Some years ago, an interviewer asked the comedian Ben Elton a rather fatuous question:
“Have you always been a comedian?”
Without hesitation, Ben Elton replied.
“No – I used to be a baby.”
It’s a trap into which we all fall from time to time: “I’ve always liked this…”, “I’ve always enjoyed that.” Well, we haven’t always had those preferences, those experiences. We too were once little bundles of extraordinary potential. We have changed and developed, realized at least some of that potential.
“No – I used to be a baby.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus confronts a bunch of people who are stuck in a particular way of thinking, and reminds them that they used to be and still have the potential to be more open, more flexible, more humble, more willing to learn, and also more dependent, more vulnerable.
And they needed reminding. Jesus has just predicted his suffering and death for the second time, and the disciples have reacted with much the same bafflement as Peter did on the first occasion. And, despite what Jesus has told them, they have spent the rest of the journey back to Capernaum arguing about which of them is the greatest.
Jesus does not despair of them. He knows that they are educable. He also knows that repetition works. Today’s passage is one of a series of lessons that he gives the disciples in St Mark’s Gospel, all of which are directing them towards a single great truth – “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Understanding that they have fallen into the trap of feeling special because they feel chosen, he explains to them that greatness is not a matter of being chosen, but rather a matter of service:
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
He then decides to give them a demonstration of the kind of choosing that God does. He places a child at the centre of the group – and it’s important to remember that children in the ancient world had no legal status, protection or rights and were little better than slaves.
It’s a parable without words – God choosing not the special, the powerful, those with impressive CVs, but rather choosing the weak and the vulnerable, the person with no status at all.
“Look at the kind of people God chooses” is his message to men who are preening themselves because they feel that that are the chosen few. And then he reinforces the message with words:
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus chose vulnerable and inadequate disciples and challenged them to realize their potential to live lives of love and service. He challenged their “God chose me so I must be special” mentality and encouraged them to think “If God chose me, despite my shortcomings and weaknesses, then everyone must be special.”
One of the great Jewish poets of the 20th century, Yehuda Amichai, wrote a poem entitled Tourists in which he reflects on our human tendency to be blind to the specialness of people. The poem ends like this:
...once I was sitting on the steps
near the gate of David’s citadel
and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me.
A group of tourists stood there around their guide
and I became their point of reference.
“You see that man over there with the baskets...
a little to the right of his head
there is an arch from the Roman period”…
…So, I said to myself,
redemption will come only when they are told
“do you see that arch over there from the Roman period –
...it doesn’t matter,
but near it a little to the left and then down a bit
there is a man
who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
It’s a poem about the specialness of people whom we are tempted to think of as ordinary, a plea for a child’s view of the world, for children would instinctively be more interested in the man with the baskets than the Roman archway. Yehuda Amichai is calling on the tour guide to see people in the way that God sees them and that is the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach his disciples and us in today’s Gospel. And the right response to the specialness of another person is the desire to love them and be of service to them, and since everyone is special, that means, as Jesus said, being the servant of all.