October 24th, 2010

It’s more important to be needy than to be right.

Mark 10:13-16

October 24, 2010


One of the things that strikes me first about the story we read this morning from Mark’s gospel is that it seems everybody is mad.

We’re told that the disciples “rebuked” the parents who brought their little children to Jesus.  Jesus has told them he is going to Jerusalem for suffering, rejection, and death at the hands of the religious leaders (8:31).  He added that anyone who wants to be his disciples must take up his cross and follow (8:35). 

The closer they get to Jerusalem, the disciples are on edge.  They see themselves as Jesus’ bodyguards, ever watchful of whoever is going to threaten him.  These children and parents are hardly intimidating, but they are clearly a distraction.

My hunch is that the parents are angry about this rejection.  Remember, they don’t know what Jesus has told his disciples about what’s ahead.  They are simply following the custom of their day of bringing children for a blessing from a rabbi.  Jesus has become rather prominent as an itinerant preacher, and they would like his hands on their little ones.  Rudely shunned by unexpectedly anxious disciples, they are understandably frustrated as well.

The biggest surprise to a casual Bible reader, however, is that Jesus is angry.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all relate this story, but only Mark adds the detail that Jesus was “indignant.”  Don’t sugarcoat that.  He was extremely displeased at his disciples. For those whose image of Jesus is the soft-spoken, non-confrontational, easygoing healer and preacher, this can be rather unsettling. 

It’s not just that he’s angry.  He’s angry at those who were trying to look after him.  I would rather Jesus have said something like this to his disciples: “Guys, I appreciate what you’re doing, but there’s no need to protect me right now. I’m going to be OK – what’s ahead is all part of God’s plan. This is a tense time for all of us, but  being around kids will be good for you and good for me.”  Instead, he’s “indignant.”

Jesus is so unlike the Jesus we mold in the image of who we think we are.

Real children

Set aside the anger issue for a moment.  We will come back to it.

The Jesus we are comfortable with is the Jesus who loves the children.  He takes the little ones in his arms.  He touches them.  He blesses them.

It was tradition for parents to seek the blessing of a rabbi on a child’s first birthday.  Luke uses the word “babies” to describe these kids. 

Don’t clean this scene up too much.  We’re talking about the days a long time before Pampers.  Some of them were smelly.  Some of them had snot dripping down their noses.  Some of them may have had a suspicious rash.  Not a few were crying or squirming.  But Jesus held them.  He touched them.  He blessed them.

He used the experience to teach his disciples, as well as the parents and anyone else in earshot, a valuable lesson about his kingdom.  “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (v. 15). 

This is yet another blow to the Jesus we prefer.  This Jesus – the real one – doesn’t say that everybody is automatically “in.”  What’s more, he seems to say that those who actually make it “in” are those who are least likely.

Those who make it in his kingdom are those who are most like children.  How?

Radically dependent

We can think about children as a metaphor for spiritual qualities in two ways. 

The first way is to think about how children act.  William Barclay says when Jesus told that receiving “the kingdom of God like a little child,” he’s talking about a child’s humility, obedience, trust, and short memory (The Gospel of Mark, 242).  A child is naturally accepting and compliant and forgiving.  Whether or not those are characteristics of children, I don’t think that’s the point Jesus was trying to make.

The other possibility is that Jesus was talking about who children are.  C. E. B. Cranfield says that Jesus is talking about another kind of humility – “the fact that (children) are weak and helpless and unimportant” (The Gospel According to Mark, 324).

Pheme Perkins agrees, saying that children in Jesus’ day “had no status or power.”  In fact, “The child in antiquity was radically dependent upon the pater familias (father of the family).  The father decided whether the child would even be accepted into the family.”  Children in that day could be abandoned at birth if the father so chose.  The point here is that Jesus’ disciples “are radically dependent upon God’s grace – they cannot set the conditions for entering the kingdom” (New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII: 647).

