Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity Mark 9:30-37 James 3:13-4:3; 7-8a
Once upon a time, when I was in about year six at school, the girls would play a game in the playground that involved two long skippy ropes, held by two girls between them, and a train of girls skipping them while the ropes were being turned against each other. If you’ve never played this game or watched it and I’ve lost you, I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped, as I cannot actually demonstrate this game on my own. So whichever way you visualise it, as long as you are thinking of a string of girls trying not to catch the ropes, that’s roughly it. Whenever the first girl catches the ropes, she has to release one of the girls operating them, who then has to go to the back of the line, and they all move up. And that’s where I am when I think of the image of the child in Jesus’ arms when he spoke to the disciples and said that ‘whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ I have to think of the skippy ropes, because I remember being rather good at that game and for a whole week I held out pole position. I liked it, but the other girls began to resent it and talked about changing the rules. So, once I realised that, I changed tack and caught the ropes on purpose. This way, the game didn’t get ‘stuck’; the other girls were happy; and I got a chance at turning the ropes for them. I find it helpful to have an experience of my own about ‘the first must be last, etcetera’ like that, to engage with Jesus’ words and understand his message.
Jesus’ words didn’t come out of the blue. The disciples had been arguing on the road about which of them was the greatest. I don’t know whether the argument reached a solution; probably not. It might have been stuck on nobody wanting to give way. Jesus had heard them speak among themselves, and although they didn’t want to own up to their argument, he doesn’t let it go. So Jesus speaks; through an object lesson. I think it’s important to recognise the reason for his parable and its aim. Jesus doesn’t condemn the Twelve for being concerned about their status. Rather, he wants to teach them what still had not sunk in: the different way in which God’s plan would work; that he was to be betrayed into human hands, and killed, and rise again on the third day. Furthermore, the Kingdom of God would be established, not on position or status, but on acceptance of God’s love through Jesus. That means humility; stooping down, rather than working your elbows.
A child was the lowest-status person in a household at the time; often not even considered fully human until a certain age. Taking a child in his arms, Jesus is giving the disciples a picture of what this humility in God’s Kingdom looks like. He says, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
The Kingdom of God is upside down, just like the way in which God has worked out the plan of salvation. He doesn’t use a military sword to strike down evil but an upside down sword, in the shape of a cross, on which the Son of Man dies. The disciples didn’t get this at first and that’s understandable; sometimes it’s too hard to hear the things we don’t want to hear or that we’re not ready for. Maybe it’s also a matter of not being willing to listen or thinking that we are being challenged too much. Perhaps what we all need from time to time is to give up our ‘pole position’ and be willing to serve others. After all, as James quotes, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Amen.