Jesus Levels the Playing Field

September 19, 2021

Mark 9:30-37

Sibling rivalry.

It happens in nearly every family. It could be over schoolwork, athletics, or even trees. Yes, trees. A couple of years ago on The Moth, a story telling podcast which I would recommend to anyone, Annie Share shared her story of the gumdrop tree. She had the typical sibling rivalry with her older brother, and they fought over everything. One specific thing they fought about were the two trees their parents had planted for them in the yard. They both had big beautiful white flowers in the spring. However, her brothers’ tree was slightly different because every year they would awake to find gumdrops on it. Imagine the tree being emblazoned with a rainbow of colors and they would go and harvest the gumdrops. While this was exciting to Annie, it always made her think her brother’s tree was much greater than hers.

This annual harvesting of gumdrops continued until one day her and her brother were playing hide and seek. She discovered the best hiding spot in the house. Underneath her parents’ bed. It was taking forever for her brother to find her, so she started to move out from under it when she noticed a tote under the bed. She pulled it out to discover what was inside. To her delight and horror were several bags of gumdrops and a spool of green thread. She realized what she had found. Now she was strapped with the question, does she tell her brother or not. She hollered down the hall for him and he came running. When he had seen what she found he started crying. He had explained he knew for a few years now that their parents were responsible for the yearly surprise on the tree, but he was hoping to keep the wonder alive for her.

The disciples have been surrounded by wonder. And what happens? Jesus overhears them arguing about who is the greatest. Surrounded by healings, miracles, and endless teaching, they are concerned about who is the greatest. Jesus attempts to pull them back into the realm of discipleship. Jesus levels the playing field and teaches them no one is greater than anyone else. Jesus’ teaching is quite different from the society in which they have grown up. He really gets them thinking when he brings a child into the fold and teaches about being welcoming. And the disciples still do not learn, because in the next chapter, the disciples will try to shoo the children away.

Jesus welcoming a little child speaks volumes. A child was one of the most subservient humans at the time, right next to a servant. In fact, the Greek word used here which is translated to child, could also mean servant. Jesus pays no preference to one group over the other. If anything, he talks down to those in authority, yet welcomes them with open arms and no disdain. The child and servant are to be welcomed and treated the same as the landowner or those in authority. Where society does not give the child or servant any standing, Jesus welcomes and invites. Jesus levels the playing field.

While the disciples have trouble learning this lesson, society is not much better today. We are easily surrounded by arguments of who is the greatest. It is not uncommon to hear the comment that America is the greatest country in the world. Tell this to those who are incarcerated and have their rights stripped from them because America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Tell this to those who cannot get medical coverage because America has some of the highest costs around the world. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t choose anywhere else to live. This just goes to show you that one person’s idea of greatness is different from another person’s idea of greatness.

Let’s admit it though, it feels wonderful to be called great at something. It boosts our ego and gives us confidence. When competing it is always nice to win and stinks when you lose. Especially when competing for a title. It can lead to boasting or bragging and this takes us far away from Jesus’ idea of welcoming. In the sports realm we hear the talk about how he or she is the G.O.A.T. The argument for the greatest of all time reminds me of the disciples arguing about who is the greatest. We like to raise up our heroes and celebrate them. Jesus tells us they are no greater than you or I. They may have some mad skills on the basketball court or on the baseball field, but when it comes down to our very being, no one is greater.

So, if Jesus does not want us to be concerned about who is greatest, what does greatness look like? What is it that we can all strive for? When we live in greatness in Jesus’ eyes, it looks like sharing with our friends, neighbors, and the stranger alike. Greatness looks like loving all of humanity, without disdain for anyone. This even means loving the person who cut you off on the road the other day. Greatness looks like serving others with no expectation of something in return. Serving others like Trinity has served 30 men at MCREST this past week. Greatness looks like caring for the world around us and not taking advantage of or polluting it.  

Can you imagine a world where this happens daily? What type of world would it look like? It would be a world we do not recognize. It would be heaven on earth. This is what we are striving for, to fully bring God’s reign to earth. A reign which encompasses all of creation, and we are rooted together in love, compassion, and mercy.

Returning to the gumdrop tree, Annie and her brother joined her parents that spring and helped string the gumdrops with the green thread. Annie realized it was not what grew on the tree that mattered, but what is in the roots.

We have been so encultured that it is natural for us to talk about who is the greatest. The disciples were doing it two thousand years ago, so why should we stop? Because Jesus instructs us differently. Societies concept of greatness is much different from Jesus’ concept. Society looks on the outside, while Jesus looks on the inside and the actions committed because of what is on the inside. I have a small monthly calendar by my computer at home with an inspirational quote each month. This month’s quote is, “Create a life that feels good on the inside, not one that looks good on the outside.” Where do our priorities lie? Jesus calls us to be like the child, like the servant. To welcome them and ultimately to welcome others. Jesus levels the playing field and we find ourselves all standing on the same ground. What are you going to do now that you are looking your sibling eye to eye? Jesus chooses love.

By Alex Steward

I am a husband, father, and pastor within the ELCA. I did not grow up in the church and thus come at this pastoring thing with an unique perspective.

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