Has it ever happened to you that one of your children came to you with a need and you were too distracted to respond? Maybe you listened to them but with only half your attention? Or maybe you said “Not now” and then the moment passed and was lost?
This exchange between Jesus and his disciples may shed some light for you.
Jesus Teaches His Disciples in Private
The story takes place a few days after the Transfiguration. Here’s the backdrop.
Last week, we saw that Jesus questioned his disciples “Who do you say I am?” Without full understanding, Peter correctly answered that he was the Messiah. Jesus explained that his mission on earth would pass through suffering. He gave the first foreshadowing of his Passion.
Six days later, he led three disciples up a high mountain. Above the beautiful land of Israel, winds rustling through his hair and robe, Jesus stood in the presence of Moses and Elijah: his face radiant, his robe white, a cloud of glory falling around him like the one that always accompanied God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament. The voice of the Father broke the silence:
“This is my son, my beloved, listen to him.”
All this is backdrop – from Mark 8.
Now we are in Mark 9. Verses 30 – 37. Jesus is traveling south, back to Capernaum, on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee. He was alone with the disciples because he was teaching them something important. He wanted to do so in private.
What was it?
For the second time in just a few weeks, Jesus announces his coming suffering, death and resurrection. He repeats the teaching about his Passion, to make sure they hear it. He says:
“The son of man will be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him. And, put to death, three days later, he will rise.”
The disciples had heard this once before. Yet they fail to understand what he is saying. How can the Christ be delivered into the hands of men and killed? What kind of Messiah is that? How can the son of the Father, whose voice they heard on the mountaintop, how can he end his days on earth in abject failure and death?
It made no sense. They didn’t understand. And they didn’t dare to ask.
It’s not that they were shy. We know this because as Jesus walks ahead (which he must have done from time to time, since he clearly does so here) the disciples fall into a heated discussion. Jesus could hear it from where he was, but he keeps on walking. One imagines him deep in thought, in a heart to heart with the Father.
A Lesson in Capernaum
In time they reach Capernaum. They probably arrived at night because no one saw them and no one surrounded them. They enter the house of Simon-Peter, their home base at Capernaum. They gather in the main room.
There Jesus questions them, in his inimitable way. That way he has, with surgeon’s scalpel, of lovingly isolating patterns of dead thinking, so as to expose them and clip them away:
“What were you discussing along the way?”
It turns out that their conversation had to do with which of them was the greatest. They are exposed. So they say nothing. They hold their tongues.
Jesus knew what they were discussing, without needing to ask. But now that he asked, they knew it too. He made them aware of themselves.
He tells them to sit. He has their attention. As he often does, he drops a paradox in their laps.
“If any of you wish to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Like a Zen Master, he has turned their thinking on its head. To be first, seek to be last? Seek to serve in order to have the place of highest importance?
But Jesus isn’t finished. He has another paradox to serve up. This is the one I want to reflect on the most.
He Places a Child in Their Midst
Jesus summons a little child into their presence. A παιδίον (pronounced paidion). The word παιδίον means not just a child, but a little child, an infant. That means somewhere in the house where they were, there was an infant. Perhaps Peter’s child. Or perhaps the infant of one of the other apostles, whose wife was there helping that night.
In any event, Jesus calls for a little child. He places the child in the midst of his aspiring disciples. He cradles the child in his arms. That’s the meaning of the verb in Greek, ἐναγκαλίζομαι: to cradle in one’s arms. It’s the same word used to describe the gesture with which Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms in the Temple (Lk 2:28).
So we have this image of Jesus cradling a child in his arms, tenderly, as the Father cradles the lambs in Isaiah 40:11.
But how is this relevant?
“Whoever welcome one of these little children in my name, welcomes me. Whoever welcomes me welcomes – not me – but the one who sent me.”
We must pause and ponder what he’s saying here: The one who welcomes a little child in my name, welcomes me and welcomes the Father.
But where the Father and the Son are, there is the Spirit.
So the one who welcomes a little child in Jesus’ name enters into communion with the Trinity.
That’s what he’s saying. Can this really be?
A Reminder for the Busy Parent
We may think ourselves unlike the disciples jockeying for influence in Jesus’ inner circle. But we also jockey in our lives, don’t we? Aren’t we often reaching toward the next big client, the next step up in our company, the next level of income, the larger house, the newer model of car or bike? Or just toward the next call or project we have to complete?
What strikes me about this scene between Jesus and the disciples is the complete inversion of perspective Jesus achieves. He overturns the tables of his disciples’ thoughts. Flips over their world of striving and doing and summons them to a world of tenderness, littleness, insignificance. Instead of prestige and accomplishment, he sets before them a prestige-less little child. He tells them to practice gestures of love that may never be seen by another human being – except by the one whose heart will be filled by that love.
I think back over the last week of my life, full of weighty work decisions and strategies that took up space in my head and my heart. And it’s true: the moments that most stand out this past week and, in general – the moments that now seem as though bathed in the glow of the evening sun – these are the few moments when I gave myself to tender exchanges between me and my children.
I wouldn’t have been able to say this at the time. But, in light of what Jesus says here, I would say it now: those are the moments when I said yes to the Father’s love. When his love passed through me into the heart of my children.
I want to make more of these moments happen. I want to be an instrument through which the life of the Trinity intersects with the life of my children – here, on earth.
We Are All παιδίον
A final thought: παιδίον (paidion) does not just mean little children, in the sense of infant. It can also refer to us. Jesus himself addresses his disciples with this term when he approaches them along the shore of Galilee, after his resurrection.
“Little children – παιδίοi – do you have something to eat?” (Jn. 21:5) He then welcomes them and feeds them with the loaves and the fish he had prepared.
In other words, we each are a παιδίον in the eyes of God. We are his little children. Which means that when we welcome one another in Jesus’ love, we welcome the Father himself. We let his love pass into our hearts and into the life of another. We become a channel through which the life of the Trinity passes into another human heart.
Jesus, you draw me into communion with the Father, in the spirit. Amen. Help me to see the moments of invitation you extend to me. Help me to step into them with a full and generous heart.