Saturday, September 22, 2012

Inverting the Totem Pole

He took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in His arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes not Me but the One Who sent Me.” (Mark 9.36-37)

Jesus: The Documentary

We’ve all seen at least one Hollywood treatment of the Jesus story, and despite variances, they all boil down to scene upon scene of cinematic spectacle: multitudes and miracles and meaningful encounters of tremendous narrative import. Knowing the Gospels’ grittier side, however, deflates these epics. By and large, Jesus runs a small-time operation and spends much of His time (especially in the early stages of His ministry) avoiding the spotlight. He and His disciples mostly work the villages and countryside. They never establish a headquarters, as John the Baptist does when he sets up shop on the Jordan. They don’t settle down for extended periods in one place. Jesus’s reputation as a healer and teacher precedes Him, which enables Him to attract big crowds wherever He goes, yet also allows Him to move on once He finishes whatever He came to do. Unlike the big-budget movies—in which an invisible cathedral, complete with choir and orchestra, seems to float above Jesus’s head at all times—the Gospels portray a lot of scrambling and improvising and figuring things out on the fly. They read more like a low-budget road picture than The Greatest Story Ever Told.

This prompts me to wonder what a behind-the-scenes film might look like. Shot with a hand-held camera, Jesus: The Documentary focuses on conversations and logistics that keep things moving, rather than the epic events Hollywood memorializes. Mark 9.30-37 (Sunday’s Gospel) gives us a snippet of this reality. It catches up with Jesus on the heels of two spectacular sequences: the Transfiguration and healing of a profoundly troubled boy. As often happens, Jesus whisks His followers away to teach them privately. He tells them He’ll be betrayed, executed, and rise from the dead after three days. The first half of His prediction perplexes them, as it seems highly improbable that anyone would conspire to destroy Him. Even if that were so, it’s unthinkable His public would allow it. Add to that His mention of resurrection and the disciples are totally befuddled. “They did not understand what He was saying and were afraid to ask Him,” verse 32 says. Their worried looks are pure documentary gold.

Redefining Greatness

But their confusion isn’t the half of it. As they proceed through the provinces, the filmmakers capture an argument brewing among the disciples. If, as Jesus says, they’re headed for serious trouble, it stands to reason their character and loyalty will be tried. A contest for bragging rights breaks out. To this point, they’ve functioned as a company of equals. Now they splinter, with each insisting he has the right stuff to be named the greatest among them. Mark doesn’t record their comments, but we can fill in the blanks. Peter, Andrew, James, and John pull rank as Jesus’s first followers. Thomas prides himself on keeping a cool head that insists on rational proof to understand what’s going on. Matthew points to his political savvy as a tax collector. Judas boasts of his commitment to the poor and disenfranchised. Every disciple’s claim to greatness rests on the presumption that he’s indispensible to Jesus in ways the others are not.

Evidently the disciples haven’t been as discrete as they hoped. When they arrive at their next stop, Jesus asks, “What were you arguing about?” (v33) They clam up. Jesus doesn’t condemn their position-jockeying outright. Instead, He turns their debate upside down. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” He says. (v35) It’s not about who will take charge when things fall apart. It’s about who will honor Christ’s charge to serve others in humility and self-sacrifice. Jesus inverts the totem pole and in the process forever redefines greatness. He draws a little child into His arms and tells the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One Who sent Me.” (v37) Returning to our imaginary film, the camera slowly pans around the room, resting momentarily on each disciple’s blank stare. This is not what they want to hear.

Willingness to Welcome

Now, as then, we define greatness by a person’s following—not only in number, but also in the quality and status of those in one’s camp. The pastor with the biggest church filled with the most influential members must be the greatest. The politician with the most votes and powerful allies must be the greatest. The neighbor with the most friends and enviable success must be the greatest. While these achievements may be admirable, Jesus makes it clear there’s more to it than popularity and impressiveness. He defines greatness by a single, completely unexpected trait: willingness to welcome the least attractive, impressive, and powerful into our ranks.

Jesus: The Documentary ends. The theater lights come up. And the image of the little one nestled in Jesus’s arms is seared into memory. This child isn’t the freshly scrubbed, angelic tyke from Central Casting. It’s a frail, grungy kid who’s constantly begging for attention and complaining of hunger and getting in our way. By extension, it’s the maligned adult and starving believer and inconvenient interloper. It’s everyone who doesn’t fit our romanticized picture of what religion looks like. Jesus’s greatness paradigm turns the worldly success adage on its head: it’s not who you know, but what you know. And what Jesus wants us to know is opening our arms to everyone—embracing the most vulnerable and naïve among us without restraint—results in greatness. It is what makes us indispensible to Him, to God, and one another.

In redefining greatness, Jesus turns the worldly success adage on its head: it’s not who you know, but what you know.


Sherry Peyton said...

You posit the most sobering of questions. Who is the most vulnerable among us, and why are we not serving them? We were asked today to carry that very theme during the week. We do we avoid? Who do we ignore? Who do we throw a check at rather than roll up our sleeves for? It is so frightening to realize that we are not very good disciples most of the time. At least I should say, I am not. Thank you for such a valuable lesson once again. Indeed the Jesus documentary would be so much more helpful that the movie.

Tim said...

Sherry, as our pastor told us this morning, this text raises so many questions about our responsibilities as Christ's followers. They are all that you say and so much more. (In our confession today, we asked God to forgive our withdrawal from people because we don't like their looks or how they smell or the way they talk. It's just that basic.)

We all have much work to do to be the welcoming believers Christ calls us to be. And we can't escape the fact that He expects us to start at the "bottom of the pile," trusting His word that those we confine to lowly estates are truly the first among us.

So good to hear from you--and to share these sobering thoughts together!

Blessings and peace,