I’d like to think that in Western culture, we respect and value the lowly and helpless, unlike many past and present cultures. It’s certainly the case that we’ve made progress; for example, slavery was made illegal in the 19th century, and there is an appreciation for the plight of the poor and marginalized across the world. Yet our values still don’t line up with Jesus’ values—not even in the church. Let’s consider this passage and the Jesus whom it reveals.
In chapter 8, it was finally revealed to the disciples that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the King sent from God to deliver his people. In the following chapters, Jesus tells his disciples three times that he has come to suffer, die, and be raised to life again. Each time he tells them, they respond by failing to understand. This is the second time Jesus warns them that he has come to suffer, and Mark records that “they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.” In their worldview, glory and victory are valuable, not by a lowly and suffering “Messiah.” What Jesus is saying might as well be gibberish; it doesn’t fit into their paradigm of the world God has made. What they do recognize is that whatever Jesus means, it doesn’t sound good. So they’re afraid to ask him what he’s talking about; they’d rather stay in the dark on this one.
Their ignorance of Jesus’ mission becomes clear once they arrive in Capernaum. After entering the house where they’re staying, Jesus asks them, “What were you discussing on the way?” Like a troop of guilty children, they keep silent, “for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” Who knows exactly what that conversation looked like! Perhaps Peter was showing off his charisma, or James wanted the other disciples to see that he was the most intelligent, or Nathaniel wanted to prove that he was the strongest. I suppose it’s encouraging that they feel ashamed. They’re beginning to recognize that Jesus isn’t too impressed when people start bragging on themselves.
Jesus sits them down for a teaching moment. He tells them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” His ethical system is a paradox, upside-down from everything they’ve been taught to believe. He proves his point by calling in a little child. In that culture, children weren’t valued until they became old enough to work. Until then, they were simply mouths to feed, a strain on the household budget. But Jesus picks up and holds the worthless little runt closely to himself. He tells them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
Jesus identifies himself in a special way with the lowly, with the useless and worthless people around you and me. He says that true greatness is not found in associating with popular or charming or productive people; it’s found in serving the worthless people.
This isn’t just contrary to the mindset of the ancient world. It’s contrary to our mindset as well. In Western culture, we don’t value the unborn; they’re an inconvenience, particularly if they’re disabled. They’re prime targets for abortion. We view immigrants from Mexico as illegal scoundrels here to steal our jobs. We think of children as either a hindrance to our happiness or a tool to make us happy; we don’t value them for their own sake. We love the idea of sending money to Bono so he can help starving kids in Africa, but we skirt around the poor and homeless in our own neighborhoods. We avoid interacting with people who are stupid, unattractive, poorly dressed, or socially awkward. We believe that the key to greatness is to put such people out of mind; if we associate with them, others won’t think we’re great any more!
Jesus does a wonderful thing here. Because he was lowly, despised, and rejected, he identifies with the lowly in this world. What greater role could you and I play than to welcome him—and therefore welcome the God who sent him? Because Jesus came to suffer, he rerouted the path to greatness, ensuring that you need to serve the lowly to become great.
One of Jesus’ disciples, John, unintentionally provides another example of wrong thinking about greatness. He tells Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Like many fundamentalist Christians, John loves the idea of separation—he has convinced himself that the only valid followers of Christ are the people in his elite clique. He looks down on this “lowly” exorcist who is not part of Jesus’ “inner circle.” But Jesus contradicts him, saying, “Do not stop him.” He gives three reasons why you and I shouldn’t stop another genuine follower of Christ just because he or she is from a different tradition. First, such a person will represent Christ favorably. We need as many people as possible to speak well of Jesus! Second, such a person is on the same team as you. As Jesus says, “The one who is not against us is for us.” Third, God approves of their genuine servanthood. They won’t go unrewarded. So if God approves, what right do you and I have to reject them? There is no room for cliques in the body of Christ. We should not enjoy separating from other believers; we should only do it (reluctantly) in cases where Christ and his gospel are under attack.
Because Jesus came as a suffering Messiah rather than a triumphalistic Messiah, his mission pierces the heart of our hubris. “He was despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3), and would we expect better for ourselves? Would we join the world in despising and rejecting the lowly? Will we despise and reject other believers just because they’re not in our cliques?