September 20, 2015
When I was a kid, someone dug a large hole in our neighborhood. I don’t who dug the hole or why, and my memory is shaky about its exact location. While my memory is dim about the specifics of the hole, my recollection of the large mound of dirt and sod it left behind is vivid. That hill of dirt inspired the largest and longest impromptu game of “King of the Hill” I’ve ever played. Usually we girls stuck together and did our own thing, while the boys on the street did theirs. But there were times and there were games when those dividing walls were torn down. This was one of those times.
If you aren’t familiar with “King of the Hill,” let me lay out the rules for you. There are no rules. The only object is to get to the top of the hill and claim it in your name. Sounds easy, but while you’re trying to get to the top, everyone else is too. And everyone else is trying to keep you from getting there, so you do your best to prevent their ascent as well. If you should happen to reach the top, be prepared for a short reign. Because someone else is going to reach the summit and try and push you back down. It takes a certain amount of viciousness to become king – or queen – of the hill and stay there. We weren’t afraid to play rough or get dirty, but we generally didn’t get too violent with one another.
I no longer recall how the game finally ended that day – probably when parents started to call us in. I don’t think there was a final victor either. We just kept scrambling up that hill and sliding back down. We all wanted to rule the top of the hill, but when we were pushed down we just started back up again.
That was a fun game and a fun day. I know that I’m remembering this through the rosy glow of time, but I don’t think any of us left the game mad or resentful. I guess it was a game of competition, but I don’t think I saw it that way then. It was just fun; physically and mentally. I know that “King of the Hill” continues to be played. But I don’t know any kids who play it. I do know a lot of adults who play, though. But they don’t call it a game; they call it life.
We are not privy to the exact conversation the disciples were having on the way, but we can assume from the text that it was not just a verbal version of “King of the Hill.” Mark wrote that they disciples were having an argument about which one was the greatest. When they reached Capernaum, Jesus did not call them out for arguing. Instead he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” I’m pretty sure Jesus already knew exactly what their argument involved, but like a good teacher, he asked instead of accused.
As I have stated before, the disciples in Mark come off badly. The other gospel writers cut them a little bit of slack, but not Mark. The disciples were clueless. But as clueless as they were, they knew enough at that moment to realize that their argument about who was the superior disciple would not make them look good. So they remained silent instead of answering Jesus’ question. Again, Jesus was under no illusions about their bickering, but instead of scolding them or lecturing them, he did what he did best. He illustrated what discipleship and servanthood was really about. Jesus told them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a child into his arms and told them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Sounds simple enough, but try to imagine the shock that this must have engendered in the disciples – and anyone else who might have been listening. The idea of this reversal – first is last and last is first – would have been hard to comprehend; but when Jesus took that child in his arms that would have been too much. This great teacher, God’s Messiah, took a child and said they must be like children? Let me make it clear, children were loved, dearly loved in that culture and context. It was not that children were not loved and cared for; it was that they had no status. Children, especially sons, were necessary to continue the family name and for the purposes of inheritance. We read over and over again that barrenness was considered a punishment by God. Children were a sign of God’s blessing. Children were loved, but a child had no status. Status, a person’s place in society, was important. It determined a variety of aspects of that person’s life and future. To have great status was to be great. I suspect that when the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest they were not just debating characteristics of discipleship. They were wrestling over status. Who among them had the greatest status?
The irony of this is that our passage opens with Jesus telling the disciples, again, that “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.”
The disciples did not understand. We know Jesus was speaking openly about what would happen to him, but the disciples did not yet know the end of the story. Perhaps Jesus was speaking in code or hiding his real meaning in a strange, mixed-up parable? They did not understand and they were too afraid to ask him. What he said must have gone against the grain of everything they believed about the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God. To be the Messiah would mean the ultimate status. How could that One be betrayed and killed and rise again?
Even with these questions and misunderstandings ringing in their ears, they debated their own status. Which one would ultimately be king of the disciple hill? But Jesus did not respond by naming one of them as the greatest. Instead he took a child and told them that welcoming that child would be welcoming him. Huh? I imagine the disciples thought it was Jesus who was confused, not them. “You keep using the word, ‘greatest,’ Jesus, but I do not think you know what it means.”
Well, all I can say is that it is a good thing we comprehend what those disciples did not. It is a good thing we don’t have silly, petty arguments over who is the greatest. It is a good thing that we have moved beyond such nonsense.
Okay, well maybe there are confused people out there in society who still seek status, who still put status above all else. Maybe business and politics and sports and all those other aspects of life operate like an ongoing game of “King of the Hill,” but we in the church do not. And even when we are not in church, maybe we compete a little, but what’s wrong with some healthy competition? It is a motivator. It pushes people to strive for success and work harder. Life is about winning and losing. It is about succeeding and failing. Wouldn’t you want the doctor who is taking care of you or someone you love to have been at the top of her class in medical school? You don’t want the attorney whose only achievement was sliding by to represent you in court. Lack of competition only serves mediocrity. There is nothing wrong with seeking status.
I don’t know if you were actually throwing those questions at me in your minds just now, but I imagined you were while I was writing this. Here’s the thing. I don’t have a problem with competition per se. It can be a great motivator. I’m a better kickboxer because my instructor reminds us that the person we are really competing with is ourselves. So I work hard every week to be better than I was the week before. Sure, it’s nice to have a little bit of status. It feels good to be acknowledged for our accomplishments. But are we striving to be better at what we do or are we merely seeking status for status’ sake? And if we are seeking status, when do move from that to serving status? When do we live more for status than for serving?
The reality is that as the church, as followers of Jesus, we may think ourselves set apart from the baser aspects of culture. But we are in culture, and culture is in us. I hate reality shows where people are voted off. I hate seeing people lose in that way. But I cannot denounce that kind of show “out there” without acknowledging the fact that I also seek status and serve status. Do you ever look at some of the big churches in town and think, “Why isn’t that us?” I do. Yet I know that small does not mean dead, nor does large equate to thriving. But I still see full parking lots and wonder why. Just recently pictures were revealed on social media of the houses that some of the top grossing evangelists live in. When I say, “houses,” I really mean compounds that would have put the Kennedy’s to shame. Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar – they make millions of dollars and it shows. They have huge homes. They travel in private jets. Their ministries are huge and just getting bigger. People by the thousands attend their services, and even more watch them on television. I’ll be honest, I find this repugnant and opposite of everything I believe Jesus taught about servanthood and discipleship. I’ll be honest, there is a part of me that whispers, “Couldn’t I have just a little bit of that?”
Am I status seeking? Am I serving status? If my answer to both questions is, “yes,” then I’m as guilty as the disciples were over debating who was the greatest. I’m seeing my vocation, even my faith, more like king of the hill than following Jesus. I’ve gotten my priorities confused. I’ve forgotten that I am called, not to reach a certain height in my career or find success in what I own, but to follow and to serve. I have forgotten that status, whose got it and who doesn’t, is a human creation. I have forgotten that if I want to really serve God and follow in the name of his Son, then I am called to serve and love the weak and the poor. I am called to remember that no one has more value or worth because of their status. They, we, have value because God created us. We have worth because we are God’s children. Children are dependent on others. So are we. Would status really matter if we remembered that we all need each other? Would we be less likely to serve status rather than people if we acknowledged that no one gets through this life without help? No one. Pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps is a nice idea, but not everyone is given bootstraps in the first place; and even those who are still need help. We need each other. We need each other. When we remember that we need each other, our status is found in serving, and not the other way around.
We are all God’s children. We are all loved. We all have worth, and we all say, “Alleluia!” Amen.