The Great Subversion
Week of Sunday 23 September - Pentecost 17
Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
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I’ve begun reading Thomas Traherne. He says in one place, “As nothing is more easy than to think, so nothing is more difficult than to think well.” (8) How will we think well?
“The WORLD is not this little Cottage of Heaven and Earth. Though this be fair, it is too small a Gift....” from God to us, says Traherne. (18) And, a little earlier,
For when we are once acquainted with the world, you will find the goodness and wisdom of God so manifest therein, that it was impossible another, or better should be made. Which being made to be enjoyed, nothing can please or serve Him more, than the Soul that enjoys it. For that Soul doth accomplish the end of His desire in Creating it.
Or as John has it in his Gospel: “I have come that you may have life; life in all its fullness; that your joy may be full. (John 10:10) How will we find this joy in a world which seems anything but full of joy? How will we think well?
I saw figures recently suggesting that of people born today, a significant proportion are likely to make it well past 100 years of age. I thought of two young women in my congregation, teenagers, as I was working on a sermon. How would this sermon apply to them; they may have another hundred years to live? How will they think well? How will they choose well? What will let them be happy— en-joying the world in fullness— after 50 years of life with the prospect of another 50 in front of them?
The text today is part of the Great Subversion that Jesus teaches us. They are “on the way,” in verse 34, which is Mark’s code phrase (on the way, on the road) for travelling with, or following after Jesus. And they are arguing over who among them is the greatest. They are doing this immediately after he has told them that the one who is the greatest; that is, the Son of Man, will be betrayed into human hands and killed. The phrase “betrayed into human hands” suggests to me being taken out of God’s hands; My God, my God, why hast thou deserted me, he will cry.
The placement of the two paragraphs, the betrayal of the Messiah, and who is the greatest among us, is deliberate. The disciples’ lack of understanding is being highlighted. It is shown in chapter 8, when Peter, who sees that Jesus is the Messiah, will not accept that Jesus will be killed. And we will see it again in chapter 10, almost as an exact mirror; again he will foretell his death, and then two of them will come to him making a bid to be elevated to top dog among the disciples.
It is clear there, what following Jesus means: Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized... (10:39) To follow Jesus means to risk the same ending.
The placement of the two paragraphs implies that greatness means following Jesus. They recognise the greatness of the Messiah, even though they do not yet see its cost.
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ I call this the Great Subversion because it is perhaps Jesus’ key teaching of how we should live, and it stands against so much of the common wisdom of how to live in the world.
A colleague on a preacher’s list said recently that “Jim Wallis tells a story ... about how he and his friends in seminary scoured scripture for every verse that dealt with money, poverty, wealth, economic justice, etc. Then they took a pair of scissors and snipped them all out, and the Bible literally fell apart.”
The reason such issues as money, poverty, wealth, and economic justice are so central to scripture is that they are the key places of our down-falling. They are the primary locus of our inhumanity. They are means by which we so often prevent others from having their joy made full.
And the reason for this endemic injustice is basically that we want to be the greatest. We want to be significant. We want— in the end— to preserve ourselves. We want our joy to be made full. And everything the world teaches us suggests that we need to get ahead, to do well, and to climb the ladder. We learn this from our earliest school days, and before.
If we do this, we learn, we will be safe. We can even perhaps persuade ourselves for a little while that we will not die, or at least, distract ourselves from the thought.
And if our joy is made full, goes this great lie, then some of it can trickle down to others...
Jesus is saying that this is all wrong. To be the greatest you must be the servant of all. You must be the one who is least concerned with getting ahead. Who wants others to have their joy made full first... and is content with what may then trickle down. (It’s at this point that we admit, by our unwillingness to take Jesus literally, that trickle-down economics doesn’t work!)
Into this conversation about greatness he injects a child. The child is the symbol of those who are not great. Children are the least of all in society. 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
What he is telling us is the Great Subversive Truth. To welcome a child is to look upon the face of the Divine. Greatness, salvation and joy come from the Divine. The Divine is not found through worldly power, or by being first. To look upon the Divine go last; look after the children: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes ... the one who sent me!
We only need to look at pay rates for child care workers to see how little we have listened.
The text is not about children, as such, but those who are least. Just like the great parable in Matthew 25, of the sheep and the goats, we meet God, and serve God, when we look after the least. Being the greatest in a worldly sense leaves us no time to look after the least. We are too busy looking after ourselves.
How do we bring this all together?
What does this have to do with Traherne’s sublime joy which means that when we have seen God we know there could be no better world than this! And what does this all have to do with two fifteen year old girls who will likely live to be one hundred years old.
Living for others, as servant, keeps us looking on the face of the Divine. It constantly reminds us where to look to see the beauty that makes even a hundred years of life worthwhile. It brings the beauty of the earth into focus.
Thomas Traherne was the
“happiest man in the county. Discovered felicity. His great realisation was that God wants us to enjoy life and nature. That if we don’t, we’re throwing it all back in his face. Traherne walked the fields and was truly happy.” (The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman pp55 Corvus 2011)
Without the least of God’s people, the stars and the hills are empty places, and I am nothing. Heaven and earth are then but a “little Cottage,” and it will take well less than a hundred years for me to be very sick of them. Looking upon the face of the Divine lets me see more. “The WORLD is unknown, till the Value and Glory of it is seen,” Traherne wrote. (18) It will be seen only in serving.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.