Jesus seems to delight in turning everything upside down! Do you want to become important? Then become as vulnerable and unimportant as this little child! (Revised Common Lectionary Mark 9:30-37) Not as innocent a teaching as we might at first think.
The image of Jesus drawing a small child to himself and teaching that we are to become like these little ones and that in doing so will indeed be welcoming God, is a popular one. Visions of this adorn many a sanctuary or baptistery. At a sentimental level there is little to disagree or struggle with. Who doesn’t love children?
And yet this was a contentious teaching in its time (and if truly heard is still today). We need to decide if we think Jesus was reprimanding the disciples to shame them, or whether he was teaching and inviting them into a deeper more inclusive understanding of their purpose! And even when, like me, we believe that of course it must be a teaching about becoming more loving and opening up our hearts and minds to a bigger deeper way of loving it is still a hard lesson for it strips us bare of all our defences and protections.
Think of the context within the story. The disciples have apparently been arguing among themselves about who is the greatest. At one level this is cartoonish – surely we wouldn’t openly argue about such things or talk about who is the greatest? And yet we in the church do this in all sorts of ways all the time, in the anxious silence of our hearts or in indirect ways, nursing hurts and fears and resentments. Bishops do it, priests do it and lay people do it. We all desire to be thought important if not powerful. Jesus’ response is to draw a child to himself and thereby undermines, subverts, what we think of as important and great.
A child in his day was probably as cute and loved as a child today. Some of the healing stories in the gospels tell us how much parents loved their children then as now. Then, as now, children were physically dependent and yes the disciples were probably being reminded to be dependent on God. And then, as now, children were open and curious and the disciples were probably being reminded to be open hearted and have a curious mind. But this was a society in which children, women, and servants had no legal status – no protections, no rights. The best a child could be said to be was a potential citizen if they were male. Jesus is in a way saying that we are to become as unimportant, as vulnerable, as outside of societies systems of honour and prestige as children. And this was his answer as to who was the greatest. It was not simply a way of putting conventional wisdom on its head but turning it inside out. A bit like the beatitudes and all of Jesus’ wisdom teachings. Jesus was not only suggesting that we need to be nice to those who are vulnerable but we are to join them, to become as them. And in welcoming, in becoming, vulnerable, unimportant, beyond recognition and honour we would be welcoming, being welcomed, into the embrace of God.
In our community we pay much lip service – and maybe even in our hearts we have much concern – for the wellbeing of children, the disabled, the refugee, the homeless, and the vulnerable. But we, at least I, would rather be kind to others who are vulnerable than to become vulnerable myself. It is frightening being vulnerable. Think of when you have been sick or shamed or hurt or left out, when life has been hard and lonely. Being vulnerable is not for the faint hearted! And yet at different times of life that is how we find ourselves – as children, when we are bereaved, when we are sick, when we are overwhelmed by financial or other troubles – the list of life events that can reduce us to vulnerable people needing others is long. And while few of us would volunteer for those circumstances there is grace and wisdom even in this. If only to experience great compassion for others and ourselves and to become more reliant on God and each other. Because when we are vulnerable, when we are empty, we are available to grace, to receiving love and a new or renewed mind. When we are full of ourselves there is no room in the inn of our hearts for the humble and holy one of God.
So if we as individual followers are asked to become as children and the vulnerable what does that mean to us as church? We might anxiously look around and ask where are the younger generations in our church? And wonder if we are all becoming old and vulnerable together? How are we to care for each other? How are we to influence a larger society that we often think is missing the point of existence and leaving us behind? It is easy for us, including me, to get anxious or to feel defeated when we think about the big issues in the world and in the church – to feel overwhelmed and therefore able to do nothing of worth.
But maybe we need to spend some time on the margins as unimportant people so that we can learn again what is truly important? Maybe we need time in the wilderness re-evaluating how best to serve the Lord and minister to those in need? Maybe we can acknowledge the wisdom and merit of others and other ways not clutching at importance for ourselves? And maybe we need to become a vulnerable raggle-taggle group of followers desperate for a new age when the dream of God, the vision of life on earth lived by kingdom values, burns bright in us collectively.
Remember that God does not despise the lowly and Jesus says that when we become like the vulnerable child we will find that we are welcoming God. As Rachel Held Evans so colourfully said: “But the gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come and eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.” When we lose our importance and certainty and acknowledge our hunger we may just find ourselves filled with what is truly important - grace beyond measure.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, and help us to be open to life in you.