Jesus’ disciples knew that they were following a great man. Peter had already identified Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus didn’t deny it (8:27-30). The disciples had seen Jesus heal sick people, and it was clear that his teaching was something special. Three of the disciples had seen Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah (9:2-8). There was no doubt that Jesus was a great man.
And the disciples had the inside track. There were only twelve of them. As Jesus expanded his reach, he would need all the help he could get. I’m sure they had never heard about “span of control,” but they instinctively understood it.
“Span of control” has to do with the number of people that one person can supervise. In most cases a person should not directly supervise more than five people. If you are trying to manage a thousand people, you need to organize them so that you have five reporting to you. Then each of those can have five reporting to them–and so on down through the chain.
People often violate that rule, of course. They try to supervise ten people–or twenty. But that’s hard, and often doesn’t work well.
Jesus’ disciples knew that he was going places. Jesus had been making himself known throughout Galilee, and now he and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. As more and more people came to know Jesus, they climbed aboard the bandwagon.
The disciples weren’t sure which direction Jesus would drive that bandwagon, but they hoped that he would take over the country–assemble an army–drive out the Romans. Then he could build a palace in Jerusalem, as David had done so many years earlier. Jesus could establish alliances with rulers of other countries. Before long, he would have things sewn up. No one could touch him.
When that happened, Jesus would need all the help he could get. Where would that leave the disciples? Would he make all twelve top-level managers–reporting directly to him? Or would he pick one disciple–probably Peter–to serve as chief of staff, with the other disciples reporting to Peter? Or would he pick a few for top positions and let the others serve one tier down? No one knew, but they knew that big changes were coming–and they were nervous.
So they had been arguing about who among them would be greatest (9:34). It was obvious that Jesus had already marked Peter, James, and John for top positions. When Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter, he had taken Peter, James, and John into the house with him while the rest of the disciples cooled their heels outside (5:37). When Jesus went to the top of the mountain to meet Moses and Elijah, he took Peter, James, and John with him (9:2). It was clear that Jesus favored Peter, James, and John.
So maybe the rest of them would be working for Peter, James, and John. They liked Peter well enough, and he clearly had leadership potential, but Peter had a terrible temper–and a tendency to shoot from the hip. You never knew what kind of crazy thing Peter might do next. The disciples liked Peter, but they weren’t keen about working for him. Peter might be a disaster waiting to happen.
And James and John–do you know what they called James and John? The Sons of Thunder–that’s what they called them–Sons of Thunder! How would you like to work for someone with a nickname like that! What if you worked for the Sons of Thunder and made a mistake? Would they erupt like a volcano? Would they spew steam and hot rock everywhere? Would they fire you? Would they hit you? Would they make you write on the blackboard, “I’ll never do that again!” a thousand times? No one knew, and no one was anxious to find out.
So the disciples had been arguing among themselves about which one was greatest:
o Am I going to work for you, or are you going to work for me?
o When you get to the top, what would you like to accomplish?
o What about Bartholomew? Bartholomew was a quiet one, but you have to watch the quiet ones. Pretty soon the quiet ones end up running the whole show.
o Or Simon the Zealot? If Jesus wanted to run off the Romans, Simon the Zealot would be the logical choice. No one hated the Romans like Simon. It was rumored that Simon kept a knife under his robe–and knew how to use it. Would they all find themselves taking lessons in the martial arts from Simon someday? No one knew.
So they talked about it as they walked along. Hopefully, all twelve would be great–but who would be the greatest? Who would be the hero? Whose name would go down in history? They wondered about it–and talked about it.
They tried not to talk about it in front of Jesus, of course. Jesus was a funny guy. You never knew how Jesus might take things. The disciples had their private ambitions, but they preferred that Jesus didn’t know about them. It would be better to wait so that Jesus could see them in action. Then he could reward them for a job well done!
With their minds on such things, they hadn’t really heard Jesus when he told them what he was going to do. If they had been listening, they would have been smarter, but they had been talking–not listening. When Jesus told them what he was going to do, they were busy talking about who would be the greatest.
What had Jesus told them? Jesus had told them that he would be handed over to his enemies and killed–and that he would rise again after three days (v. 31). But the disciples hadn’t been listening, because that isn’t what they expected to hear. It certainly isn’t what they wanted to hear.
So when they got to Capernaum, Jesus took them inside a house–probably Peter’s house–and asked, “What were you arguing among yourselves on the way?” (v. 33).
The disciples didn’t know what to say. They were embarrassed. They looked at the ground and shuffled their feet. They felt like little kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar. No one answered. Not even Peter, who always had a quick answer on the tip of his tongue. Silence!
