They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
-Mark 9:33-37 (NIV)
I’ve heard it said that sometimes the Bible interprets the reader, and not the other way around. I heard it most recently in a discussion on the story of David and Bathsheba, how where you place blame in that story might say more about you than it does the text. (This uncredited painting housed in the Bowes Museum depicts Bathsheba as being very aware of David’s presence as she bathes, which changes the story drastically.)
I think Jesus’ parable of the little child — and it is a parable, an acted one — in the verses above is another one of those places in Scripture that interprets us.
The parable itself is straightforward. It follows the Transfiguration, where a few of the disciples get a look at who Jesus really is. Then, in rapid succession, there’s a failure by the disciples to drive a demon out of a child — a failure that Jesus holds them accountable for. Then Jesus explicitly teaches his disciples about his coming suffering, death, and resurrection; not only don’t they understand, they’re afraid to ask him about it. Following these two glaring failures, they get caught by Jesus actually arguing about which of them is the greatest — which at that moment is kind of like Cubs and Sox fans arguing about who had the best season last year.
In answer to them, Jesus borrows a child from someone — around the same age as the one they had been unable to help — and “takes [the child] in his arms.” He says, “You want to be first? You want to be great? Then you have to be willing to be last. You have to serve, and you have to serve everyone.”
And then, with the child in his arms, he talks about welcoming “one of these little children” in his name. That’s how to be hospitable to the presence of Jesus, to welcome the Father and his work in the world.
My son and I saw Bruce Springsteen live earlier this week. Toward the end of the show, he referred to a Milwaukee food bank. He said, “They’re doing God’s work on the front lines.” I think Jesus would agree with that statement.
“Little children” in this text goes far beyond actual kids, though they would be included. The next thing you hear from the disciples is maybe an attempt to change the subject: “We saw some random dude driving out demons in your name, and we put a stop to it because we don’t know that guy.”
So, they weren’t able to drive out a demon — but they stop someone who is able to? They’re trying to be gatekeepers. That’s fun, because it distracts from our own failures and lets us promote ourselves, makes us seem greater. So sometimes instead of caring for the little children in Jesus’ name, or at the very least supporting those who do care for them, we argue, denounce, and try to control God’s work. We distract from our failure to welcome “little ones” by finding fault with other efforts to do just that.
Jesus turns the tables — “How will you feel when it’s you who need help? In my evaluation of things, if someone gives you guys so little a thing as a cup of cold water in my name when you’re thirsty, they’re getting a reward.” Left unsaid is the obvious implication that they should have put aside their egos and been more charitable. He wasn’t the competition.
Next, he warns his disciples about the danger of causing “one of these little ones” to stumble. We’re back to little ones, children. The obvious context is what’s just been happening with the disciples — they’ve been preoccupied with “greatness” and have 1) failed to drive a demon from a child, 2) responded to Jesus’ teaching about his coming torture, murder, and resurrection by arguing over which of them is more highly ranked, and 3) tried to shut down someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and actually, you know, being successful at it!
At every turn, their self-interest has put potential obstacles in the path of “little ones” who they should have been serving — in the way their Master does, and will.
“Little ones” — like the people served by that food bank in Milwaukee. “Little ones” — like the children loved and cared for in the name of Jesus by teachers and social workers. “Little ones”— like people whose lives have been scarred and twisted and broken by the work of Satan.
The “little ones” Jesus refers to are any of the people who, in a given moment, his disciples need to put their arms around and care for in Jesus’ name. It isn’t intended to be paternalistic. He recognizes that sometimes the tables turn and those who have been the helpers need to be helped. (Jesus himself will, in the near future, need help.) “Little ones”is not a judgment on the value or competence of the person who, in a particular moment, needs looking after.
So when I say that, in our city, new immigrants to our country are often “little ones,” I don’t mean that they’re like children, incapable of caring for themselves, or that helping means we get to control them. The fact that I need to say that means that we don’t get it. What I mean is that they’re human beings loved by God who followers of Jesus may need to put their arms around and welcome and help.
When I say that people of color are sometimes “little ones” in our country, I don’t mean that they should be treated like children. I mean that those of us with privilege and power need to put our arms around them by advocating for their rights when they’re being marginalized, listening and then speaking up when their voices aren’t being heard, and caring about the ways in which their human rights are trampled.
In 2023, to hear stories about churches supporting abusive pastors over their victims is disheartening to say the least. To hear about misogyny in the church is shocking. To hear about people who claim to follow Jesus supporting fringe politicians who spout hysteria and promise to preserve rights that are in no way threatened by disregarding “little ones” who are in real danger is maddening.
If whatever rights, possessions, privilege, or way of life we want to grasp and hold onto causes us to put an obstacle in the path of “little ones”, it would be better for us to cut off our hands. If what we see and want causes us to disregard “little ones,” it would be better if we tore out our eyes. To not welcome “little ones” in Jesus’ name is to endanger ourselves. It’s antithetical to the life of the kingdom of God, and it puts us on the way of destruction.
“Little ones” are not a distraction. The cost that helping them may accrue is worth it, because they are the focus of God’s kingdom. I like how Mark points out that Jesus put that child, literally, “in the middle of them.” He made that little one the focus of everyone there. And then he “put his arms around him.”
May little ones be our focus, too. And may we follow our Lord in putting our arms around them and welcoming them so that we may welcome Jesus and be part of God’s work.