33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
(Mark 9:33-37 NIV)
Jesus and His disciples had just walked from the unnamed mountain where Jesus was transfigured to Capernaum via the remote regions of Galilee. Jesus had been teaching them along their journey about His upcoming betrayal, death, and resurrection. The disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying, nor did they want to understand.
As we step into today’s passage, we see that Jesus and His disciples have arrived in Capernaum, presumably at Peter’s house. After they arrive and are settled, Jesus follows up on something that happened along the journey. The disciples had been in an argument, and Jesus wants to know what the argument is about. Jesus actually knows what they were arguing about; He wants them to admit it.
The disciples were obviously embarrassed and ashamed of their prideful boasting and petty jealousies that brought about the argument. Mark records that no one said a word.
Jesus said that anyone that wants to be first (the greatest) must become the very last, even the servant of all, the lowest of the low. To Peter, James, and John, the conviction must have been overwhelming. They had seen Jesus reveal His glory and speak with Moses and Elijah. For them to even think about greatness after that experience was absurd.
Jesus pushes the point further as He took a small child (maybe one of Peter’s kids) and used them as a living illustration of humility and love. Jesus did not call a servant into the discussion, but rather, a child. As servant can perform tasks and obey orders; a child is helpless and needy. As Jesus held the small child in His arms and the child snuggled against Jesus, the disciples’ hearts were touched.
Jesus used His words and the example of a child to dismantle the mindset of the disciples of what Messiah meant and what their roles were to be. The Jewish mindset of Messiah was that of a religious and military leader who would overthrow the Romans and restore the promised land and self-rule. The disciples were arguing about being among the likes of King David’s “mighty men” (1 Chronicles 11:10-47) with Jesus as their fearless leader.
But Jesus turned the tables and said to welcome a little child was to welcome Him, and not only Him, but the Father who sent Him.
The antidote, the cure for pride, greatness, selfishness, and blind ambition is to be child-like in our dependence upon God. Jesus had taught that the way up is the way down – that we must take up our cross daily and follow Him (Mark 8:34-38). This was a reinforcement of that same principle.
May we pause to listen the what the Holy Spirit is saying to us. As followers of Christ, are we pursuing our own agendas, or are we reliant on humbly Him for everything?
Do the thoughts of our heart and the words of our mouth convey selfishness and pride, or humility and thankfulness? If the former, may we stop to confess and repent of our sin, express our need for Christ to lead us and provide for us, and ask Him for the strength to be more like Him.