Playing Favorites – September 23, 2018

by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens

What are some things that you experienced as a child, that children of today would not understand? ex: dial up internet, rotary telephone, filmstrips.

Our childhoods were REALLY different than the childhoods of today! And also… they are not much different. We all remember what it is like to be that child, scared on the first day of school; that child happily making a new friend on the playground; that child who excels at some subjects and struggles with others; that child understood by a teacher; that child misunderstood by adults; that child vulnerable, that child fearless…. We can remember who we were as children, and hopefully, that helps us empathize with the children of today.

One of my Facebook friends, looking at a photo of herself from high school, and remembering what it was like to be in  that body, commented: “I would love to have a little chat with my younger self…” What would you tell yourself?

11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11-12)

We’ve all been children and now… we are not… we’ve been childish, immature, inexperienced and the beauty of growing older is that we feel like we’re better off now… with the lessons we’ve learned, with the our higher intellects and our street smarts. Jesus, however has other ideas.

In today’s scripture lesson from the gospel of Mark, chapter 9, Jesus is instructing his followers on how to be true disciples.

But what was going on with the disciples? Why does Jesus need to keep telling these guys over and over the requirements of following?

Well, in the gospel of Mark, the disciples have just come back from an experience that was actually a failure. They were asked to heal a boy possessed by a demon, but they were unable to do it. Jesus finally comes to the rescue and heals the boy. And they ask Jesus, “Why couldn’t we do it?” and he says “This kind can only come out through prayer…”

So, are we to assume that the disciples weren’t praying correctly? “This kind can only come out through prayer.” Jesus said to the disciples, as they were unable to fulfil a task they SHOULD HAVE been able to do. AND they previously had been able to accomplish this task! Three chapters earlier (in Mark 6:13) Jesus sends them out to preach and exorcise demons and presumably they had great success. So what has changed? Their prayer life? Their relationship with God? Their faith in themselves and their faith in Jesus?

So, the disciples walk from that experience (the boy not healed by the disciples, but healed by Jesus himself) and they hear Jesus speak about his role as the Christ; that he is to suffer and die… and they don’t understand this either! They understood the role of the Messiah to be the one who would save them, who would conquer the oppressors victoriously and who would lead them to military, cultural and political power…. This “suffering” Christ did not sound like their conquering hero.

And there we find our scripture lesson, Mark 9: 33-34

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.

So they were wondering… who is the greatest: you who cannot do the tasks assigned to you, or him  who has a bad prayer life, or me who doesn’t understand your role in our movement? Which one of us is the greatest?

Now, maybe I am being too hard on the disciples: I’m sure they were fine people with their own gifts and graces. But Mark, the author of the earliest dated gospel, presents them in this light! Scene after scene, the disciples are just missing the point. Jesus talk to them about his suffering and death and resurrection: they fight him. He sends them out to heal the people: they fail… and here they are wondering WHO IS BETTER?

So, he gives them a lesson in humility: not only through his words, but in his actions, by taking from their midst, a child. And presenting a child before them, he tells them,

37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Now, this scene is not as shocking to us as it was to those in ancient times. To us, children are precious, they are to be protected and revered, but a child, in antiquity, was a NON-PERSON: Children should be seen and not heard.

Children are a necessary step in providing for our work (more hands in the field and all) and it is good to have heirs to carry on the family line. But while they are young, children should remain with the women, not hanging around with the men, the teacher and his students.

In antiquity, childhood was a time of terror. 1/3 of live births ended in death. 2/3 of children died before the age of 16. Disease and hygiene wiped out 2/3 of the child population. (1)

Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas actually taught that in a fire a husband was first obliged to save his father, then his wife, and then if he had time save the children. During famine children were also last to be fed….survival of the fittest. Survival of the greatest. Survival of the best. And so, when Jesus tells the people to become like little children, he insults them, he insults their culture, he insults their values. (2)

Jesus took this child (who must have been hanging around with the men) to be his example! Jesus chose this child – this non-person, free of titles and status – to be his emissary.

37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

What is an emissary? A person’s emissary was commonly understood to be like the one who sent him. And when one receives an emissary, he receives the one that emissary represents. To receive a child as a representative of Jesus… again it is shocking! This example treats the child, who was socially invisible, as a stand-in for Jesus, a stand-in for God, thusly elevating the status of all those who were socially inferior. In this act, and in all of his talk of the Kingdom, Jesus overturns the usual perceptions of greatness and honor by lifting the lowly and putting low those who are exalted.

But why was a child held up as our example? What qualities make children so wonderful, such an example of how we should be, how we should act, how we should behave with one another and in response with God? (Take answers)

Now, children all have their own personalities, gifts and graces, but one of the  – very general – characteristics of children is heir social openness. For the aunties in the world  – this is something I love. I love kids, I love when they are interested in me as  stranger, looking to make friends with the stranger in the grocery line or on the bus. But I assume, it is a quality that many a weary parent worries about – our children’s social openness can be a blessing and a worry. But – as Jesus states – it is a quality, among many, we should strive for.

Author Walter Rauschenbusch explained it this way:

“When Jesus found the disciples disputing their rank in the Kingdom, he rebuked their divisive spirit of pride by setting a little child among them as their model; for an unspoiled child is the most social creature, swift to make friends, happy in play with others, lonely without human love… The kingdom of God is the true human society; the ethics of Jesus taught the true social conduct which would create the true society. This would be Christ’s test for any custom, law or institution: does it draw [people] together or divide them?” (3)

The disciples –  arguing about who is the greatest among them – were set on dividing themselves from one another…. Any answer would pit them against each other, not draw them together. So, Jesus points to a humble child and says “This is who you should aspire to be!”

We, as disciples, need to be more like children: open to others, regardless of what they look like and how different they are. We, like children, need to playful and joyous in our approach to life, to faith, to learning. We, like children, need to show humility and respect.

How are we living true lives of discipleship? How are we encouraging our children in their discipleship? How are we growing in our faith, in our joy and in our childishness?

May we as disciples learn from our children, be open to their teaching and may we grow into the disciples we are meant to be.


  2. Ibid
  3. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964, 70-71.