They came to Capernaum. When they got into the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ They said nothing, because on the road they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. Jesus sat down and called the Twelve. ‘If you want to be first,’ he said, ‘you must be last of all, and servant of all.’ He took a small child, and stood it in the middle of them. Then he hugged the child, and said to them, ‘If anyone welcomes one child like this in my name, they welcome me. And if anyone welcomes me, it isn’t me they welcome, but the one who sent me.’ ‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone casting out demons in your name. We stopped him, because he wasn’t following us.’ ‘Don’t stop him,’ said Jesus. ‘No one who does powerful things by my name will be able to say bad things about me soon afterwards. Anyone who’s not against us is on our side. Anyone who even gives you a cup of water in my name, because you belong to the Messiah – I’m telling you the truth, that person won’t go unrewarded.’
In the last days of the old regime, the hardest thing for ordinary people in the capital was not knowing who they could trust. The old dictator was still in power, though increasingly weakened by rebellions from inside his country and attacks by forces from outside. But people were still divided. Many couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been their leader; they had always been loyal to him up to now, why should they change? Besides, if there were foreigners attacking the country, shouldn’t they stand firm, with proper national pride? But others – often in the same family – were quite clear. The man has to go. We belong to tomorrow’s world, we follow the new leaders, we are going to win.
And when you walk out of your front door, you don’t know who is going to be on which side. Which conversations will be ‘safe’, and which will be full of danger? Is this person – this family – this shopkeeper – is he on our side? You can see how easily this turns into paranoia. Trust nobody but the tight circle you already know.
And you can see how that, in turn, becomes a kind of superiority complex. We are the true believers, the real revolutionaries, the ones who have seen through the old system and know exactly how the new one should come about. And, within that again, we – just you and I – are at the leading edge of all this. Even our friends, here in this room, are sometimes muddled. But we are the ones! We see the whole picture! We are . . . well, we mightn’t say it in so many words, but we are the greatest!
Utterly natural, and utterly subverted by the very message that Jesus’ first followers were supposed to be learning. Of course, they hadn’t learnt it; Jesus was trying to explain to them that the kingdom would come through his own death (verses 31–32). But they didn’t get it; and the sign that they didn’t get it was that they were arguing on the road as to, yes, which of them was ‘the greatest’. It’s the Muhammad Ali syndrome – except that, latterly at least, the great boxer always made his claim with a grin and a hint of self-deprecating irony. Jesus’ followers don’t seem to have done irony. But they were now going to get some.
If they don’t understand plain speech (‘the “son of man” is to be given over into human hands’, and so on), maybe they’ll understand a symbol. Here is a child. Utterly present in the moment; utterly unconcerned about tomorrow, about status, about hierarchy. (Oh, yes, children can also be walking examples of original sin. Don’t romanticize. But don’t forget the ironic lesson, either.) What, after all, would ‘greatness’ in God’s kingdom look like? Wouldn’t it mean being the sort of person through whom God’s powerful presence would become real? Wasn’t that what had happened back at the start of chapter 6 when they went out and healed people and announced that God was becoming king?
Well, yes. But if you want to know how God’s powerful presence comes most easily into the world, go and welcome a child in Jesus’ name. You will be welcoming Jesus himself – and, by doing so, you will be welcoming ‘the one who sent me’ (verse 37). Here is, as it were, the hot line into the power ful presence of God. It isn’t a matter of senior, seasoned leaders going off with their noses in the air and making it all happen. It’s a matter of the least of all, the servant of all, being the greatest.
And with that lesson, the other lessons fall into place (though, as we shall see, the disciples were still getting it wrong in the next chapter). Yes, obviously there are enemies out there. There are plenty of people who are deeply suspicious of Jesus’ kingdom-movement; they might not like Herod, they might not approve of Caesar, they certainly wouldn’t like the chief priests, but they are not at all sure about this strange carpenter from Nazareth with his motley crew of followers. So what are we to do? Be suspicious of everyone except our tight little circle (and even, did they but know it, of some within that)? No.
Suppose there is someone doing powerful works in the name of Jesus. Well, that’s what counts. Anybody who discovers just how powerful Jesus’ name really is will not be about to turn round and inform on his followers (though such a person had better be careful about using that powerful name, as Acts 19.13 –17 reminds us). This passage is a vital warning now, as it was then, about the danger of imagining that God can and will only work through the people ‘we know about’. This isn’t just a matter of modern denominations. Most churches (thank God!) are increasingly discovering that there are people down the street whom they used to ignore or despise, who do things a little differently from the rest of us, but who are themselves living as active agents of God’s love and the power of Jesus.
Yes, there is the opposite warning, too. When there is powerful evil on the rampage, when fierce spiritual warfare is at its height, you may have to be told that ‘if you’re not with me, you’re against me’ (Matthew 12.30). Context is all. Here we are talking about the disciples trying to rank themselves, both one against another and, as a group, against ‘outsiders’. How can that embody the childlike humility of a group who follow a Master who is going to the cross?
Give us, gracious Lord, the humility to follow wherever you lead, with no thought for our own status except for that of a servant.