Title: A Baby’s Slave
Text: Mk. 10:35-45
Date: Oct 18, 2009
Author: Isaac Villegas
The sons of Zebedee, James and John, come up to Jesus and tell him what they want: they say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mk. 10:38). It’s a bold request, and they don’t seem to have any shame about making it. James and John know that Jesus is a rising star, a political hopeful, and they want to get in on the ground floor, at the beginning of the campaign, before all the political appointments are made. The two sons of Zebedee want Jesus’ word that when the time comes, when Jesus enters into glory, that they will sit on top of the world with him, far above all the others. The other disciples overhear James and John, and they get angry. Those sons of Zebedee are a savvy pair, scheming, power-hungry. How dare they ask to sit on thrones with Jesus? What about the rest of the disciples? Jesus steps in before a fight breaks out among the disciples. This is what he says, he says:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. (vv. 42-44)
In God’s kingdom, Jesus says, those with power use it very differently. In God’s kingdom, Jesus says, you won’t find a few people in the important positions while all the others scrub the floors. Instead, in God’s kingdom, the powerful look like slaves; the powerful are the slaves. Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (v. 43). And, he adds, “the first among you must be slave of all” (v. 44).
What does it mean to be a servant, to be a slave? Well, when I talk to some of the parents around here, I think their lives sound like kind of slavery. They are definitely servants. I was talking to a parent last week, Peter, and he was saying that he doesn’t really sleep much anymore. His kid, Simon, started out so well—sleeping through the night every night. But something happened at 6 months, and now Simon doesn’t sleep too much, at least not at night—no more than a couple hours at a time. Simon starts crying, Peter rolls out of bed, stumbles through the hall, half-asleep, and picks up Simon and carries him around for a while. Peter is at Simon’s mercy—a servant. It comes with the territory. Parents are slaves to their babies. When they are hungry, you feed them. When they have a dirty diaper, you change it. Your schedule revolves around their schedule. Your life revolves around theirs. Parenting is a season of slavery. The babies rule the house; everyone else obeys their cries.
In Mark, in the same chapter we read tonight, Jesus gets angry at his disciples for turning away parents who come with their little children. The disciples seem to think that parents with kids are a distraction from the important stuff of the kingdom. The disciples seem to think that the kingdom of God belongs to adults, that Jesus wants to spend his time in important conversations about his mission on earth. Little children cry, they’re needy, they make demands on our lives, they change our plans. They are distractions, the disciples seem to think, from all the important stuff that needs to get done. Even the babies who don’t cry are distracting because they are so cute.
But Jesus scolds his disciples. “Let the little children come to me,” he says, “for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (v. 14). Apparently the disciples have the kingdom of God backwards. With Jesus, God is turning the world upside-down—or, I should say, right side up. God wants to repair what we’ve destroyed, to straighten what we’ve twisted. God wants to change our world, to reconfigure how power is organized. God wants us to re-imagine who the important people in the world are. The kingdom doesn’t belong to Obama, or to Congress, or to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, or to LeBron James, or to Oprah. Instead, Jesus says, “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” to the little children. If you want to find out what’s really going on in the world, what’s truly important, the best place to turn is not to the news, but to a baby’s feeding schedule and the person doing the feeding. Why? “For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
It’s not because the future belongs to the children, as many people like to say. That seems to be a common line about why we care for kids. They are important, according to some, because of what they will turn out to be. We care about children because the future belongs to them. That’s not really what Jesus is saying. For him, kids aren’t investments for the future. Their worth doesn’t appreciate with age. For Jesus, the little children are important for who they are right now. They are significant for God’s kingdom as they are—fussy and demanding and cute, smiley and poopy.
That’s why we take time in our worship service tonight to receive them, just like Jesus did. “Let the little children come to me…for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The parents have already welcomed their children into their lives. David and Kathy, Celia and Jon, Bradley and Martha, and Eric and Rebecca are already learning how to be servants, slaves even, to their babies. And tonight they invite us into welcoming their children in God’s world. They commit their children to God, and ask us to help care for them. And when we say yes, we become servants with them, we become slaves to their babies. Why? Why do we do this? Because “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” Jesus says. When we receive these children, we receive the kingdom of God. When we share in the responsibility of serving these children, we enter God’s kingdom where we learn to be slaves. As Jesus says, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Power in God’s kingdom happens among those who give themselves as slaves, who learn to be servants. We are not lords. We aren’t in control. We don’t sit at the helm of the universe and steer the course of history. Instead, we change diapers, we prepare bottles, we hold children.
Little kids show us how to receive the kingdom of God. Children teach us how to laugh, how to play, how to see the surprising goodness of God everywhere, how to welcome the world with joy. They also teach us, through our care for them, how to be patient with other human beings, how to be patient with one another, and how to tolerate people who keep on screaming, people who keep on crying out for attention. And not just “tolerate,” but to find in them the movement of God’s kingdom—in the cries, in the need, in the joy, in the desire for touch, for attention.
Now, we aren’t only slaves to these children, to the children among us. The way we serve them is only the beginning of our discipleship. Jesus says to his disciples, “you must be a slave to all.” To all. Not just the children you like, or that somehow “belong” to you. Not just the people you like or agree with or make you feel good. But to all, Jesus says.
The point is that we don’t get to choose. We aren’t like the Gentile lords who have the power to decide, to choose, to pick their friends, to choose which children will be groomed for power. We aren’t deciders. We are servants to all, slaves to all. Someone’s potential doesn’t matter; their contribution to society or the church doesn’t matter; our predictions about what they will be in the future doesn’t matter. We don’t get to choose to be servants only to those people who are grateful, who say thank you, who return a favor. No. That’s what our care for children teaches us—you don’t do it for a thank you, we aren’t patient simply for a payoff in the future.
Instead, we are becoming slaves to all because that’s what it means to belong to God; that’s what it means to belong in the kingdom of God; that’s what it means to be part of God’s family. To belong in God’s kingdom means that we are sisters and brothers of Jesus, who gives his life for all God’s children. This is the Jesus who says to us, his family, “You must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45).