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Jesus 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.” (Mark 9: 35-37)
Jesus, sitting with his disciples, takes a moment to snuggle a little kid. And readers of the Gospel smile and think, “awww. that’s so sweet.” And we imagine the twelve probably get a little mushy, too. After all, who can resist a child, the mainstay of tear-jerker commercials and heart-tugging political campaigns? Big eyes, chubby cheeks, all trusting innocence. What’s not to love?
And so, in our doting-adult goofiness, we miss the message entirely.
Jesus takes a small child and displays far more affection than we usually see in him. It’s a notable moment, just for that reason. But the context makes it even more astonishing. Because the disciples are actually being chastised in this moment, and the child is less an object of affection than a means of driving Jesus’ point home.
The point here isn’t about cuteness. Or innocence, or even about love. It’s about power and status; it’s about the entirely new worldview that Jesus’ teachings implied: the one that his disciples constantly resisted. The point here is to teach the twelve, who have been arguing about which one is the greatest. It’s probably a much more comfortable subject than Jesus’ recent habit of predicting his own suffering and death, a way of keeping their lives from feeling entirely out of balance and unstable.
Because really: Jesus is destabilizing. Jesus is upsetting. We who have lived in a Christian setting that exists within the framework of the world and human life – we who have spent centuries interpreting Jesus’ teachings in ways that allow us to see the poor as lazy, the sick as sinners, women as less-than and non-Christians as inherently damned; we who have taken on the mantle of judgment, who have decided that war might sometimes be just, who have shaped the traditions of forgiveness, hospitality, and charity in ways that don’t make us uncomfortable – we tend to prefer to see the disciples as stupid and Jesus as eternally kind. When we’re not arguing about who is the greatest, or cooing over cute children. We don’t see Jesus as the Messiah that the disciples had hoped for – the great warrior-from-God who would drive out the non-Jewish occupiers of the Holy Land, granting peace and freedom forever – but neither do we see him as inconveniently present in our own lives, pulling us away from our comfort, shaking us up until we stop trying to find our footing in the culture and values of human experience. We don’t see him as destabilizing, but as upholding our own worldview. We don’t see him as upsetting. We don’t see him as radical.
Which really means that we don’t see him at all.
At best, we see him as the disciples – the ones we call foolish – saw him: as someone who can grant us some status, who can take a poor fisherman and make him into a disciple, one of an elite group.
Which might be why this little child on Jesus’ lap is such an easy distraction.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Such an easy thing, to welcome a cute little schnookums. Finally, a teaching that we can adopt easily and at face value.
Easy for us, with our post-Victorian idealization of babies.
Not so easy for the disciples, however.
The twelve had been arguing over who was the greatest: fairly straightforward, for a group of men, a group that already had some inherent status in that society. Good Jewish men, heads of household, recognized legally and culturally as fully human, in a way that women and children were not. Children, in that society, barely existed; of the many born to a couple, few – if any – would reach adulthood. It was far better not to get too attached, not to grant them any particular status or power, not to recognize them any more than absolutely necessary, because the odds were good that they wouldn’t actually survive.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all.” Would you willingly relinquish your power and status, to become as unnoticeable as such a child?
And then Jesus goes further. Because it’s not enough to strip oneself to the level of a child, to strip away status and worth, legal protection and even humanity. Jesus calls us to welcome children, in his name.
That’s a big deal, because hospitality is a big deal. Because hospitality is more than about feeding people, more than about providing a bed. Christian hospitality cannot be offered grudgingly, cannot be sparing, cannot be half-hearted. Rather, we must welcome the stranger as if she were sent by God. We must welcome the stranger with abundance, caring more for her needs than for our own, giving her the best of what we have and withholding nothing. Our welcome must necessarily be extravagant. Even for a child.
Especially for a child.
Jesus is destabilizing, upending the social conventions and granting higher status to a child – a child! – than to grown men, who are told to serve one who, by all accounts, is by far their inferior.
