The best of teachers sometimes fail to get their message across! Jesus was indeed the best of teachers. In our gospel reading we find him alone with his disciples, explaining to them what was going to happen – and they hadn’t a clue what he was on about. What’s more, they didn’t dare ask him to explain it again. What made them afraid to ask? We don’t know. I don’t think it was because Jesus was so scary. I suspect it may have been a combination of reasons: they heard what he was saying, but it was so far away from what they were anticipating, and so dreadful, that they could not take it in and did not want to try; and what he was saying sounded like such bad news for them that they did not want to think about it.
What the disciples did think about was light years removed from the message Jesus was trying to communicate. They were arguing among themselves about who was the most important, Jesus’ right hand man! From their point of view, the question was an important one. If Jesus was the Messiah, as they believed, he was about to establish the Kingdom of God, and would need a Prime Minister and cabinet (or equivalent). They, the twelve whom he’d been training up, were going to be in the top positions, and one of them was bound to be at the top of the tree. The rat race, climbing the ladder, manoeuvring for position – all that was there! Even while Jesus was trying to tell them he was going to be put to death! What must Jesus have felt? What does he feel when he sees us scoring points off one another, putting others down or exalting ourselves?
Jesus’ response was memorable and equally difficult for them to take in. The greatest among them was the very last, the servant of all. How could that be?
Jesus is not advocating servility, nor the kind of humility that is constantly drawing attention to how lowly one is, nor the kind that avoids taking responsibility. What he is looking for is love, the love that treats everyone without distinction as if they were more important than oneself. To make his point he welcomes a child, who would be at the bottom of the pile in the disciples’ view of things. Eastern hospitality is proverbial; the guest is always the honoured guest, and is welcomed accordingly. But you would never dream of welcoming a child as if he or she were an honoured guest. Children didn’t count! Yet Jesus tells them that if they welcome one of these children ‘in my name’ – doing it as his representative – they were welcoming him, and they were welcoming God himself. If that is how they are to respect children, that is how they are to respect and honour one another.
1) How important is self respect to you? When might we make too much of it? What might Jesus say to us?
2) Who should we welcome? How?