Jesus didn’t say, “I know what you were talking about!” He didn’t rebuke the disciples. He just sat down, because teachers always sat down to teach. He sat down and answered the question that had been in the back of their minds–“What must we do to be great?” Jesus said:
“If any man wants to be FIRST,
he shall be LAST of all
and SERVANT of all” (v. 35).
What! Say again! You know how it feels when your head is one place but the person to whom you are listening says something completely out of the blue. It’s like you need to turn your head around backwards and listen again. That’s what these disciples needed. Excuse me, Jesus, while I turn my head around backwards. Then say that again! Maybe I’ll understand it this time. So Jesus said:
“If any man wants to be FIRST,
he shall be LAST of all
and SERVANT of all.”
Oh! Oh! Of course! We knew that!
But, of course, they didn’t! They didn’t have a clue.
So Jesus called a little child–and put the child in their midst. Jesus put the child inside the Men’s Circle, where children were not allowed. Then Jesus took the child in his arms.
In that time and place, a father might take his own child into his arms, but rabbis didn’t go around hugging children. But I can imagine Jesus pulling that child close–perhaps saying a kind word or asking a question. If Jesus asked a question, you can be sure that he waited for the child to answer. You can be sure that Jesus listened–that Jesus paid attention to the child. And while he did that, his disciples watched–but they still didn’t have a clue.
And then Jesus said:
“Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me,
and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me,
but him who sent me.” (v. 37).
There you have it! A little sermon! The First Children’s Sermon! Only it wasn’t a sermon FOR children but a sermon ABOUT children. It was what we call an “object lesson”–but this time the object wasn’t a ball or a cup of water. This time the object was the CHILD. We might think of it as a Backwards Children’s Sermon–a sermon where Jesus used a child to teach the adults.
What did that sermon mean? What was Jesus talking about? Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me.”
In that culture, people had an obligation to receive people hospitably. When travelers came, you had an obligation to feed them–to put them up overnight–to protect them–to treat them as family. That’s what it meant to welcome someone. It meant to take care of their needs–to help them–to feed them–to make them FEEL welcome–to make them feel like part of the family.
Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me.” The disciples weren’t inclined to welcome children. They were inclined to run them off, because children are noisy–they run and jump and drive adults crazy–they cry–they get dirty–they interrupt at the worst time.
But Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me.” The disciples had been talking about who was great, and Jesus was telling them about true greatness. The person who welcomes a child is the one who is truly great. Do you want to be great in the kingdom of God? Welcome a child!
But it isn’t just children whom we are to welcome. That child stood for anyone who is helpless–anyone who needs help–anyone who is small–or defenseless–or hungry–or thirsty–or a stranger–or naked–or sick–or in prison (see Matthew 25:31-46).
Jesus wants us to help people like that–to defend them–to feed them–to give them a cup of cold water–to welcome them–to clothe them–to visit them. Listen to what Jesus says about that. He says:
“Most certainly I tell you,
inasmuch as you did it to one of the LEAST of these my brothers,
you did it to ME” (Matthew 25:40).
The disciples had been arguing about who was greatest. The church today still has a problem with that–people who want to be important–who are ambitious to be great.
So who is great in this church? Is it the preacher? I would like to think so, but it isn’t the preacher. Is it the person who chairs the board (parish council/session, etc.)? Is it the (name important office in the church)? Is it the (name another important office)?
Let me tell you a story about greatness. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is famous for the work that she did with people who were dying. Kubler-Ross revolutionized the care that people in hospitals and hospices receive as they are dying. Millions of people have experienced gentler, kinder deaths because of Kubler-Ross’s work.
It all started when Kubler-Ross noticed that a particular woman seemed to have a special touch with dying patients. The woman was a maintenance worker who made beds and cleaned rooms and emptied bedpans–but dying people always seemed to be more peaceful when she was around. Kubler-Ross asked the woman her secret. Listen to what the woman said. She said:
“Well, I’ve been up the mountain
and I’ve been down the mountain.
I’ve lived in many valleys.”
“The worst was when I went to a public clinic
with my three year old daughter in my arms, (PAUSE)
and before we could see a doctor, (PAUSE)
she died of pneumonia.” (PAUSE)
“I could have become cynical and angry,
but instead I decided to use my pain to help others.”
“I’m no stranger to death,
and that’s why I’m not afraid to talk and touch those who are dying.
I try to give them hope.”
Kubler-Ross promoted that woman. She made the woman a special counselor to the dying in that hospital. But Kubler-Ross didn’t make that woman great. She just recognized that the woman was already great.
Would you like to be great? Great in Jesus’ eyes! Great in God’s eyes! Find someone who needs help–someone who cannot pay you back–someone like a child–someone like a homeless person–or a sick person–or a prisoner. Do what you can for that person. Do it in Jesus’ name. If you will do that, Jesus will take it personally. He will say, “You did it to me.” And he will bless your life.