And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” — Mark 9:33-37 ESV
The disciples, like us, were influenced by the culture around them. And Like chickens, people create pecking orders. We just can’t help ourselves. We think in terms of hierarchy and we recognize signs and symbols of status and influence in the world around us. This is so automatic that we are usually unaware of it. Those of influence are surrounded by those of less influence. It’s how we spot our leaders.
In this simple illustration Jesus calls into question the definition of what it means to be great. Greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t measured in the same way the world measures greatness. When you think about it, this just has to be true. Wealth is a danger and a burden in the Kingdom. Pride is a sin and makes us blind to the needs and hurts of our brothers and sisters. But Jesus tells us here what really defines greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s service.
In the world, those who are great are served by others. In the Kingdom those who are great serve others. The greatest are those who serve everyone.
Sadly, many of us don’t really get this. We think, “what Jesus really means is that great people tell other people how they can serve.” We’re sort of service supervisors or consultants. We provide advice on how others can work out the sermon on the mount in their lives. We think, “that’s our service for the kingdom, you know, leading others into service.” The problem is that our “service” ends up looking exactly like what the world thinks of as leadership. If we redefine leadership as service we can actually end up thinking we’re great because of all the people who serve under us. Isn’t that precisely the opposite of what Jesus means?
To counter this kind of thinking Jesus created a litmus test. To run a test you simply need a child. Call the child over, embrace the child, comfort the child, interact with the child. In a word “receive” the child like you would receive the most important person you know. Now ask yourself, “How’s that feel? Am I comfortable? Is the child crying? Are the child’s parents calling the cops?”
This is a great test but I recommend starting slow. First try simply greeting a child from a safe distance. If you’re really patient, the child might let you receive them, but don’t take if for granted. Children have high standards and have an uncanny way of seeing through pretentiousness. I’ve tried this myself and even though I’ve improved a lot… I still get about a C- on the child test.
It turns out, a child is as valuable and important as anyone else in the kingdom. In fact, Jesus tells us here that the only way any of us will get into God’s kingdom is to be just like them. It seems God is relatively unimpressed with our IQ, our status, our position, or our wardrobe. He’s also not moved by our bank accounts or the possessions we manage to stuff into our garages. He does, however, care how we receive children.
Here’s the secret. If you want to be great — do what it takes to impress a child. This isn’t easy because like God, they don’t care about the things we care about. They’ll be more impressed with your smile than your wardrobe, and they’ll care more about your ability to play than your ability to work. If you’re real nice, they might even allow you serve them.