Jesus is upsetting. To our sense of balance, to our sense of fairness, to our values and our motivation. Not because we are called to value children – whom we, unlike the disciples, tend to regard highly – but because we are called to value all children. All of God’s children. Because we are called to be last, to be servants, to consistently set others ahead of ourselves, no matter what our cultural mores might otherwise suggest.
We are called to the same extravagant, abundant welcome. For we who welcome the children – the powerless, the barely-human – welcome Christ; and whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent him.
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell… With it, we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” James 3: 5b-6, 9-10
I got a tweet today from @billscher: “Thank goodness we have the Internet. Now any old douchebag [sic] can cause an international crisis.” One tweet, one example of many this week that remind us of the dangers of speech, the consequences that can arise when we give greater regard to the speech itself, than to those who will hear it.
But the danger is not solely in the realm of international crisis, likely intentional. How many of us have spoken in the heat of anger, from the depths of grief? How many of us have given our tongues over to the expression of an emotional moment; how many of us have assuaged an instant of hurt by striking back at those who have hurt us?
All this with the same tongue that coos at babies, that whispers sweetness in intimate moments, that promises loyalty to our dearest ones.
The same tongue that lashes out with vinegar can so easily drip – just moments later – with honey. How could it be possible that there is no cross-contamination?
Can we not be affected by the cruelties, the insults, the harsh truths that we speak, whether in the heat of passion or in cold clarity? Are we not, ourselves, sickened by the vinegar that seeps from us? Won’t some of it, necessarily, be incorporated back into our very bodies, since our tongues are not only instruments of speech, but of nourishment as well? Doesn’t it, as James suggests, stain the whole body?
The Harry Potter series, despite being disavowed by certain groups as being anti-Christian, is very clear in its message of the power of love… and in its descriptions of the great damage that hatred, anger, and evil can do. Childhood cruelties that develop into adolescent malice and loathing that become fully-fledged evil in the adult body, well-nourished and cared for. In the magical world, it is recognized that great evil can actually tear at the soul of the perpetrator of evil acts – to the point where the act of ultimate evil, the taking of a life, can actually rend the soul entirely in two. But it strikes me that no one comes to that point of ultimate evil from a point of ultimate innocence; that many small tears and fissures must occur, so as to make the soul delicate enough to rip. That we have to have become accustomed to small sips of vinegar, to be able to take a large gulp without becoming immediately ill.
I actually doubt that whoever it was who produced the film that has majority-Muslim nations around the globe in an uproar is wholly and completely evil. Rather, I’d guess that he (since the evidence so far does point to the producer being male) was once someone’s beloved baby. I’d guess that he a trusted friend, perhaps a devoted husband, perhaps a father. He wouldn’t be the first. How many of the people whom we, twenty-first century Americans, would classify as “evil”, were beloved by spouses and children? That’s actually one of the few places where Harry Potter oversimplifies a situation: Lord Voldemort, it appears, was a loner – no wife, no friends, no confidantes, no ties of affection or love whatsoever. The same cannot usually be said of real-life villains.
Which must, really, force us to reflect on the point at which a human being tips from angry to mean to cruel to evil. What acts must we commit to move ourselves along that path? What words must we say, or refrain from saying? How much vinegar must there be, before the honey is entirely negated? Or is it ever? How soured is the honey of a man like Fred Phelps, infamous pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose love of his children and grandchildren I actually do not doubt, but whose spewing of hatred on a regular basis cannot help but defile the purity of that love? Because those children will grow up stewing in that very same hate, pickled in that same vinegar, witnesses to the damage and grief. Their souls shall be torn, either by the incorporation of that same hatred, or by the push-pull of loving the source of such vinegar.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
Many times, as a response to foul language, I have heard, “You kiss your mother with that mouth?” There is an innate sense that cursing, that name-calling, does indeed make us dirty, that it can actually contaminate otherwise-loving relationships. Jesus himself was very clear on that count: “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.” (Mark 7:20) When Phelps and his family are out picketing funerals and claiming that God is capable of hatred, they are defiling not only the God of Love, but their own bodies, their own capacity to love, to exist as a part of the Body of Christ. When a politician – of any stripe – goes out on the stump to make personal attacks on a rival or on a segment of the electorate, some of the toxins spewed in public must necessarily poison the private as well: the relationships with spouse and children, with friends and coworkers.
