The Rev. Peter Faass
“[Jesus] asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
Thank goodness no one ever argues about who is the greatest among us anymore - not!
We live in an unparalleled era of greatness attainment; of ruthless manipulation, abusing others to gain what we want: money, status, power, sexual gratification, you name it. Usually it’s some combination of them all. I don’t know about you; I feel as if I need a shower with hot, steamy water and lots of soap after reading the latest news. The behavior of so many people is grimy, especially from those who would deem themselves greater than us. Swamps are not being drained - and pigsties are being built.
For too many, being "the greatest” means being able to satiate every whim when you desire it. It’s the culture of instant gratification. Being great means being powerful, having authority over others, and exercising power through your position, wealth and sexual dominance. This results in mental, emotional and physical violence for those you believe you’re greater than. This cultural understanding of greatness is almost entirely imbued in a male-dominated world . . . like in Jesus' time.
The #MeToo movement certainly has exposed us to the underbelly of our male-dominated culture and the gross mistreatment of women. The continuing revelations of ongoing and unpunished clerical abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church reminds us that those in positions of moral authority can be subject to abject moral failings.
The sports world is culpable as well, and the indecent behaviors are not limited to women (although there’s no shortage of that). Penn State and Ohio State had cultures where people turned a blind eye to young boys and male athletes being raped or sexually molested for years. Do I need to even talk about our elected officials in government who believe their "greatness" entitles them to abuse, manipulate and harm others to feed their greatness?
Our culture is filled with men who have been steeped in a culture of male superiority and dominance from birth. This ethos of “take and do what you want, whenever you want it” is nurtured as an entitlement of gender. This ethos gets distilled in the frequently offered and morally bereft phrase, “Well, after all, boys will be boys (wink, wink)."
A late night television host recently quipped, “If you believe that all this sexual violence we are being made aware of is legitimatized by the belief that boys are just being boys, you should not be able to raise boys . . . or girls. Maybe you can raise a potted plant.”
So much of what we encounter in this desire to be the greatest and the most powerful, regardless of the behavior or resulting cost to others dignity, self-worth and well-being, revolves around children: specifically, how we treat and teach them.
Let’s examine Jesus’ encounter with his argumentative and power-hungry disciples in today’s Gospel, where he cities children as the counterpoint to their inappropriate desires for greatness.
The child of antiquity was a nonperson. If children were useful, it was only to the degree they could perform work. This culture dictated that children should be working, or if they were too young, with their mother (another nonperson.)
In pagan Greek culture, it wasn’t unusual for children to be used for sexual gratification, especially in a mentoring relationship between a man and boy. So, what Jesus does and says with this child he takes in his lap is shocking! He has elevated this nonperson to the status of a role model follower of him.
“Whoever wants to be great must be like this child,” he proclaims. “Whoever wants to be first must be last in the accepted hierarchy and a servant to others. Just like this child.”
Jesus again reverses the world order of the dominant culture. The whole reason for his ministry (in fact his whole life) is to deliver the countercultural message of God’s reign, the path to our salvation. Following Jesus requires a total reversal of status, and it insists we adjust our values to align with that reign.
The most critical way to nurture the values of God’s reign begins with how we raise our children. At Christ Church, we nurture our children in Jesus’ ways as a core value of our faith community. Our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program is the cornerstone of this endeavor.
From a very young age, children in this program are taught the intrinsic value of every human being and to respect the dignity of each person as a beloved child of God. It’s paramount we teach them the value and dignity of every person – as Jesus taught us. We treat children with the dignity they have and deserve.
The goal is that these values become fully woven into the fabric of their lives, especially when they are reinforced in their family life, school, and elsewhere. When that occurs, these values become obvious to their conscience, souls, and hearts. It becomes part of who they are as they become adults.
A person who has these core values hanging as a moral plumb line in their life doesn’t rape someone, or abuse them for self-gratification. They don’t climb over people like so much chattel to ruthlessly achieve through any means possible, power and wealth. They don’t treat others like disposable possessions or property. They don’t lie to save their own skin when they are wrong. They don’t rip children away from their parent and incarcerate them in cages because they believe immigrants and brown-skinned people are sub-human. They don’t justify shooting first and asking questions later because of a person’s skin color. They can’t become white supremacists. They don’t because they can’t. They understand what real greatness is.
The way we treat and raise our children matters because it is a measure of our discipleship to Jesus and the Gospel. If we view children as Jesus does and raise them with his values of dignity and love, it changes the world. It’s why Jesus wants those who accept erroneous values of greatness to become like children. Becoming like a child means loving without prejudice or fear. Doing so transforms us into Jesus’ likeness.
The radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives completely obliterates the world’s notions of greatness based on status, wealth, power, and sexual dominance. Perhaps that is one reason why so many resist grace so much. It is often much more appealing to be great on the world’s terms than on Jesus’ terms. That’s evil at work when we succumb to that belief. Greatness on Jesus’ terms means being humble, lowly, and vulnerable as a child. Greatness on Jesus’ terms is risky; it means living counter to the prevailing culture. As Jesus repeatedly teaches, his way to greatness is the only path of true life. That makes it all worth it . . . for our children - and ourselves.