The Barrel
 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 24, 2000
The Mark of Greatness
Mark 9:38-50
The Rev. John H. Pavelko

Children are wonderful creations of God. We love them and care for them. Children hold a special place in our society. Politicians and leaders of all kinds win votes by hugging and kissing babies. 

Someone once offered these definitions of a child.

A child is someone who can wash his hands without getting the soap wet. 
A child is someone who is either being a lump in your throat, or a pain in your neck. 
A child is someone who is like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression.
Speaking of which, a child is a person who would learn how to write much soon if a paper and pencil were replaced with a stick and wet cement.
A child is a person who can't understand why anyone would give away a perfectly good kitten.1


When Jesus picked up a child in his arms, he was not doing his impersonation of a politician. He was not running for political office or trying to gain the sentimental affection of the crowd. He had been eavesdropping on his disciple's conversation. The men had been talking about which of them was the most important to group. It is anyone's guess as to who started the conversation. My money is riding on John the beloved disciple and the brother of James for three reasons. First, ames and John's mother was the one who later tried to reserve a place for her sons when Jesus would enter into his glory. Their mother is just one pushing mom. You know the type. The soccer mom who thinks that her little darling is the best one on the team and makes sure the coach knows that when the team all-stars are selected. That sort of striving could have easily been passed on from mother to son. Secondly, John was the younger brother of James. Younger brothers are often known for trying to out do their older brothers. They often want to show their older brothers that they are just as good or better. Third, both James and John were known as the Sons of Thunder. They both had volatile personalities. A friendly greeting was merely the prerequisite for ensuing argument.

I can almost picture the group of men jostling for position. When I was an Associate Pastor, I would often take youth groups backpacking. The competition for being first in line was intense. After a few hours of hiking, the group would fall into a pecking order that would last the duration of the trip. Attempts to advance in the line or rearrange the order were met with fierce and almost cruel verbal assaults by the displaced students. Jesus may have seen and overheard this jostling for position.

I admire our Lord's ability to use that teachable moment to instruct his disciples. His initial question gains their attention and focuses on the issue. They had no response. They could not offer a defense. They knew they were wrong. A silence hung in the air. "It was a silence of shame."2 By the way, that Jesus dealt with the problem we know that he considered it very serious. He called his disciples around him and he sat down. When a Rabbi was really teaching like a Rabbi, he would always sit down.3


He first tells the men about the grand reversal that needs to take place in their lives. Bob Dylan captured the essence of this message in his song, The Times They Are a-Changin. He wrote:

The line it is drawn and the curse it is cast,
The slow one now will later be fast;
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin

The disciples needed changing. They needed reorder priorities and reordered lives. The early church came to understand the importance of this. In a third-century document on church life a question is raised as to what should be the proper response if a stranger arrives unexpectedly for worship and the agape feast. During that century the church met in homes and a meal was always served as part of the worship service and an extension of the Eucharist. While the services were usually held in the homes of the wealthy, room was always a sparse commodity. An unforeseen visitor would easily present a problem, especially if the person was destitute, a traveler, or older in years. In those circumstances, the bishop was to display the mark of greatness by offering his place and if no other seat could be secured, the bishop was to sit on the floor. By his actions, the bishop demonstrated that the first shall be last and the last first.

Each of us needs to consider how to best apply this to our lives. Our Lord's teaching would pose a significant challenge on the freeways during our commute to work. It would also offer quite contrast to the "me-first" attitude that is so often displayed. It might also surprise our fellow employees when we are not always demanding to be first in line for benefits, recognition, or a promotion. We should also seek to discover ways of applying the message in the church. I wonder what difference it would make if the elders and deacons parked on the back portion of the parking lot instead of parking conveniently close to the front door. What difference would it make if we stopped insisting that other people listen to our ideas and suggestions. Would it matter if we put the requests of others before our own?


After warning his disciples of the pending grand reversal, Jesus decides to take the lesson one step farther. He takes a child and stands the child in the midst of the group and says, "whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me." We must be careful not to confuse the message Mark is presenting to the lesson from the book of Matthew. In the book written by the tax collector, a child is used to exhort the disciples to take on a spirit of humility. The character of a child becomes the model trait that the disciples are to emulate. Matthew records Jesus saying,

Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:4)

Thomas Long, former Professor of Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary however, reminds that in today's passage we are reading the gospel of Mark not Matthew. The fisherman's nephew is drawing our attention "...not in the child's attitude but in the attitude of others toward [the child]."4 The meaning rests on the word welcome, whoever welcomes the child; whoever serves the child; whoever takes care of the child, takes care of Jesus.

