. We give too much deference to youth in general. Younger is not better simply because it is younger than older. Children are a gift and young people are wonderful, but there is rich treasure and wisdom in age.

In Jesus’ day, they tended to err in the opposite direction. While the position of children in the Jewish world was higher than in the broader Greco-Roman world, it still wasn’t very high. Children were burdensome nuisance until they could hold their own and contribute to the family. In the Roman world, children had almost no value at all. Abortion was common and infanticide was even more common. In some places not practicing infanticide (that is, killing your own baby) was a threat to the health and wellness of the community. Girls and all children with any sort of an obvious handicap were an unnecessary drain on resources that everyone else needed to survive. We have record of a loving letter from a husband serving in the military back to his wife at home in which he celebrates her pregnancy, but tells her that if she delivers while he is away and the child is a girl to “kill it.” That was the common mindset toward children.

Mark here goes out of his way to tell us this was a young child. Let’s assume this was Peter’s son. Peter would have been a young man. Perhaps he was only married a year or two before Jesus called him to be a disciple. If he started having kids right away, this boy could be no more than three or four years old. Toddlers cannot do anything to contribute to the household and therefore were considered of little value. In other words, Jesus was cradling in His arms one of the least-countenanced members of society.

And what did He say about him?

If you welcome a little child like this in my name, it’s the same as if you have welcomed me.

In other words, if you want to achieve the greatness that would come from showing hospitality to someone like me or even God Himself, the way to get it is to show kindness and hospitality to one like this little child who most of you consider to be among the least valuable members of society. That is, how you treat the weak and the vulnerable is a reflection of your relationship with me. If you want to achieve real greatness, be kind and gracious to those who can’t return the favor. Or perhaps to broaden that out even more, a great culture, a great society is marked by how it treats the most vulnerable of its population.

The implications of this are staggering – and sobering – if you think about it very long. Who are the most vulnerable in our culture? The poor, yes. And there is rightful attention given to their plight. Unfortunately, many of the most common ideas on how to improve their station and show them honor really only serve to perpetuate their poverty. Help that is truly helpful and not simply enabling at best, dehumanizing at worst, is hard to find. World News Group’s “Effective Compassion” podcast does a great job highlighting organizations who are getting it right.

Who else is vulnerable in our culture? The immigrants? Absolutely. And followers of Jesus should absolutely be involved in bringing the care and compassion of the Gospel to their situations. The mess we have on our southern border right now highlights an excellent way of getting this wrong. It is sad that both major political parties treat these folks as little more than a political football to be kicked around to score points rather than meaningfully working toward a compromise that will ease the crisis.

Who else? How about the very old? That’s a group that doesn’t have nearly as much political weight to their situation and so often gets much less attention. And yet, there are not many groups whose circumstances are more difficult than theirs. As a church, we should absolutely be involved in bringing hope and help and friendship to them. And of course we can’t forget those on the other end of life like Jesus highlighted here. Abortion is a stain on the world and our incredibly liberal abortion limits which put us in the company of nations whose governments have zero value for human life like China and North Korea should be a mark of a great deal more shame for us than they are. Steering our culture back to a place where sex was only enjoyed within the context of a committed marriage would go a long way toward solving this problem, but not all the way.

We all want to be great. We want our nation to be great. Jesus here tells us how. Greatness is found in welcoming and valuing the weak and the vulnerable. How a person treats the least of these is how you know they are truly humble. How a nation treats the least, last, and lost is how you know it is truly great. The pathway is clear. We only need to begin walking it.

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