How easy is it to slip, to let those drops of vinegar fall from our tongues? How quickly we recover from the initial taste, the sharp sourness that quickly fades, but that accustoms our palate. How many small tears to our soul can happen before we become aware that we are fraying, that we are soiled, that we are being split, slowly and surely, from the Body of Christ? How great a fire must we start, before we realize the damage we have done, not just to ourselves but to those around us, until we find that we have become a disease within the Body and a stumbling block to growth and health?
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” -Mark 8: 34b-37
Twelve years ago this month, a very compassionate doctor taught me that the English language, already overfull of words, needs a few more. I already knew that one word – Love – could mean too many things for one word alone. I hadn’t realized that another word – Life – had the same problem. Yet as I sat in that exam room, still recovering from a life-saving surgery two months earlier, still very much protective of my body and its new physical realities, still just grateful to be alive, the doctor made me look him in the eye.
“They didn’t save your life for the sake of breathing or of a heartbeat,” he said, gently. “They saved it so that you can live it.”
I had lost my life – not the physical manifestations of it, not the vital signs, but the joy. I had lost my life to fear, to trauma; I had become so wrapped up in one event that I was letting the rest of life slip past unnoticed.
“Those who lose their life for my sake… will save it.” I have to wonder, if Jesus could see how those words have been used since he spoke them, if he might not have chosen his phrasing just a little more carefully.
It is apparent that Jesus cared for bodies. He cared for life. He taught us to honor one another’s life by nourishing and caring for one another, by granting dignity and humanity to all, by saving those on the brink of death – and even those who had gone past the brink. It is apparent that, as he prayed and grieved in Gethsemane, he did not go to his own death lightly, that he did not rejoice in the impending suffering and betrayal. Had God spared his own child, as God had spared Isaac, it strikes me that Jesus would have been perfectly content to continue living. Death was inevitable, but not eagerly anticipated.
Which, actually, doesn’t make Jesus a hypocrite.
The intervening centuries, between Jesus’ time and now, are replete with the stories of martyrs who gloried in their suffering and celebrated their impending death. These people deliberately chose the path of death, the mutilation and torture of the body, the ways of life reduced to mere breathing and circulation of blood, all in the belief that losing one’s life for the sake of Christ meant sharing in the suffering of Jesus’ last hours. “Lose your life”, to these hundreds and thousands of Christians, quite simply meant glorying in all that might hasten the time when the heart would stop beating; it meant “lose this body of flesh”.
Which is an interesting theological maneuver, since even death did not rid Jesus of his body of flesh. Just ask Thomas if it did.
“But,” protest the martyrs, “what about taking up our cross? What about denying ourselves? See? We’re meant to suffer!” (All that said with a barely-suppressed, “Yippee!”)
It’s interesting that this is the first time in the Gospel of Mark that we hear about a cross at all. Jesus did not, in his frank talk with the disciples just before this passage, mention the form that his own death would take. The word “cross”, therefore, would have come out of nowhere for them. But what an evocative word! The cross, the Roman torture device for the lowest of the low criminals, the means of a humiliating and painful death. The disciples would all have been familiar with the most humiliating part of the crucifixion: the requirement that the condemned shoulder the very cross-bar onto which he would be hung, and carry it through the town to the place of execution. It was a mark of shame, to carry one’s cross; a visible, undeniable sign of guilt; a chance for all the townspeople to hurl insults and heap on the humiliation. It was the insult added to the coming injury.
