They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 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.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about 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.’ (NRSV)
Jesus’ private teaching does not simply predict what will happen. It also speaks of the essence and direction of God’s kingdom.
In Mark, Jesus often refers to himself as Daniel‘s ‘Son of Man’. The title recalls the prophet’s vision of a coming ruler. The story also points to his suffering but, even so, the disciples struggle to comprehend the possibility of a path embracing both a sovereign kingdom and a cross.
Our author is right: as yet, they do not understand.
As if to demonstrate the extent of this ignorance Jesus asks of their recent discussion. They are shamefully silent. On the way they compared and assessed each other. While Jesus speaks of his coming death the disciples fight over political rank.
Perhaps surprisingly Jesus does not rebuke this deep seeded desire to be ‘first’. He does, however, redefine it. In his kingdom the first will be last and take the role of servant. Such qualities probably did not feature prominently in the disciple’s debate. Indeed they are so counter intuitive they leave us wondering how such an economy could ever work. Everyone is moving up in the world while Jesus seems to be working his way down.
And then the great teacher invites a child into the inner circle. Surely she has been playing in the vicinity unnoticed by all but Jesus. But once noticed children hold the potential to turn conversations.
And then Jesus does one simple thing: he holds the child and asks the twelve to do the same.
To do so the disciples will need to bend, bow, or even kneel. They will have to re-focus on one overlooked. It will call for a conscious slowing down – enough to go at the pace of one with a different capacity, different questions, and different perspectives. Now among them is one with decidedly less ambition.
I am left wondering whether or not the twelve do welcome this child. Do they respond by gathering around her, lowering their height and beginning a game? What might happen if they did? What potential insight lies here waiting to be uncovered?
Then again, maybe they continue to ignore her preferring to turn to each other for clarification, discussion and understanding. Perhaps they are more comfortable with keeping all this safely in the realm of detached philosophical debate.
We do not know. But what we do know is that while offering insight into God’s way Jesus welcomed a child – and then asked his followers to do the same.