And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9.35-37).
If we don’t find something very odd about those words it can only be that long familiarity with them is preventing us from really hearing them anymore. What is odd is that the action of Jesus and the words that accompany it seem to have nothing to do with the principle of “greatness through service” that he is presenting and teaching to his disciples.
They are all in Capernaum, probably in the home of Simon Peter, and Jesus has just asked the disciples what they have been discussing on the way there. No one answers because “on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest” – but Jesus already knows that that was what they had been arguing about. So he sits down (which is what a rabbi does when he is about to teach) and gathers the disciples around his feet; then he lays down the principle: ”If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Then comes the illustration – an acted parable. He takes a child (in the parallel account in Matthew 18.2 he “summons” him – proskaleomai) and first of all sets him among the disciples.
Now it is really important to note at this point that, in that society at that time, no one got at all sentimental about children or expected them to enjoy their childhood playing with toys and watching the Teletubbies. Children worked at whatever tasks they were capable of performing – often the most menial – so that, in the Aramaic language which was the everyday language spoken by everyone in Israel including Jesus and his disciples, there was but a single word for both “child” and “servant” – the word talya. That is the precise reason why Jesus is using a child here as the focus of his acted parable. In terms of word-play, child and servant are one an the same thing. (Put many of Jesus’ sayings back into Aramaic and it is clear that he loved word-play of this sort and regularly employed it as a teaching aid.)
So to illustrate his teaching on greatness through service, Jesus summons the lowest “servant” in Peter’s household – the person on the margins, the person least regarded, who is necessarily the youngest “child” who can walk, talk and carry things – and he steers him into the midst of his disciples. The boy is probably five or six year’s old, barefooted, ragged and dirty and will be standing there keeping his head down, frightened of the beating he’s probably about to get for not doing something he was supposed to have done, while the disciples are probably edging as far away from him as they can without being too obvious about it.
But then Jesus does something extraordinary. He reaches out to the child and lifts him onto his knees and puts his arms around him, and he says: “Whoever receives one such child (child/servant in Aramaic) in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
Yes, you say – but that’s still going off on a tangent, isn’t it? It doesn’t expand on the previous saying: ”If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
I think it does. I think Jesus is here defining servanthood in a radical new way. I think he is saying that to be a servant is to reach out to the lowest of the low and accept them and receive them. It is not merely throwing coins into a tin as you walk past a beggar, keeping your distance: it is (gulp!) stopping and reaching out and embracing the beggar and doing what you can for him. That’s what it means to be a servant/child – to receive every other servant/child, even (or especially) the ones at the very bottom of the heap.
And the wonder of that true kind of servanthood is, says Jesus, that it draws you into a depth of fellowship with me and my Father that is like no other. Why? Because that’s where my Father and I are always to be found – wherever there is someone on the margins (or beyond) shunned, ignored, despised, spat at, or rejected. They are in our heart, says Jesus; so … take them into your heart and you will find that we come with them!