30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
You would think that after following and learning from Jesus (face to face, no less), the disciples would begin to understand what he was teaching. Not so much. As verse 32 says: “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” The inversion of values that Jesus preached coupled with what must have been an unintelligible promise of resurrection was a foreign language to the disciples. They were limited by what they already ‘knew’ and what they expected. It is a problem we all share at every level of relationship.
When I was seven or eight, I visited a park with my cub scout pack. There were ducks on the lake and a sign that said ‘Wood Ducks’. I was amazed at how life like they could make wood ducks look. I had no idea that wood ducks could actually be live ducks. I learned but I felt foolish. In a different context, a five year old adamantly refused to go to the viewing for his beloved grandfather. Only later did the family realize that when the adults talked about viewing the body, the little boy imagined his grandfather would be headless. There was no way he wanted to see his grandfather that way. He was frightened. We only have our context and definitions and the disciples were the same. And until we begin to learn the limitations of our individual thinking, we can come to some foolish or frightening conclusions. We probably should remember that when we read about the disciples—or when we deal with one another.
The disciples could not imagine they could be saved by someone who kept saying he would be so vulnerable. But perhaps even more unintelligible, the disciples also had no way to make sense of his promise to rise again in three days. We, at least have the resurrection story and the resurrection promises. But, even with the Jesus story, most of us still struggle with what resurrection means. Rising from the grave still stirs up images of phantoms and spirits more related to ghost stories than experiences of new life when all hope seems gone.
One of the advantages of aging is that we are more likely to have had experiences in which we have felt great loss or felt unable to go on. No matter what we have been taught or how faithful we are, we can not imagine coming out the other side of that kind of pain with new life. It is not something we can know, it is something we must experience.
Christianity is about the experience of love more than knowing about love. Christianity is not limited to the intellectual or theological elite. It is for people who need to be loved. A child does not have to know about or even be able to conceptualize love in order to feel safely embraced. Over and over again, Jesus loved whether or not his disciples or anybody else understood him—or even whether or not people rejected him.
In this passage, the disciples are both childlike and childish. Very recently they had seen Peter praised one minute and rebuked the next for the same answer. Most of us want to have the right answer. Most of us seek approval. The disciples were not different. Better to stay silent than expose ignorance. I love the ordinariness of the words “But they were afraid to ask him.” We’ve all been there.
The disciples had yet to realize that God’s love was and is different than human love. We might give lip service to ‘it’s ok to ask questions’, or, ‘there is no dumb question.’ but it is still vulnerable to reveal what we don’t know. By human standards, we do not measure up. And in some groups we risk being dismissed or ridiculed when we reveal our lack of understanding. But Jesus just tried again. He kept looking for a way that the disciples could understand.
When I first read the passage I imagined a frustrated Jesus with amazingly thick disciples. I imagined a frustrated parent yelling “How many times to I have to tell you?” As I have worked on the passage, however, I see a patient and determined Jesus who wants his disciples to learn the radical inclusiveness of God’s loving. Jesus did not hold the disciples fear and reticence against them. Nor did he hold their childish jockeying for position against them. He just pointed out the first and last make no difference to God.
Then, to make his point in yet another way, Jesus holds up a child. It is easy to sentimentalize this image because most of us view children as precious and often the center of our attention. This was not the case in the first century. Children were the lowest rung of the familial hierarchy. Children would not be deferred to. So to suggest that welcoming a child was tantamount to welcoming God would be equivalent to saying that welcoming the homeless is like welcoming royalty.
Over and over again, Jesus reached out to people that were last in the eyes of the world. He reached out to foreigners, jews, gentiles, women, children, the sick, the poor, the unclean and the sinner. Everyone of these groups held low social rank. Jesus did not care. He refused to respect human ways of determining importance. He noticed, loved and included all people.
When we treat the least of these as God’s children, we affirm God’s inclusive love. When differences between people become criteria for membership in God’s kingdom, we are sinful. We may not be able to be so inclusive in real life, but our failure calls for confession in the confidence that God’s love is bigger than our limitations.
Finally, Jesus says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name….” “In my name” is what makes us Christians. We could welcome children (or any of the least of these) for many reasons. We may be idealist, social activist or simply need a source of cheap labor. But Christians welcome the least of these to affirm God’s promise that we all belong to God. That’s how Jesus loved and that is the love we are called to. He can’t tell us enough.
We all belong to God and we are all called to love as God loves. Let it be so.