Even as Jesus again informs his disciples of his impending death, their discussion on the road is not of what they will do when he is gone but of who among them is the greatest. We all have different definitions of greatness, but it is safe to say that our idea of what makes a person great is different from Jesus’ ideas.
In the first-century culture in which they lived, it is likely that the disciples equated greatness with political power, with influence, and with wealth. That’s still true today. We tend to describe people with those attributes as being great. But Jesus, no doubt frustrated at failing to get his point across, once again reaches out to the margins to make his point.
He takes a small child, one who would normally not have been allowed even to approach a teacher, and draws the child to him and even sets the child on his lap. “Whoever wishes to be great must be the last of all and servant of all,” he says, upending their ideas that great people get to be first in line for everything and to have servants, rather than to be servants. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
In Jesus’ day and time, a child was not considered a person. Until it was old enough to contribute to the household economy, it was a burden, another mouth to feed. To be a child was on par with others who were considered a burden on society: the beggar, the widow, the orphan, the cripple. They had nothing valuable to add and were utterly dependent on others for their survival. And yet here was Jesus, saying, “This is greatness. Be on the margins. Be at the bottom. Be like a child.”
What is it about being a child that Jesus was celebrating? What would happen if we were to approach life more like children?
Greatness in the Kingdom of God overturns the usual perception of greatness and honor. We can accept that view as long as we do not have to watch someone being first we think should be last. And the way we treat children is a good measure of discipleship.
Knowing that the disciples had been arguing about who was greatest shows that they still do not understand Jesus’ mission and message. Jesus has repeatedly been reaching out to, and restoring to community, those who have been outcasts, those who are on the margins, those who would end up last in any equation.
Jesus consistently reaches out to those with no greatness by the world’s measure, signaling that he has come to be at one with those with no influence. Rather than hold to the world’s standards, Jesus continues to demonstrate a different set of standards, here by making a child the focus of his energy and attention. To welcome a child, Jesus seems to be indicating, is to be like a child. What does that mean?
Children are trusting. Many have never met a stranger and are ready to be friends with anyone. Children are honest, describing what they see. Until they discover the temporary advantages of honesty, they will tell the truth simply and completely.
Children also tend to accept people as they are, with no predetermined expectations of others having to change to satisfy them. Children are creative, ready to make use of anything they have at hand rather than expending energy complaining about what they lack.
Most of all, children radiate love. They love completely and unconditionally, putting their whole selves into love. Their eyes learn to focus by seeing those they love; they learn to speak by imitating those they love. They are quick to share their love with anyone, lighting up when they see a familiar face and reaching out for a hug and a kiss.
But the unique feature of children, even more than their capacity for love, is that they embody that which Jesus preaches. Children come into this world completely and utterly dependent on others. They are the embodiment of being last of all. A newborn has no power to wield, no influence to use, no wealth to keep or to share. A baby depends on others to provide everything it needs to be fed, to be warm, to be secure. When we depend on others – when we admit that we need others to function – then we perforce are in a relationship. When we will accept help from those around us, and when we offer help, then we have become great, when we have learned what love is. And a baby is the embodiment of love.
Who has looked at a newborn child without melting? To hold a baby in our arms is to be suffused with the pure and boundless love that God has for us. Here is a new person, ready to become a part of the lives of those around it. And when this new person is born, its birth creates new relationships. The man becomes a father, the woman becomes a mother. Each would surrender his or her life for the child.
And that is greatness. We can make our own definitions of greatness. But by taking onto his lap a child, someone who could do nothing for him, Jesus shows us what greatness is. It is the willingness that he will soon demonstrate: that when you love someone completely and without limits, you will die for them. In today’s narrative, Jesus has been informing his disciples that he will lay down his life for them and for the whole world, for all who will listen. True greatness comes not from power but from a willingness to surrender that power, to surrender one’s very life for the sake of love.
“To such as these,” to the weak, the marginalized, the un-influential, the powerless, “to such as these belongs the kingdom of God.”
Archbishop John Odama of Uganda refers to children as ngini ngini, tiny ants that are nevertheless vital to the region’s ecosystem. The kingdom of God, as Jesus instructs his disciples, is about learning to receive — to welcome — the ngini ngini in our midst. When we do that, we become ngini ngini, which is to say that as we learn to receive, to embrace the precious, weak and most vulnerable members in our own communities, we learn to embrace the precious, weak and vulnerable core of our own identity; we learn to embrace the ngini ngini within us.
It is here, more than anywhere else — in the weak, vulnerable, tender, easily hurt, young, soft, broken, readily crying core of our lives — that the kingdom of God belongs. It is here, more than in power, strength and achievements, that we meet God.