To be a child is the opposite of self-sufficiency.  The opposite of arrogance.  The opposite of “I can do it myself.” 

It’s virtually impossible for a child to know how dependent he or she is.  They don’t know what they don’t know.  They don’t know what they can’t do.  They don’t know where they haven’t been.  Their small world imagines that the world revolves around them.  The smaller the child the more radically dependent on others.

Jesus is saying a prerequisite for being in his kingdom is admitting my neediness, my vulnerability.  Only when I confess I don’t have it all together am I ready for Jesus’ reign in my life and in the world.

Ministry teams

This fall at Corinth we’re talking about ministry teams.  We want to change the entire focus of our church life so that less of our corporate energy goes into “meetings” and more goes into “ministry.”

One key place to plug into ministry is children – Kids’ Club, Sunday School, Children’s Church, Nursery, Special Events, and more.  I bristle when people seem to suggest or imply that we are only missional when we do evangelism or work at the Soup Kitchen or send missionaries across the ocean.

We are serving Christ and accomplishing his mission when we invest in ministry to children.  There are a myriad of ways to serve children in the church and in the community.  You can change them, teach them, play with them, read to them, hug them, give to them, adopt them, protect them, escort them, relieve their parents, wipe their noses, model humility for them, and more.

Later this fall, when we give you specific opportunities to join a ministry team, I hope that many of you will say, “I want to love on some kids.”

Why?  One answer is simply that by investing in children, we are changing the next generation.  Another answer is that the radical dependence of children makes them vulnerable.  We need our best people with our kids.

The story of Jesus welcoming the children gives us another answer.  We learn from them.  “A little child will lead them,” Isaiah said (11:6).

This takes us back to the subject of anger.  What does this story teach us about anger?

Since Jesus got angry, anger itself is not necessarily wrong.  But the disciples’ anger was clearly wrong.  What was the difference?

The classic response is that anger is OK when it’s “righteous anger” – that is, anger that accomplishes a righteous purpose.  The problem is that all of us believe our anger to be righteous.  I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever known an angry person who, at least in the heat of indignation, doesn’t believe the anger is justified.  That would include the disciples.  They weren’t looking out for self – they were protecting Jesus.

The distinction isn’t that Jesus was angry for others and the disciples were angry for selfish reasons.  Maybe the difference between sinful anger and righteous anger has something to do with humility.

The disciples were arrogant about their association with Jesus and their responsibility to him.  They had spent 24/7 with him for at least two years, maybe longer.  They felt they knew him – they knew how he thought, what he wanted, what he valued.  They were so sure of themselves that they thought they could speak for him.  He would not want to be bothered by children at such an important time in his life. 

Jesus, on the other hand, knew that it’s more important to be needy than to be right.  It’s more important to be dependent than to be self-sufficient.  The reason I’m angry with you disciples, he’s saying, is that by dismissing a child as unworthy of your time and mine, you show that you really don’t get my kingdom yet.

Entry into Jesus’ kingdom begins with helplessness.  It begins with bankruptcy.  It begins with unmitigated need.  My life is hopelessly lost and aimless until I repent of my brokenness, sin, and self-righteousness, and admit that only by Jesus’ death and resurrection do I find forgiveness, new life, and a place in his kingdom.

Most anger emerges when we recognize the brokenness of others and condemn them for it.  When we see our own unworthiness and need, we are far more able to release the anger we have toward others.

I learned this from Peter Corneliussen in his relationship with Maggie Dow, who died recently at age 98.  Maggie was smiling and gracious at church, but those who knew her well, including Peter and his family and Linda Armfield, saw another side.  “When she was sad, she could be mean,” Peter said.

Most of us push people away when they’re mean.  Peter said of Maggie, “When there’s that much aggravation there must be a lot of pain.”  When we see in others’ brokenness a symptom of their need, love begins to overcome.  We see our own radical dependence and allow compassion to emerge triumphant. 

That’s when humility trumps anger.  Amen.

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