9/20/15 – CARING FOR THE LEAST AMONG US by Lynn Naeckel +

PROPER 20, B, 09/20/15

Mark 9:30-37

On many occasions I have claimed that what Jesus taught was not only counter cultural, but was also radically so. If you haven’t seen that, today’s lesson should make it clearer.

In just 8 verses from Mark, we have what could be considered three different events, but they are so closely related that I’ll have to talk about all three of them.

In the first part, Jesus is trying for the 2nd time to warn the disciples about what is going to happen. What he says is so contrary to their idea of Messiahship, they cannot understand – or they chose not to understand. Once again they don’t get it. It’s so easy to see that they don’t get it, that we may not notice how much we still don’t get it either.

The disciples expect the Messiah to rise up and drive the Romans out. They expect what John Dominic Crossan calls “the great clean-up” to begin, where God comes into the world to set things right – to punish the evil doers, to create the new Jerusalem and subdue the rest of the earth to their rule. How can anyone with these expectations take in the words of Jesus about being killed, much less the business about rising on the 3rd day?

How often do we want someone to come along and set things right? What is the entire “Left Behind” series of books about but that? The old-time view of messiahship is still alive and well – lets throw all the sinners into the fires of hell while we enjoy the fruits of the kingdom. No way is the leader of this clean-up supposed to die!

In the second part of the lesson, Jesus asks the disciples what they had been arguing about along the way. They are shamed into silence because they know that he won’t like what they did. After he explains what is going to happen to him, they end up arguing about who was the greatest among them – sort of like when the Messiah takes over, which of us will get to be Prime Minister? Who will get the plum jobs?

This is a great segment of Gospel to try out the practice of mentally playing one of the roles in the drama. Just imagine yourself in Jesus’s place. I’ve done that and found myself ranting at the disciples for their obtuseness! How frustrating for Jesus, knowing that time is getting short, and the disciples are squabbling among themselves about who’s on top. But Jesus instead sits down and patiently tries again to teach them.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” What? What is he talking about? That is not the way of the world. Jesus says to gain the highest place in the kingdom you must be a servant, even a slave, to all others.

After 2000 years we still don’t get it. How quickly we conform to the norms of our culture, where the one with the most always wins; where the one who rises to the top, usually by pushing others down, is the winner; where the one with the most money or the one who has been here longest has the most influence and status. You don’t have to listen to the current political speeches very long to hear exactly the opposite of what Jesus says.

Serving others also means serving wherever we’re needed, not only the jobs with prestige, but the ones that are menial, and knowing that all are of equal importance for the good of the whole. Consider what our economic lives would be like if people lived for what they could do for others instead of how much they can get for themselves. What would our political scene be like if people put serving others above serving their own ambitions?

In the third part of today’s reading, Jesus takes a child and stands among the disciples saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Think of the pictures you’ve seen of Jesus with a child. Is the child clean? Beautiful? Is it a picture of sweetness and light. Well, erase from your memory all such sentimental, warm and fuzzy pictures, because it is not an accurate rendering of what happened or what this all means.

In the first century, in the Middle East, the infant mortality rate was about 30% of live births. Of the children who lived, 60% were dead before the age of 16. In that culture, children were loved, but NOT valued, at least not until they reached the age of maturity and were of some use to their family and/or tribe. Even so august a person as Thomas Aquinas taught that in a famine, children should be fed last. In other words their status in that culture was the equivalent of a slave’s. (Pilch)

So, if you want to picture Jesus with a child, it should be a child who is barefoot, ragged, and dirty, more like the pictures we see of children from the barrios, or the garbage heaps, or the starving ones of Africa. Furthermore, a child cannot help us in our careers or give us anything of value. So Jesus is saying that we are to welcome the very least among us.

Particularly in his society, which was so status conscious, this message was totally counter-cultural. Unfortunately, it still is today. Have you been in a large city where the homeless are evident in the streets? People who live there ignore them. Can you look at them? Say “hello” or “good morning?”

What Jesus is saying in this lesson is essentially the same as in the famous Matthew text: “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, this you do unto me.”

When we ignore the homeless, or anyone else who is not worthy of our notice, we are ignoring God. When we turn a blind eye on the suffering of people in our country or anywhere else, we are turning a blind eye on God. If we don’t care about the immigrants in our country, even the illegal ones, who are often exploited and mistreated, we are not caring about God. If we refuse to pay taxes to care for the disabled or to educate our children (and they are all our children), or to provide for those living in poverty, we are refusing God’s word, and we’re certainly not following Jesus.

If we refuse to see the connection between ourselves and those who are presently poor, if we have no compassion for those without medical care, if we still believe we’re better off than others because we’ve worked harder or we’re smarter or we’re more deserving, then we are just as blind as the disciples were.

Jesus calls us over and over to a new understanding of our place in the world and how we are to behave. If we could only follow him, life would be better for everyone instead of the few. Life would be about serving others, making sure everyone has enough to live with dignity, and that no one is exploited for another person’s profit. Just imagine it! That’s the kingdom Jesus preaches and that we are supposed to help bring to reality.

So, love one another as God loves you, and give yourself in service as an act of gratitude. AMEN

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