In the Gospel of Mark 9:30-37 Jesus speaks to his disciples and predicts his death – and the disciples are baffled and become afraid. Jesus can’t die! Why is Jesus spouting all this crazy talk? Then right after this, it says that the disciples started to argue about who was the greatest among them.
Now, I suppose it’s possible that they were arguing FOR one another – like Andrew saying “If anything ever happens to Jesus, I think it’s obvious that Judas with all his leadership skills should be in charge” or Matthew saying “Look, John is the one that Jesus confides in most, so of course he is the greatest.”
But, I seriously doubt this is the case, for two reasons: First, when they arrived at their destination, Jesus asked, “So, what was all the rumpus about on the road back there?” And, in response all he gets are alot of blank stares, maybe some nervous shifting of weight, a few averted glances or puffed up cheeks, looking down and kicking the sand like guilty five-year-olds. If their argument was really about nominating one another as the greatest, I don’t think they would have been silent or embarrassed.
Secondly, the gospel says they were scared and fear tends to make us insecure. And insecurity makes us turn inward and become very focused and concerned about our own safety and well-being and more often than not, to become rather critical of others. It’s really difficult for us to be wise or generous or even level-headed when we are afraid. So, it’s much more likely that the disciples were talking about securing their own places in the coming kingdom – each one selling themselves as the most favored and powerful.
Now Jesus knows these guys and he also knows our human tendencies in the face of fear, so he looks to comfort them in their insecurity and he does this by bringing a small child in front of them and giving the little toddler a sincere embrace. What does he mean to teach with this action?
In Ancient Greek, the original language of the Gospels, there are three words for power. The first word indicates physical energy – strength, health and muscle. The second word means dynamism or vigor such as the power witnessed in an energetic and vibrant salesman.
But when the Gospels speak of Jesus as “having great power”, they don’t use these first two words. They use a third word, exousia, which is best translated as vulnerability. Jesus’ real power was rooted in his ability and decision to be vulnerable… like the powerlessness of a child.
Jesus is inviting the disciples, and us, to imagine the kind of world it would be if rather than exerting our power through physical strength or verve we embraced our own and others vulnerability and exercised our power not through selling ourselves and our accomplishments but through service and being gentle with one another. Not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming the weak and small in the world. (Rolheiser)
This was a counter-cultural idea back then and it is a counter-cultural idea now. We are taught to value competition and to glamorize success. One of our most basic assumptions is that we all have an unbridled right to pursue our own self-interest, and that doing so successfully –and very often defeating others in the process – is what makes us powerful and secure in our own happiness. And our indoctrination into this idea happens very young. If you ask a little boy “What is power?” (or “show me power”) he will take a strong, stern stance, and puff out his chest with “conquer” in his eyes, right?
The disciples, out of fear, have all been flexing their muscles – listing all their qualities and accomplishments that make them the greatest. And Jesus is like “no, no, no…this is not what the kingdom is about. This is not of God. It’s not about muscle, it’s about THIS – and he embraces the little one; the child who represents utter vulnerability.
A young child, toddler age, is someone who entirely lacks any accomplishments, status, or pretensions. They don’t carry a 4.0 grade point average or list their awards in beefed up language on their resumes and historians tell us that during Jesus’ time children were considered quite the liability. Helicopter parents were not the norm in the rough and tumble “survival-of-the-fittest” daily life of the first century.
Children were considered insignificant because they weren’t fully productive or contributing members of the household and they were completely dependent on others for everything – for their very survival. They were the picture of smallness; the most vulnerable in our society.
In gently welcoming this child, Jesus is showing the disciples something about God. He is in effect saying worthiness has no prerequisites – rather THIS is how God welcomes us. We need not vie for power or position, because we are not loved for what we do but for who we are – beloved, unique, treasured children of God. Our worthiness has no prerequisites.
Brene Brown says “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable selves to be deeply seen and known….when we stopping judging and offer
trust, respect, and kindness to one another. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we work very hard to grow. “
I think this is Jesus’ dream of the kingdom in a nut shell. He isn’t asking us to be doe-eyed doormats that other people can take advantage of, rather he wants to birth a community where everyone relinquishes the calculating and manipulative tendencies born of fear so that the pecking order and the relationships of superiority and inferiority, are abolished altogether.
Jesus says that if instead of puffing up our chest in a display of power, we become intentional about welcoming the child, the least among us, the poor, the homeless, the refugee, the wounded and broken, then WE – as individuals and as a collective, as the Body of Christ alive and living in the world today – will be truly great; then we will be connected and embody the true power of God – the power of love. The only power that can bring about true and lasting change.