There is a Hasidic story about a poor man who became a great rabbi. He was not well educated, nor handsome nor a great orator but he knew God, loved his people, and developed a large congregation. He had a son who was good looking, blessed with a great voice and due to his father’s success received a splendid education. When he returned from his schooling, his father retired and turned his synagogue over to him. He was not a great success. He did all he was supposed to do and when that did not work, he strived harder trying many styles of preaching and teaching. But something was missing, and his congregation drifted away. In frustration he went to a mountain, stood at a cliff, and called out to God that he would not leave until God told him what to do.
A voice came from heaven: JUMP.
The story ends here, but I think Mark is answering it for Christians today.
In our story last week Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded for them all “the Messiah.” This is not completely correct, but it is close enough that Jesus begins to confide in them that he will go to Jerusalem, be murdered but then rise again. Peter is appalled and rebukes Jesus. Jesus does not make any attempt to soothe Peter – indeed tells him that he is Satan – literally an obstacle – because he is not thinking like God, but as a human being.
Today, Mark will show us what thinking like God means, what thinking like a human being is, and how we can go from the latter to the former.
That there were those who wanted Jesus’ death is not surprising. He antagonized and angered many people. Everyone, friend and foe alike would have expected Jesus to be cautious and stay as far away from Jerusalem as possible. Yet he does exactly the opposite.
He intentionally journeys to Jerusalem, knowing that the consequence will be death, but also knowing that he will be raised, vindicated by the Father. Thinking like God is sacrificing oneself, handing oneself over, but knowing that God will accept this gift of self. Thinking like God does not desire position but seeks to serve.
Thinking like a human being is exactly the opposite. Jesus today asks the Twelve what were they discussing. They are ashamed and remain silent. He knows that they were arguing over who was the most important and tells them it is the one who most serves others.
We must remember that Mark’s audience was predominantly Gentile. The Gospel was quite possibly written in Rome, but to an audience that spoke and thought in Greek. The Greeks sought excellence in all things. They wished to be athletically accomplished, mentally acute, and socially prominent. They desired these accomplishments not for the common Good but for individual recognition and fame. Jesus knows this and tells them where to seek true excellence. Desire to be first but not in achieving individual fame or recognition but through serving other people.
To illustrate this, he does something that would have been, at the very least, bewildering to his audience: “Taking a child he placed it in their midst and putting his arms around it he spoke to them.” (Mk 9:36)
Children had no status. They were not able to compete for the prizes which would define excellence and so were at the bottom of society. Jesus puts a child in the place of honor and then showed him affection. He then says something completely incomprehensible.
Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the one who sent me.” (Mk 9:37)
This is loaded with significance. Before mass, much less instant communication, leaders could not communicate directly with other leaders and so were dependent on ambassadors. This is the meaning of the word apostle: one who is sent. Not only civil and military leaders but also religious ones would send apostles. Paul was sent with authority from the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to find and discipline Christians and again he was authorized by James and other Christian leaders to represent them after the first Church Council. An “Apostle” is assumed to have the power to speak for another. This is what the Twelve sought to be; this is what they were arguing about. If we could listen in to them, we might have heard one say that he was more learned, another that he had a better voice, another that he spoke several languages. They would have boasted of their accomplishments which they thought made them most qualified to represent Jeus. Yet Jesus shows them that a child without accomplishments better represented him than any of them. So much so that when people receive him, they receive the Father as well.
Talents, abilities, accomplishments, are wonderful if we remember that they are gifts from God and their purpose is not to build us up but to build up others. If they are not used for this purpose, we will make an idol of ourselves and we are cruel gods indeed.
The old rabbi with whom we began today would not have attained high status in the world to which Mark is preaching and I doubt in ours as well, but he served God and his people and thus was received as a divine ambassador.
So it must be with us. We are called to bring others to Jesus in this very difficult time. It will require that we use every skill and ability we as a community can produce. We will succeed only to the extent we have taken that leap of faith and think like Jesus. Without that commitment no matter what skills we may have we will think like human beings and will offer only idols but if we think as Jesus does no matter what our failings may be we will be apostles of joy and peace.