I don’t know if any studies have been done on this, but from my personal experience, the best way to learn what children and teenagers are thinking is to drive them and their friends somewhere. They seem to think that a car produces some kind of force field that renders the driver unable to hear what’s being said in the back seat—kind of like the “cone of silence” from the old “Get Smart” TV show. As long as you don’t laugh out loud or gasp in horror at what you hear, you can eavesdrop pretty freely and, in the process, learn what the kids in the back are thinking.
I wonder if something like this happened along the road to Capernaum. I picture Jesus and the disciples waling along, with Jesus in front and the disciples walking behind him, as was the custom for rabbis and their students. The disciples talk freely about what’s on their minds, thinking they have a “cone of silence” around them.
But, once they get home to Capernaum, it becomes apparent that Jesus could in fact hear them. According to Mark, he knew they were arguing. Now, they stop talking, because they knew that what they’d been arguing about was not something Jesus was likely to approve of. They’d been arguing about who among them was the greatest—who was the most important, who had the most power and authority. So, at Jesus’ question, the disciples clam up. But, Jesus knows what the argument was about. He gathers up the whole group and sits down to continue teaching them.
I say “continue” teaching because he had been teaching them on the road. He’d been teaching them about what was to happen to him—the second time he’d told them about his coming betrayal and death and resurrection. They hadn’t gotten it the first time, and they still don’t get it—that what is going to happen is not simply a casualty of political and religious power at work. It’s a demonstration of just how far Jesus is willing to go to live according to kingdom values—values embodied in his words to the disciples: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
As all good teachers do, Jesus gives them a visible example of what this means. He takes a little child into the center of their group, and he wraps his arms around the little one. Then he makes an extraordinary statement: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
This act and these words would have shocked the disciples. In our world, children have a privileged place. We cherish them and coddle them. Some might say we spoil them. We don’t always walk the way we talk—too many children are still hungry and homeless and lack sufficient health care. But they maintain a special place in our collective psyche.
Not so for children of ancient times. Children were basically invisible, especially to men. A child was essentially a non-person, given little attention until they reached adolescence. Childless Romans who needed an heir didn’t adopt a child; they adopted an adult.
So, to suggest that the disciples lower themselves by offering hospitality to a child was a completely foreign notion to them. It was a dramatic representation of what greatness in God’s kingdom looks like. It’s not about being the most powerful as the world understands power, but the least powerful. It’s not about having the highest status, as the world defines status, but the lowest status—the status of a child. It’s not about being served, but about being a servant. In the kingdom, to be first of all means being the last and least of all.
That’s as great a challenge for us today as it was for the disciples. Our world is just as focused on power and access and status as theirs was, the only difference being that we can see the world’s standards 24/7 in TV ads and social media posts. That’s why Lent is such an important time for Christians. It’s a time that we set apart for reminding ourselves that to be first of all in God’s kingdom means being last of all according to the world’s standards. It’s a time for putting God and God’s kingdom first, developing habits and practices that will stay with us after Lent is over and we continue to live in the light of the resurrection.
We read the passage from Matthew every Ash Wednesday for good reason. It sums up how to put God first. They are Jesus’ instructions for how to give, how to pray, and how to fast. These practices are called “means of grace”—ways that we can experience the grace God showers on us through Jesus Christ. But we can only receive that grace if our hearts are in the right place—if we have clean hearts, as the psalmist says. We can only receive that grace if we’ve put God in the right place, which is first of all.
Making a big deal of our giving may earn us admiration for our generosity, and it feels good to be admired. But ostentatious giving that showers us with recognition is not what God desires. Marc and I enjoy going to performances of the Symphony and the Opera. In recent years, the management has begun giving a shout-out to the big sponsors of the evening at the beginning of each performance. I’m as grateful as anyone that these companies and individuals have provided funds to these institutions, but it certainly seems more like advertising than generosity. If our giving is more advertising than a reflection of our gratitude to God, then our hearts are not in the right place. Lent is a time for taking a look at how much we give and how we give, as we examine and cleanse our hearts.
The same thing goes for prayer. I’m grateful that so many of you are willing to pray out loud. Your prayers are heartfelt and authentic and as unique as each of you are. This kind of prayer is not what Jesus is warning the disciples about. Neither is he singling out any particular religious group or leaders. He’s talking about “hypocrites,” which for his disciples would have meant something a little different than it does for us. For them, the word simply meant “actor.” If we’re praying as though we’re on a stage, waiting for applause and maybe a standing ovation for our outward display of piety, our hearts are in the wrong place. When our hearts are in the right place, we pray as though God alone were listening, even if, on occasion, others are listening in, too.
Finally, Jesus speaks of fasting. While the practice of fasting hasn’t been emphasized in the modern church, in Jesus’ time fasting was a given. Jews typically fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as on the official fast days of their faith. We talked about fasting in our last Bible study, and some of our members gave it a try. They reported growling stomachs and a bit of crankiness near the end of their fasting period, just as the ancient people would have. But Jesus says, don’t make your fast all about drawing attention to your devotion, because that will only show that you’re more devoted to yourself and the opinions of others than God. Instead, do the things you always do with a light heart that celebrates the time you’ve set aside to allow God to come first, before the physical needs of your body.
As we journey through Lent, we’ll continue to learn along with the disciples what it means to be a servant in the kingdom of God. Like them, it may take us a long time to fully grasp what this means for us and our lives. But Lent is a good place to start, or re-start, our efforts to be faithful servants. It’s a good time to rededicate ourselves to making God first of all. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young