Loving for Nothing
“You can easily judge the character of a man,” Goethe reputedly said, “by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” This is a handy way to get at Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in this text.
As they travel from Caesarea Philippi back to Capernaum, the disciples debate their relative standing in the group. Jesus listens, perhaps, with some detached amusement as they walk along. He waits until they get back to the modest privacy of Capernaum before he intervenes in the conversation. Then he sits down and launches into a significant teaching moment.
He begins with a bumper-sticker slogan. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b, NRSV). To illustrate his point, Jesus takes a child and stands the child in the midst of them. Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992) help us to get some perspective on what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples – then and now.
Children were among the most vulnerable and powerless members of first-century Mediterranean society. Nearly two-thirds of children died before the age of six, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992). They were the first victims of any disaster, natural or human-created. They had no standing in the community or polity. They were often regarded as economic liabilities until they could begin to contribute to the assets of the household.
“Children had little status within the community or family,” Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992) write. “A minor child was on a par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was he/she a free person who could inherit the family estate” (page 238). It’s not, as Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992) point out, that children received no love or esteem. They were the old age pension for their parents. They were the continuity of the family and the tribe. The male children bore the honor of the family name. The female children were the source of future generations.
But little children were not romanticized, idealized, and fetishized as they are in our American culture. As Black points out in his workingpreacher.org commentary, the Greek word for “child” here can mean either “immediate offspring” or “slave” (or both). “A child epitomizes the most subservient human in ancient society,” Black notes, “one with slightest status.”
The child in our text, I would say, is the “poster child” for all who are regarded as means rather than as ends in themselves.
Black encourages us to sit with the details of Jesus’ treatment of the child. Jesus “stands” the child in the midst of the disciples, rather than merely placing the child there, as the NRSV translates. Black suggests that Jesus gives the child (literal) standing in the midst of that community.
It could sound like Jesus handles the child rather roughly – “taking” the child and pushing the child forward. But then we get a word of tenderness. Jesus takes the child into his arms. He embraces the child. Most of all, he says that the disciples are called to “welcome” such a one into their lives and into their community. Tolerance is not enough. Embrace is the acceptable response.
I am struck by all the performance cues in this little vignette. Once I begin to look for such cues, they are everywhere. For example, does the performer of the Markan composition sit down in the middle of the audience at this point? Does that performer stand a small child from the audience in the midst of the audience? Perhaps that was all arranged with the parents of the child in advance, or perhaps it was spontaneous. No matter, really.
I do wonder what the impact might be if the preacher simply told from memory Mark 9:2-37, complete with participation by volunteers from the audience. A few words of introduction and a closing question or two — a powerful message for the day, I think.
Isn’t it a bit surprising that Jesus has a toddler ready to hand as a sermon illustration when he and the disciples are “by themselves”? No, in fact, children are ubiquitous in the village life of first-century Mediterranean culture. They are so common that I imagine they become part of the “furniture,” hardly noticed unless they caused a commotion of some sort. The children in the crowd do not escape Jesus’ notice, of course.
And the “disciples” as a group are not limited to The Twelve in the Markan account. The group in the house went beyond the inner circle and was probably still somewhat large. Moreover, the fact that small children were present is almost a guarantee that women were also present. Fathers did not have much to do with small children, and it is unlikely that any of the men in the gathering would have brought small children with them.
“It is unmanly for a father to stay around the house, to remain much in the house,” Malina (1996) writes concerning the relationship of first-century Mediterranean fathers to their small children, “to be concerned and involved with childrearing, not to avoid childrearing concerns, to give any child care, to act other than formally and distantly with his children, to stay remote from his children” (Kindle Locations 1223-1225). Thus, the presence of children indicates a high probability of the presence of women.
Even if we question the presence of children in the narrative at this moment, they are everywhere in the Markan script. They were certainly present and handy in the Markan audience as well. What an experience, for example, to have your adolescent “stand in” for the child with the epilepsy demon earlier in chapter 9! I have done enough children’s sermons and Bible camp talks to know how natural it is to reach for someone in the audience for such a role. No one quickly forgets such an experience. The incarnational and emotional impact is profound.
My father was a master of wisdom scatology. “It’s the way of the world,” he sometimes observed. “People usually kiss up and piss down.” I’m embarrassed to say that he was describing my behavior far too often. I am – consciously or not – far more willing to expend attention and energy on those who are “above” me than on those who are “below” me. My care is often conditioned by what I expect to receive.
I understand that this simply signifies my membership in the human race. That is, however, a description rather than an excuse. Jesus tells me and the rest of the disciples to stop kissing and pissing and just deal with people as people. Dealing with people as people means seeing and treating them as beloved by God, not for what they can produce, but for simply being who they are.
You see, I want to be that child in the midst of the disciples – taken by Jesus’ hand into the midst of the community. I want to be that child, fondly and tenderly embraced by Jesus for all to see. I want to be the one Jesus loves “for nothing” – not for what I do or produce or give up or suffer. Not for my position or privilege or power or property – but just for me.
That’s the good news in this text, I think. I am, first of all, that child. Anyone in the audience can be that child. I wonder if people lined up to participate in this scene. I wonder if the performer had to repeat it until all who needed an embrace from Jesus got one. I am reminded of the power in pre-Covidtide of “free hugs.” It was corny, hokey, often forced and artificial. And it still mattered. Everyone wants to be that child.
Once we know such unconditional love, how can we be unchanged? Disciples, therefore, welcome as we are welcomed. But what does it mean that in such welcoming of the Other, we welcome Jesus and the Father who sent him? We experience Jesus fully when we welcome others “for nothing.”
“Unconditional love can be met only with utter love in return” Anthony Campbell writes. “Of course, such absolute love of God is certainly not the condition of most of us,” he continues, “so truth demands that memory will not allow us to forget the love that we have lacked.” (Kindle Location 66). Accepting God’s unconditional love, God’s loving us “for nothing,” either changes us, or it doesn’t happen. “How radically must we rework our own self-image if we accept ourselves as lovable,” Campbell asks, “as deeply, passionately, and unconditionally loved by God?” (page 4).
Jesus is not a convenience or a utility or a property. We cannot love Jesus “for something.” That is not love. “If I am sure of anything,” C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves, “I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt,” Lewis continues, “whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground,” Lewis asks, “because the security (so to speak) is better? Who,” he wonders, “could even include it among the grounds for loving?” (page 120).
And yet, it is precisely what we do. We love Jesus for the benefits. We love God for the safety. We love others for what they do for us. We do it because we want our love to cost us nothing. But cost-free love is no love at all, as Lewis will note in the following pages of his book. Authentic love always happens in the shadow of the cross.
Authentic love — God’s love — is both absolutely free and infinitely costly.
References and Resources
Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.
Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Malina; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (1992). Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.