When my son Jonathan was in the 7th grade, he didn’t necessarily choose his elective classes in school according to his skills and interests. No, one of his electives that year was 3 D Art, a class he chose because one of his best friends was taking it. When Jonathan first told me about it, I was a little nervous – he had and still has many skills, but being artistic isn’t really one of them. And back then, I wondered: how would he do in a class with kids who are highly skilled artistically?
So a couple of weeks after classes started, I asked carefully about his 3 D art class. And he replied, cheerfully and without missing a beat, ‘Mom, the good news is that I’m the kid who has a good chance of being most improved by the end of the year.’
That’s a great way to spin it, isn’t it?
And the more I thought about it, the more I had to admire the wisdom in the words of my then 12 year old. I mean, think about it – most if the kids in this class were probably really good, at the top of the game. They probably were very competitive, nervously glancing over to what the kid next to them is doing, with high expectations for themselves; and they probably were prone to getting easily frustrated when something didn’t work out the way they expected. When you are at the top, things can only get worse; and often (and that’s a more general observation now), people fear for their position and status and sometimes do strange and even ruthless things just to defend their top spot and hang on to their power. It’s not easy being first.
In Jonathan’s case, being among the last in his art class had certain advantages – he knew things could only get better for him, he was open to learning and improvement, and so there was no pressure. He could enjoy his friends, he could marvel – without envy – at the skills of others.
It’s rare that someone doesn’t mind being the last. We live in a high-powered society in which those people are admired who have achieved and accomplished something and who are at the top of their game. We want our kids to excel at whatever they do, because we want them to be at the top of their particular game, we want the best for them, and we know that the bottom is not a good place to be.
And many of us willingly participate in what we call the ‘rat race’, trying to be among the first in our particular field, sometimes at almost any cost: health, relationships, sometimes even our values and convictions.
There is something very human about trying to be at the top, trying to be among the first. Not even Jesus’ disciples are immune against it. Last week, we heard about Peter trying to dissuade Jesus from going through suffering and death, from being among the least, and how Jesus rebukes Peter by saying, you don’t set your mind on divine things, but human things.
Today’s story from the Gospel seamlessly picks up the same subject: Jesus, again, teaches his disciples about how he, the Messiah, has to go through suffering and death, and what happens? The disciples start quarreling about who is the greatest among them; some scholars suggest that the disciples argue about who’d be Jesus’ successor and heir after his death. It’s almost like family members quarreling about who gets certain heirlooms before grandma is even deceased.
Jesus realizes that they still don’t get it. The disciples may think that to be Jesus’ successor means to have prestige and popularity, as they’ve seen it in the past with the masses adoring Jesus – that it means to be the first, at the top. But they don’t get that being in Jesus’ place also means to go to unfamiliar and uncomfortable places, that it means to be rejected, humiliated, ridiculed, that it means to give up their lives for others, maybe even literally.
And so Jesus tries to teach them yet another lesson. He takes a child, which has been loitering nearby and embraces it. Now it may cause us to think, aww, how cute, but for the disciples it must have been scandalous. In Jesus’ days, children were considered worthless by society at large.
Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) say about children:
“Ethnocentric and anachronistic projections of innocent, trusting, imaginative, and delightful children playing at the knee of a genteel Jesus notwithstanding, childhood in antiquity was a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent. Another 30 percent of live births were dead by age six, and 60 percent were gone by age sixteen. Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease, and dislocation, and in some areas or eras few would have lived to adulthood with both parents alive. The orphan was the stereotype of the weakest and most vulnerable member of society. Childhood was thus a time of terror, and survival to adulthood a cause of celebration (accompanied by appropriate rites of passage)…
Children had little status within the community of family. A minor child was on a par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was he/she a free person who could inherit the family estate. The term “child/children” could also be used as a serious insult (see Matt. 11:16-17).
This is not to say that children were not loved and valued. In addition to assuring the continuation of the family, they promised security and protection for parents in their old age. [p. 238]”
In short, it was scandalous that Jesus would pay attention to children and even lift them up as examples of faith. It was considered scandalous that Jesus would stoop down to the least and last in society, and thus become one of them. The most scandalous was Jesus’ death of a criminal on the cross. Jesus thus became the last among all; but, paradoxically, was raised to be the first among all.
So what Jesus is doing by embracing the seemingly worthless child is quite mindboggling – he demonstrates to the disciples that he and his ministry are not about glory and fame, but about service to the least. These are the divine things Jesus was talking about in last week’s gospel, things that are in opposition to human interests and values. Jesus shows what it means to become one of the least and the last, just by associating with them. And it makes me wonder if the disciples get it, or want to get it.
Jesus’ message, if you think about it, is quite a hard sell – because who in their right mind would want to be the last? We as Lutherans believe in the so-called “Theology of the Cross”, a theology which stresses the suffering and death of Jesus, a theology which emphasizes true sacrifice for and service to others. This theology also stresses that we are called to look for God among the least and, quite possibly, become the least ourselves.
I think we all have an idea who ‘the least’ are in this society – the homeless, immigrants, refugees – and, still in this day and age, children are the most vulnerable in such circumstances – those struggling with addictions or mental illness, the elderly spending their last days lonely in nursing homes; and we could add on and on to this list.
If we want to be the first in God’s kingdom, we first have to go where God is and serve those who are among the least.
I would like to close with the following story: A young rabbinical student asked the rabbi, “Rabbi, why don’t people see God today as they did in the olden days?” The wise old man put his hands on the student’s shoulders and said, “The answer, my son, is because no one is willing to stoop so low.”
By the way, what you see in the picture is one of the results of Jonathan’s efforts in his art class, made of a plastic bottle and paper mache. It’s been moved several times and has endured some abuse – but I really like this little fellow, and I am still keeping it on the shelf to remind myself that sometimes, being last doesn’t mean that you can’t improve, that you can’t achieve something or create something beautiful. Being last doesn’t mean God can’t lift you up. For with God, all things are possible.
Picture by Kerstin Weidmann; artwork by Jonathan B.
This post is also available in: German