One of the only moments that I actually liked about the movie “The Passion of Christ” was the scene in which the cross is actually carried to Golgotha. Although, like the rest of the movie, it was full of gratuitous suffering, I appreciated the sense of struggle, simply to put one foot in front of the other with such a heavy load; the inability to see more than the few feet of road right in front of you; the total focus and determination that it takes to get to the end of the road, especially when there are distractions (in this case, a jeering crowd) on every side.
“Let them take up their cross and follow me.” Let them shoulder the burden, the responsibility that the teachings of Christ put upon all disciples, and then resolutely put one foot in front of the other, following along the Way, ignoring the humiliation, the insults, the temptation to toss aside the burden and run away, the desire to throw a few insults back. Those who do what is right, rather than what is convenient or popular, will be mocked. Those who do what is compassionate will be scorned. Those who love will feel the pain of the poor, the needy, the unloved, as deeply as though it were cut into our own flesh. That is the burden of the Cross: that and no other.
Will there be suffering? That depends on how much we take the jeers to heart, how much we are tempted to abandon the burden by the side of the road, how much we are able to love despite it all. Will there be suffering merely for the sake of suffering? No. Will we lose our life in the process? Absolutely.
Not that our hearts will stop, or that our breathing will cease. Because those are only the mechanisms of life, as I was reminded so many years ago. I don’t think any of us would be content with a life that consisted only in physical survival. But as we take up the Cross – the only Cross, the burden of discipleship, the humiliation of truly being followers of Christ along the very narrow way he has set before us – we make a choice about how our life will be lived. In taking up the Cross, we chose obedience. In taking up the cross, we eschew vanity, complacency, selfishness. In taking up the Cross, we suffer not because Jesus suffered, but because our fellow humans are suffering, and the burden of relief weighs upon us. In taking up the cross, we chose to live mindfully, deliberately, lovingly. We chose to give up our lives to the service of God in Christ.
“Those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Lose your life, not to fear, or temptation, or the delights of suffering, but to the responsibilities that Jesus so clearly laid before us. Lose your life, not to the condemnation of others, but to the work of love. Lose your life, not to the reality-TV style contests and entitled attitudes that our culture ardently promotes, but to the dignity and humanity of the “least of these”. Lose your life, above all, to the one who is Love incarnate.
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Mark 7: 27
If this had been my introduction to Jesus, I’m pretty sure that – no matter how desperate I might have been to heal my child – I’d have told him where to get off and walked away. (NB: my last post was on evangelism. This is not a good example of how to earn disciples.)
And yet: I’m a mother. I can sense, very dimly, what it must have cost this woman to watch her daughter’s suffering. Watching my toddler work through an asthma attack is bad enough, when I have a nebulizer and inhaled steroids and the possibility of an emergency room with good medical care. To watch a child struggle with none of those things available, possibly for years, is beyond the realm of my comprehension. Would we not, any of us, have grasped at this chance, this itinerant preacher and miracle worker of whom word has spread even beyond his own home region?
The story goes deeper than that, of course. A Gentile seeking out a Jew; a Gentile woman seeking out a Jewish man; a woman of means (her child – her daughter – had a bed) seeking out the son of a carpenter, an itinerant preacher of no means at all. Despite their respective genders, she has the higher social position, and they both know it. The power ought, rightly, to be in her hands.
One side-effect of parenting, however, is the realization that power and control are illusory.
How shocking must it have been for Jesus to see this woman throwing herself at his feet, begging for his help? Had she touched him, he would have been rendered ritually unclean; despite his condemnation of the Pharisees immediately prior to this story, and his insistence that impurity comes from internal, rather than external sources (Mark 7: 1-23), one must still wonder whether his reaction to this Gentile woman doesn’t come from a instinctive, reflexive place. Can one who has been raised with those purity laws abandon them completely in such a short time?
How tiring it must have been, as well. From very early in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been surrounded by incessant need. More and more, we see that his rare moments of escape must be half-spent in worrying about his rather inept disciples, these fishermen who seem to have lost even the ability to sail without Jesus’ help. As a last resort, he headed into Gentile territory, to a place where maybe, for once, his reputation might not have preceded him.
