There is a story told about the Buddha. One day his disciples gathered to listen to their teacher, and not wanting to miss anything he said they came with writing tools to take down every word. The Buddha sat quietly, twirling a Lotus flower in his hand, waiting until all were settled. In Buddhism, the lotus is symbolic of purity of the body, speech, and mind as while rooted in the mud, its flowers blossom on long stalks as if floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. The Buddha twirled the flower and waited for his disciples to be seated. Then he began to speak, to teach them.
His disciples wrote furiously, as he went on and on. They wanted to be sure to catch each great and wisdom laden word. But then, one disciple stopped writing and looked up. The Buddha saw the disciple stop, and he saw the realization in that one disciple’s eyes. Only that one had realized that the Buddha was talking nonsense, and that the really important thing was not what he was saying, but was the lotus flower he was holding in his hand. Their eyes met – and the Buddha laughed!
Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
This certainly doesn’t sound complicated or obscure. We understand Jesus’ desire for privacy, which has been mentioned before, and what He tells His disciples in today’s Gospel lesson seems perfectly straightforward to us. Though we have the benefit of hindsight, we feel that had we been present when His words were first spoken, we would have had a pretty good idea of what He meant, even if we didn’t understand exactly how it was to unfold. It’s also easy to accept that no one wanted to know more about the horror He foretells. But it’s more than that with the disciples. They are actually baffled, and truly afraid to get things straightened out.
The reason for this isn’t immediately apparent to us, because we are hearing this story in an English translation. Son of Man is a title which is used often in the Gospel to refer to Jesus, but what we miss is how it sounded to the disciples. In Jesus language, Aramaic, “son of man” is what we call an indefinite pronoun. The translation we have, “son of man”, is accurate, but when spoken by our Lord it wasn’t a title. Today what Jesus would have said would have been, “One is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him….”
That makes it easier to grasp the disciples’ confusion and their reluctance to ask for further information. They must all be wondering “which one? Is Jesus referring to Himself, to some individual they have yet to encounter or have met before, or perhaps even to one of them? It is frightening enough that someone is going to be killed, and they really aren’t sure they want to know who. Rising again is equally terrifying. Does Jesus speak of resurrecting to new life, or of the walking dead? Despite their close relationship with Him, despite all they have heard and seen, the disciples really don’t understand and they don’t want to!
Jesus’ closest friends were afraid of the specter of suffering and death. What does interest them in our reading today is of a much more worldly nature, and creates a perfect distraction. Distractions can serve a purpose, one of them being that they fill the mind with things other than that which frightens us. In the disciples case their distraction fills their minds with something other than the Truth. While we today might argue about who has the biggest house, the fanciest car, or the best stock portfolio, the disciples argue about who among them is the greatest, who among them is Jesus’ favourite.
And Jesus notices that they are bickering among themselves. He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
How embarrassing! They probably felt sheepish and might have looked at their feet or food or off into the distance (still inside the house), pretending not to hear Him. Again, He sits the twelve down. This is not a crowd or a medium-sized group. This is the twelve, the twelve who have committed to following Him — literally following Him around the countryside.
And as they have followed Him, the disciples have been busy listening to Jesus, but because they have preconceived notions and expectations, ideas of what “messiah” means, they have not understand what He has been teaching them. So Jesus tells them:
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The disciples — unable to imagine a world where death has been defeated, empire overthrown, and all of creation restored to right relationship — are fighting over who will be first, and Jesus tells them who will be first: the person who doesn’t want to be, the person looked at as not having ambition, the person who shows vulnerability and servanthood rather than seeking their own glory.
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Children weren’t welcomed in the first century. No one named a child until it was two years of age; such was the high rate of infant mortality back then. For the most part, children were tolerated. They played like all kids do, but they were also an economic asset, able and expected to work. They were property until they were either old enough to own property themselves — boys — or sold in marriage to another male — girls. They couldn’t speak for themselves and had no power.
Yet, a child — powerless against the world around them, vulnerable to the powers that existed, and unable to defend themselves — is who Jesus tells the disciples to welcome: the powerless, the vulnerable, the ones whose voices are ignored in the world. Jesus says that by welcoming people like that, the ones who can’t influence society and don’t strive to be in charge, they welcome Him. Not only do they welcome Jesus, they welcome God who sent Him. Welcoming the powerless is a far cry from arguing over who is the greatest!
Jesus tells His disciples that to welcome the vulnerable, is to welcome Him, but they’re looking for a leader on a war horse to overthrow the empire. They’re not looking for a vulnerable child. They haven’t been looking for that since Jesus was born, fully God and fully human, as a child himself. Yet Jesus tells them that in welcoming the vulnerable, they welcome Him.
So often we hang on every word Jesus has spoken, we try endless interpretations, we seek countless explanations, but our expectations get in the way. In the end Jesus tells us we are called to serve the vulnerable through being vulnerable to Him, His will, His work, His commandments.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus helps the disciples, and us, to see a little more of what He is about and what He’s not about. He’s not about being the greatest. He’s about being a servant of all. He’s not about winning friends and influencing people. He’s about welcoming the vulnerable to be among Him and His followers. He is not about worldly success. He is about humility and servanthood, and love.
Being vulnerable, being a servant, being like a child, is what Jesus tells His disciples He has come to do when, for a second time, He predicts His death and resurrection. He’s not coming to take over the empire. He’s come to do more than that, something so revolutionary the disciples can’t imagine it. He has come to defeat death itself.
And He tells us, death isn’t defeated with a sword, because His revolution is not with generals and battles, it is not about winning worldly success. Death is defeated with a cross, with Jesus’ cross. And it was defeated in His rising again — just like He told the disciples it would be.
Like the Buddha’s disciples, Jesus’ followers are focused on all the wrong things. Like them, we, too, tend to focus on the wrong things. We look for God’s confirmation of our goodness and holiness by measuring our worldly success – surely if we are doing well then we have “got it right” in the eyes of God. But this isn’t what Jesus is saying, this isn’t the way of holiness.
We need to set aside our preconceived notions and expectations, and to concentrate on being more humble, more vulnerable, more loving, and more open to those in need. Our lives must be reshaped by Jesus’ teaching. We must do our best. Then, despite the fact that we, like the disciples, often don’t understand Him, Jesus will look at us and smile.
Let us pray:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; to not be proud, but to be humble, and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; in Jesus’s Name. Amen.