“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
“Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He 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.’”
Jesus and his disciples head down through Galilee and end up beside the lake at Capernaum. Along the way Jesus instructs the disciples in the events that will soon overtake them. He tells them: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they do not understand, are afraid to ask questions, and instead divert the conversation onto the subject of which one among them is the greatest.
I think in a group of men you will always find rivalry of some kind. The disciples were no different to the rest of us. Jesus was teaching them wisdom but their own innate need to be top dog blinds them to it. To a certain degree they resemble the ungodly who are described in the first reading of the Wisdom of Solomon, as ones who “did not know the secret purposes of God…nor discerned the prize for blameless souls.”
Jesus chooses this moment to offer them some of his most challenging teaching. He says: “Whoever wants to be the first must be last of all and servant of all.” To their uncomprehending gaze Jesus places a child before them. Then, taking it in his arms, he says 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.”
This is one of those stories where it is best to visualise what happens. Listen to this slightly different translation: “And he took a child, stood him in their midst and embraced him.” Why does Jesus do this? First, imagine the child standing before the twelve men; not long before the men were arguing among themselves. How does the child speak to them about what they have been saying? He is hardly a threat to the men – if anything, the child is the most vulnerable person in the room. Is he in this way God-like? That’s what Jesus seems to be saying. Which takes us back to the beginning of the reading, when Jesus was telling the disciples what would happen to him, and they didn’t understand. The child, in his vulnerability, represents Jesus. And thus is like God.
This would have been shocking and perplexing to the disciples, but after their jostling for status among themselves, a shock is what they need. By placing the child in their midst Jesus is drawing their attention away from their own self pre-occupations and forcing them to focus on someone outside of themselves. Diverted from their narcissism, the disciples are being asked to compare themselves to a child, to someone with no power in the affairs of society nor anything to offer in terms of career advancement or prestige.
Jesus then takes it a step further. He embraces the child – he hugs him. It is as if he is saying to the disciples: “you love status, but I love those without status; you love knowing what will make you greater, but I love this child better than all the world’s knowledge; if you want to be a disciple of mine, you must learn to love the vulnerable, the innocent, the weak and put yourself at their service.” The word which is repeated four times in verse 37 is the word “welcome”. The original Greek word can also be translated as “to receive.” If the disciples are to receive the kingdom of God in all its fullness, they must learn to receive it on God’s terms and not their own.
What it means to us is learning to set aside what we think we know is best, especially when it builds us up in our own estimation. Make no mistake: the Christian way is a risky way of life, because it values vulnerability over superiority, innocence over guile, weakness over strength. It places above human desires the love of God, supreme in its willingness to seek the good of the other before it seeks the good of itself.
This is not philosophy, but a way of living in and through God’s love. Ask yourself who are those in your own life who are vulnerable, innocent and weak. Can you receive them into your arms, hug them and be their servant?
I would like to add a final twist to this story. When you have gone out to others in need, then it is time for a little introspection. With God’s guidance, consider yourself: in what way are you vulnerable, innocent and weak? Or perhaps you are none of these things? Indeed, have you made yourself above such things? If so, how will God receive you? For the servant of the servants loves those who have learnt how to receive him. We are the children of God. Let God come to you, embrace you and welcome you as one of his own.
Father David Beresford