In Jesus’ teaching about a Gospel-Centered Greatness, we saw that his teaching gives us perspective for defining greatness. Any greatness me might pursue or achieve must be understood in reference to the cross of our King who died for us. He also teaches the proper way to achieve greatness. He lays before his followers a new path to greatness in Mark 9:33-37. Jesus’ disciples haven’t figured out what Jesus means when he says he is going to die and rise again. This confuses them, because their understanding of Messiah makes them expect Jesus to overthrow the oppressive Roman government and establish his own. This would get them in on the ground level of this new regime and they would be able to have very important governing positions. They would be great! They would have power, wealth, and influence. But, in complete contradiction to their understanding, Jesus tells his followers the proper way to aspire to being great is not by asserting oneself, but by serving others. In the Kingdom of God, the path to greatness is through humility and servanthood. The disciples didn’t understand the path to greatness was a cross and they were afraid to ask him about it, so Jesus describes for them the proper way to aspire to being great. He makes the Gospel applicable for their daily life. He says, you want to get practical? Humble yourselves and serve.
Greatness in our world is related to status. The way to become great in our world is to be better at what you do than other people. The way we can become great is by influence, or by leadership. You can become great through notoriety or fame. And the path to greatness is whatever will obtain you that status whether it’s right or not. But Jesus says, the way to become great in his eyes is to serve others in our world who don’t have that kind of status.
Everybody works for somebody, and most people have jobs that simply aren’t that glorious. Jesus says those who serve may not have high status in our world, but in the Kingdom of God the greatest ones are the servants. Then he gives his disciples an example in verses 36-37. He places a child in front of them. This seems like an odd thing to do when you are talking about being great. Think of someone you know who is great, who has achieved a high social status and has influence. Do you have that person in mind? Now I would almost guarantee that person is not a child. But in teaching his followers about greatness, Jesus sets a child before them. A child represents the lowest order in the social scale. A child is under authority and under the care of others. In terms of status, a child has none. A child may have a guardian or even belong to the state, but he or she has no rights or status themselves. Jesus sets a child before his followers to teach them about greatness.
Does anyone have authority or power which is not delegated by our sovereign God and Father? Does anyone ultimately have control over his or her own life or security? We love to think in terms of individuality and personal achievement, but God is sovereign over our lives. He numbers our days and determines whether or not the rain will fall. Jesus shows that the difference in our status and the status of a child is only in our minds, not in reality. In reality, we are all dependent, we are all under authority. We are all dependent upon God for sustaining our lives, similar to how a child is dependent upon his or her parents for providing and protecting them. And Jesus says, receiving a child is the same as receiving him. To receive a child is to reverse the conventional value-scale by making the unimportant important. Jesus says if you receive children who are my representatives, you have received me.
In this context, to “receive” is to treat someone as significant rather than ignoring or suppressing them. Jesus uses a child as an example, but it is certainly broader than this. In our culture children are often viewed as either an inconvenience, a new chance at accomplishing the greatness we could never achieve, or a fashion accessory that makes us look good. Christians are supposed to value children as the blessing of God, and accept the responsibility for their training in godliness. People in our workplaces and neighborhoods who are ignored or marginalized are people who Christians are supposed to receive. The insignificant and weak are representative of Jesus to us. Those we naturally push away represent Jesus to us. When we humble ourselves, recognizing our status before God, and welcome these types of people, we have learned how the Gospel works in our daily lives. Our world says we network with the influential to become great. Jesus says we serve the insignificant to become great. Our world says we obtain wealth or influence to become great. Jesus says we become servants for the weak to become great.
In our hearts, we know this is true. The Holy Spirit confirms this within us. But practicing this in daily living is so difficult. Kids are cute and amusing until they get tired, or hungry, or stinky. Loving some people is difficult and requires a lot from us with little return. It’s a good idea, but unless we do it, it remains an idea. Jesus says, when you receive them, you receive me. This is the path to greatness in his eyes.