It doesn’t take anyone who meets me long to recognise that humility is not one of my strong suits. So Jesus’ words in two of my favourite passages are a strong rebuke. I’m thinking of Jesus Jesus’ interactions with children in Mark’s gospel (Mark 9:33-37 and 10:13-16).
The first sees Jesus’ disciples engaged in a dispute might, in the light of what is to follow, be construed as rather childish.
Then they came to Capernaum. When He was in the house, He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest.
The disciples are caught in their bickering, and their silence seems to indicate that they know how fickle their behaviour has been and how Jesus is likely to respond. Despite their silence, Jesus knows exactly what has been going on; he may have overheard their conversation, or perhaps it’s just another instance of his remarkable intuition into the human heart.
Sitting down, He called the Twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Then 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.”
This statement is remarkable, and quite opposed to the worldview of Jesus’ day and ours. The disciples are clearly looking to get ahead; we too live in a world where children come after career, and where looking after ourselves (including a modicum of modern comforts) is what’s most important. Altruism and philanthropy are highly regarded, but in this dog-eat-dog world ‘looking after number one’ is the way things work. Being first means making our own way in the world.
However, Jesus says we must be servants of all, that we must deliberately be last, being servants even of the lowest, the least important, the least powerful in our society; we must make ourselves lower even than children. The mark of Jesus’ disciples is not seeking to be first, but becoming servants of the vulnerable. As Paul encourages the Philippians, we must ‘humbly consider others more important than ourselves,’ just as Jesus humbled himself (Philippians 2:1-11).
Even more, Jesus seems to be saying this: you must welcome the vulnerable, dependent child as though the King himself had walked into the room. For when you welcome these little ones, you welcome Jesus himself. It’s the same kind of idea we get in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus shows how the attitudes of his followers towards ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ reveal the true faithfulness–or unfaithfulness–of those who claim Jesus as their Lord.
How we treat the vulnerable is indicative of our attitude towards our Lord. Childcare is part of discipleship.
This attitude of ‘let me serve you’ is really foreign to our culture, and even to my own heart, a follower of Jesus. How often do I walk past someone begging in Newtown without a second thought? How often do I turn down a request for help from a brother or sister in need? Do I respond to them as I would to the King himself? Instead, we see those around us with darkened, selfish eyes.
What Jesus is proposing, then, is a kingdom value which requires a radical change of heart; and it’s a change we need to keep praying for and choosing to pursue, with the help of God through His Spirit. May we learn more and more to welcome those in whom we see the reflection of the face of the suffering servant, Jesus our Lord.