Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

Welcoming the Child: The Politics of Mark 9:30-37

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[This article is part of the series The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression.  We also welcome sermons.  Submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.]

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” (Mark 9:37a)

It seems easy.  So easy we can almost brush it off.  Smile approvingly at the Sunday School teacher seated across the aisle from us in worship, and check one more thing off our spiritual to-do-list.  Welcome little children?  Done.  We might ask ourselves, “How dense could these power grubbing disciples have been to miss so simple a point as this?”

But take a look across that same aisle once again…  If your church is like many, there may be an usher giving a mother a dirty look as she walks her small child to the bathroom.  Or a father putting his finger to his lip, afraid that his toddler’s whispers might disrupt someone.  Or maybe a middle-aged gentleman checking the church’s giving record, calculating in his head what percent of the church’s income comes from his check.  Or a young woman dressed just so, glancing at a hand mirror to check her make up.

Whether it is through money, clothes, or any number of superficial doings, it is human to want to impress.  Putting our best foot forward, we call it.  In any social setting—even and sometimes especially in worship—we are playing this political game.  We are vying for our social status, for our position of greatness…to be in the “in group” whatever group that might be.

Before we judge the disciples too hastily in this scene, we should remember that they aren’t dueling for the seat next to Jesus, or conducting a gallup poll.  We have no reason to believe that they are even letting their dispute disrupt their collaboration in ministry.  This is just something they were talking about—speculating “along the way.”  It was idle conversation on a road trip.  “Who do you think is the greatest?”  But Jesus heard them.  And it was no more polite in their day to let such speculation be heard aloud than it is today.

They were embarrassed.  Maybe wondering, “How will he think I’m the greatest if he knows that I even have to ask?”  The only thing more embarrassing than being caught in this sort of social guffaw?  Jesus doesn’t just feed them some line about how they are all his favorites, or settle the argument with a, “Since you really had to ask, X is the greatest,” sort of reproach.  No, Jesus doesn’t chastise them or name one of them, or even one or more people outside of their “in group.”  Jesus picks up a small child—probably the son or daughter of one of the many disciples accompanying Jesus on the way, though it doesn’t seem to matter.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” (Mark 9:37a)

Children occupied an interesting place in the first century household (for Jews and Romans alike).  They represented the future—they would carry on the family name, provide for their aging parents, and produce the next generation.  But in the present, they were a liability.  Small children, especially, were more likely to contract an illness and to die.  They participated in the household labor, but were not yet fully productive, and still represented another mouth to feed.  Many historians of this time period compare the status of children in such a situation to that of a slave.  However, the power dynamics were more powerful than that.  On the one hand, an adult slave could be “worth” more in the present; on the other hand, even the smallest child was a member of the “household”—an honor to which a slave was unlikely (and in most cases unable) to attain.

Children were insiders left on the outside.  And they are the ones Jesus commands us to welcome.  On the one hand, this is just another instance of Jesus turning the expectations of the world upside down.  It is a great reversal in the name of justice, the kind of which Luke’s gospel is famous for—read the magnificat there.  But on the other hand, here in Mark’s gospel we also experience something else.  With children, at least, the power dynamics are not so black and white—it is not so much a question of who is great and who is not, but instead it is a question of welcome.

Put another way, Jesus isn’t interested in who we say is the greatest or even in who acts like the greatest or looks to be great.  Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, compassion, and love.

 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” (Mark 9:37a)

Look again at that toddler across the aisle.  Is his father still shushing him?  Does he look “welcomed” as he fidgets in his seat?  What about the little girl coming back from the bathroom?  Is she fully a part of what is happening in her midst?  What about all of the children who aren’t present?  The children who went to bed hungry or need healthcare?  The children who have abusive parents or no parents at all?  We argue about great schools in our country while there are children in other countries without the privilege to step into a school at all.  We spend thousands of dollars send our children to soccer or dance camps in suburbia, while there are children in our own country whose families will not see that kind of money in a year.

How do we welcome the child?  How do we welcome our Lord?

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The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.

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