Jesus is saying more than include the children in you worship services. He is asking us to do more than hold Sunday school classes. To fully appreciate what Jesus is saying we must understand his society's view of children. Children held the lowest social status in that society. People did not use pictures of Gerber babies to sell products or solicit sympathy. In the current issue of Time, the lead article is entitled, "Is Divorce Bad for Kids."5 The article expresses our concern towards the emotional, psychological, and intellectual development of children in our society. Whereas child abuse is a growing problem, as a society we place a high value on the development of our children and would not want to do anything that would have a negative impact. That was not the case in the First Century.

In the ancient world, the abandonment of infants was a common practice. Little girls were more often the victims of such practices. We even have a letter written by a Roman officer to his pregnant wife instructing her that if she give birth to a boy to keep it but if it is a girl the officer's wife would know what to do. Infants were abandoned for several reasons, including illegitimacy but often simply because the parents could not afford to keep them. Few abandon child died however. The custom was for the mother to leave the child near a sacred spot. Infertile couples or parents who needed extra laborers would rescue the child and adopt him or her.6

Scholars have not discovered any formal ceremony by which abandoned infants became a part of the family. By merely picking such a child up and taking it home, a person assumed legal guardianship. This informal ritual mirrored the rite at childbirth in which "...a father would pick up his own child immediately after birth, thereby acknowledging it as his own and pledging to raise it."7

This Roman custom, the Jews never abandoned their children, may underlie the symbolic action of our Lord in the Gospel lesson. He places a child in the midst of the group to indicate that even children are to be included in the Christian community. He then takes the child in his arms to reenact the ritual of their symbolic adoption into the community of faith not in order to exploit their labor potential but because "...the biblical God is one with a special concern for the poor, the homeless, the weak and the abandoned."8

This was the message that the early church understood. The Church of the First Century became known throughout the ancient world for its acceptance of children primarily because children were simply not valued. It was unusual for a religion to promote caring for the week, replaceable, and powerless. It separate the Church from the striving, unprincipled, egotistical, self oriented world of Greek and Roman society.

Jonathan discovered how to apply our Lord's words in an AIDS clinic. He was massaging the feet of Roger who was dying. Jonathan writes,

I was still crouched down when suddenly it hit me that this man, Robert, was a child of God. I knew it sounds weird. Normally, I would never say anything like that about somebody...I was overwhelmed, and felt that I was touching the body of a holy person. I was overcome by the holiness of his body, of the body itself, of his being, the holiness of my connection to him. I truly believed that he was a child of God.9


By his actions, Jesus tells his disciples that the mark of true greatness is not found in the jostling for prestige but through acts of charity to the unwanted children of the world. Greatness will not be found on the picket lines in front of an abortion clinic. Greatness will be found by foster parents who must hold a screaming crying crack baby in their arms. By their patience, they will let the child know that someone will be there as she goes through the pain of life. Greatness will also not be found by writing letters to politicians demanding harsher penalties for criminals but rather, greatness will be found by befriend men and women in prison and helping them to discover how to live free and purposeful lives. Greatness will not be found in complaining about how much of our tax dollars goes towar welfare programs. The mark of greatness will be display by tutoring at the Community High School and helping a troubled young teenage get their diploma.

Are you willing to let your lives be marked by greatness?

1. Brett Blair, Sermon Illustrations, Online:
2. William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956, 228.
3. Ibid.
4. Thomas Long, Pulpit Resource, "Why a child?," No. 28, Vol. 3, p. 53.
5. Walter Kirn, "Is Divorce Bad for Kids?," Time, September 25, 2000, Vol. 156, No. 13.
6. Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, The Story of Civilization: Part III, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 365 states that the children were left at the base of Columna Lacaria-so named because the state provided wet nurses to feed and save the infants found there.
7. Joel Marcus, "Counting Diamonds," Christian Century, September 8, 2000, Online:
8. Ibid.
9. Thomas G. Long, Pulpit Resource, 54 quoting from Richard Solly, Called to Purpose: How Men Make Senses of Life-Changing Experience, (Center City MN: Hazeldon Foundation, 1995).

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