by Larry Broding
Children are the most precious people in the world. They encourage us when the world wears us down. They freshen us when our aching joints tell us our true age. They challenge us to the Godlike virtues of patience, self-discipline, and charity. In spite of our mature “wisdom,” children even help us to see the world in new and wonderful ways.
Yet, isn’t it so easy to sweep children, their concerns, their needs, even their very presence, out of view? Isn’t it so easy to let our needs, agendas, and self-importance overshadow those of our small brothers and sisters in faith? As much as they brighten our world, isn’t it so easy to ignore children?
Jesus used a small child as a bench mark of leadership. For, whoever welcomed one like a child welcomed Christ himself.
After the argument with the Pharisees, 30 Jesus and his followers left the area and traveled throughout Galilee. But, Jesus did not want anyone to know where he was going. 31 On the trip, Jesus taught his followers. “The Son of Man is arrested by the leadership in Jerusalem and they will kill him,” Jesus told them. “But, three days later, he will rise from the dead.” 32 His followers did not know what he was talking about. And, they were afraid to ask him about it.
33 Jesus and his followers went to Capernaum. At home, Jesus asked his followers, “What were you talking about on the way here?” 34 But they all fell silent, because they were talking about who was the most important in the group. 35 So, Jesus sat down, called the Twelve together, and began to teach them. “If someone wants to lead, he must be the least important follower and serve everyone else,” Jesus told them. 36 Then, Jesus took a small child, stood the child in front of the Twelve, and hugged the child. 37 “Whoever helps someone as small and unimportant as this child because of me, helps me. And, whoever helps me really helps my Father, the one who sent me.”
Jesus taught his followers the true meaning of leadership. Leadership does not mean power but service. Power strangles life and brings a slow death. But, service brings life, even from death itself. The measure of servant leadership lies not with adults, but with children.
30 Having gone out from there, they went through Galilee, and HE did not want that some might know (it). 31 For, HE was teaching his disciples, and HE was saying to them, “The SON OF MAN is handed over into the hands of men, and they will kill HIM. Having been killed, HE will rise up after three days.” 32 They did not understand HIS (statement) and they were afraid to ask HIM (about it).
9:31 “The SON OF MAN is handed over into the hands of men.” The present tense of this verb is confusing. Obviously Jesus is still free and ministering in the countryside. Some translators use, recognize the situation and translate the verb in the future (“will be handed over”). But, why would Mark use the present tense? From Mark’s point of view, when Jesus proclaimed what sort of Messiah he would be, God’s will has been put in motion. The proclamation of his suffering and death began the process of “handing over.” This was not a matter of fate, but of God’s providence in salvation history. Mark recognized Jesus’ obedience to God’s will.
9:32 “They did not understand his (statement)” is literally “They did not know his word.”
The theme of the servant Messiah returned from last week’s gospel. Jesus traveled with his group incognito toward Capernaum, their home base. As we learned last week, Jesus desired silence so he could define his role as the Christ. Even when he spoke clearly about it, his disciples didn’t understand.
As the note mentioned above, Mark placed the present tense into the prediction of Jesus. With Peter’s act of faith, God’s will was set in motion. Jesus clearly accepted his role, for he proclaimed it to his inner circle, the Twelve apostles. Jesus was the Messiah precisely because he served the people, even unto a humiliating death. In fact, that death would be the symbol and measure for true leadership. He was the Messiah because he gave his life to the people, for the people.
33 They went into Capernaum. Having come (home), HE asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they were silent. For, along the way, they argued with each other who (was) greater. 35 Having sat, HE called the twelve (together) and said to them, “If someone wants to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant of all.” 36 Having taken a small child, HE stood (the child) in their midst. And having embraced (the child), HE said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of such small children in MY name welcomes ME. And whoever welcomes ME does not welcome ME but the One having sent ME.”
9:33 “Having come (home)” is literally “Having come into the house.” Capernaum was the home base for Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.
9:34 “Having sat, HE called the twelve (together) and said to them” indicated Jesus taught his close followers this message. A teacher would sit (indicating his status), call to his students (who would sit at the teacher’s feet in a subservient position, and listen to the teacher) and begin his discourse. By using this language, Mark impressed the importance of Jesus’ statement upon his readers.
To emphasize Jesus’ vision of leadership, he gives them the example of serving a child. Unlike our society, children were the least important people in ancient cultures; children had the status of slaves. People had children to serve them and provide financial security in their elderly years. And they had many children, because the morality rate for children under 16 years of age was 50 percent. Childhood was precarious time in the ancient world.
To serve someone as lowly as a child took an act of extreme humility. Unlike our Western societies that honor and esteem children, ancient societies honored the elderly in one’s clan. Reflecting this outlook, St. Thomas Aquinas once answered the question, “If there was a fire, whom should I rescue first?” Thomas listed in the order of importance: one’s parents first, one’s spouse second, one’s children last of all. Children were the least important. Serving one such as a child really showed true leadership for they served the ignored and the helpless.
But who was the “child” of which Jesus spoke? Who was the Christian to serve? In one respect, the Christian was to show hospitality those who had the social status of the child: the outcast, the sinner, the sick and feeble. In another respect, the Christian was to show hospitality to all of God’s children, regardless if they were friend or foe. In a third respect, the Christian was to show hospitality to those who had become the “children” of the community, the Christian missionary who risked life and limb to spread the Good News. Obviously it took wisdom to discern how one would serve these different groups. But Jesus made one thing clear. Leadership meant serving all. It meant esteeming the least important.
To serve one like children, to place all others on the same plane as oneself, is the road to Christ and the Father. This service is exemplified with Christ’s death on the cross.
Catechism Theme: True Leadership (CCC 543-545, 2248, 2252, 2254)
Christ’s example of leadership requires us to reflect on our motivation for power. Throughout Galilee, Jesus preached about the “reign of God,” a state where God would live with the poor, the lowly, and the sinner. Everyone was invited to live under God’s reign, but God’s reign required a change of mind and heart to His will and away from the desires for more power. (CCC 543, 544, 545)
We all have the opportunity and the responsibility to exercise leadership in our lives. But, as the gospel points out, leadership means service. It means setting aside our selfish desires to care for others’ needs and to show them respect. This is at the heart of the leadership commandment: “Honor your father and mother.”
Within families, both parents and children are bound by this commandment. Parents are to care for the physical and spiritual needs of their children in the spirit of Christian service (CCC 2252). Children are to show respect, obedience, and assistance to their parents (CCC 2248).
The same can be said for governments and the duties of citizens. Governments are to respect the dignity and freedom of the individual and to protect families (CCC 2254). Citizens are to work with governments to build up a just and free society. If the demands of government are unjust, however, the citizen has the obligation not to follow those demands (CCC 2256).
In all cases, we are responsible to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and fulfilled needs. This is the true meaning of leadership.
How has someone shown you true Christian leadership? How has that leadership challenged your role as a leader: parent, manager or co-worker, minister?
Children. They are our challenge and our reward. They might be two or a hundred and two. They might look like small tykes or just act the part. They might give freely or stand stubbornly (just like adults). But, they are God’s gifts to us. They are the measure of our Christian leadership. How we lead them, how we serve them, reveals the seriousness of our commitment to Christ. Let us serve them well.
Try this simple exercise of imagination. Place yourself in the center of the Twelve along the side of Jesus. In your mind’s eye, face Jesus and watch him embrace you. Do you feel the strength of his arms, the tenderness of his touch, the warmth of his hands? Do you feel the strength of his love? After the exercise, think about those in your life that need the embrace of Christ? How can you help them to receive that embrace?