And then along came a woman of means, desperate to the point of humbling herself before this man of low social standing. He’s been arguing with the Rabbis and dealing with incompetence in his own camp; she sees him as her last, grasping hope.
And he was a jerk to her.
There isn’t much getting around it. This is not the patient, loving Jesus we all prefer to see. This is the Jesus who overturned the tables in the Temple and drove out the merchants with whips (John 2:13-16). This is the Jesus who argued with the Pharisees, who called them hypocrites (Mark 7:6 among many). (NB: again, not a particularly helpful way to evangelize.) This is the tired, frustrated, slightly-burned-out Jesus whom we see throughout the Gospels, but for whom we’re usually cheering; after all, the anger is usually directed against one or more of the biblical “bad guys”, the ones who (spoiler alert) are going to end up conspiring to have our hero killed.
On the surface, perhaps, this woman of means might seem to be one of the bad guys. Relations between the Jews and the Syrophonecians aren’t exactly cozy, after all, and Jesus tends to have trouble with people of power and privilege. But we, as readers of the Gospel, find ourselves sympathetic to this mother, this “woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit” (Mark 7: 25) She isn’t simply a soon-to-be-killer-of-Jesus; she isn’t a faceless-merchant-Temple-defiler. More than many, in the Gospels, she’s one of us.
And Jesus is a jerk.
He calls her a dog.
He refuses to help a suffering child.
He does not see the humanity of this non-Jew crouched at his feet.
He’s acting like one of us, not like Jesus. He’s acting like one of us, faced with one of the untouchables of our own society, doing more to keep himself clean than to cleanse her.
We read this passage and it sends us reeling. It upends the theology of those rubber bracelets and bumper stickers and lanyards: WWJD? He’d be a jerk. Don’t you want to come to my church?
I didn’t think so. And I still think I might have told him what he could go do with his itinerant ministry.
The Syrophonecian woman is a better Christian than I am, it seems.
Because I can read the passage, read the commentaries, try to find a loophole (“oh, he was tired and crabby that day” “oh, he was on the defensive because of how the wealthy usually treated him”) but I can’t quite escape the disappointment, the resentment, that Jesus’ humanity had to rear its ugly head in that moment. I can read the passage as a reminder that we, all of us, are in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, but that doesn’t make it easy to deal with God’s own Son, the Word made Flesh, needing grace and forgiveness. I want Jesus to understand all our human weaknesses and failings without actually indulging in them himself. I want him to be better than we are.
Not so this Gentile mother. This powerful woman, humbled at the feet of one she trusts with the health of her child, claims a new power, before which even Jesus is humbled. She loves him. She empathizes. She recognizes that he is tired, recognizes that he’s become so used to being defensive that it’s become his new normal, recognizes that he’s not really responding to her, but to his own fatigue at being needed. She recognizes that her need, coming from outside his own community – that the idea of need from outside his own community – is overwhelming. She might even recognize herself in him: the mother of a sick child, for whom her constant present is required and probably tiring. She recognizes that he is in need of grace, and does not despise him for it.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28)
Did she know about the feeding of the five thousand, just a few Gospel verses earlier, when the crumbs were more plentiful than the original meal? Could that have been how she’d heard of this preacher – had one of the five thousand witnesses to this miracle been through her region, telling the tale?
Perhaps. Or this may simply be a movement of the Spirit, tuning Jesus’ ears more keenly to this woman’s perfectly appropriate rejoinder, reminding him of the abundance that God has promised. Reminding him that love knows no bounds, that the kingdom promise is not exclusive, that he is, himself, the embodiment of a new covenant. Reminding him that God’s love for us is like a parent’s for a child; like the love that put her in Jesus’ path in the first place.
What do you do when Jesus is a jerk? You understand him, as you hope that he understands us. You participate in God’s grace, in the love that forgives us our humanity and builds us up. You embody Christ for him, until he is ready to embody Christ for you.