The temptation to use Christianity to serve oneself has always existed. Although Christ taught how to live and act in the love of God, Christians have always found other reasons to follow him. This week’s Gospel reading challenges Christ’s disciples to keep divine grace the goal of their spiritual life.
‘They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.’ (Mk 9:34)
How do you “wait on” others?
When have you received one of “the least of these” and encountered divine grace?
Matthew and Mark both preserved a tradition in which Jesus presented children as good examples of discipleship. Matthew used them to illustrate the trusting and humble nature of a Christian before God (“Unless you turn and become like children….” Mt 18:3). Mark, by contrast, used this story to rebuke any who strove to be greater than others. The greatest in the kingdom, Jesus teaches, will be the one with enough humility to take orders even from a little child.
Key to this week’s Gospel is diakonía. Translators often render this term as “service,” which is broadly accurate, but diakonía was a very specific kind of service. One practiced it primarily by following another’s instructions. People of every social status, from slaves to high royal officials, performed diakonía in the course of their duties. In the New Testament, this kind of service has a strong connection to hospitality and food. It is the word Luke uses to describe Martha’s concerns (Lk 10:40) and the term John uses to describe the banquet staff at the wedding in Cana (Jn 2:5, 9). In contemporary culture, the closest analogue to diakonía might be the work of a restaurant’s waiters. These examples add nuance to Jesus’ counsel: “Whoever wishes to be first must be like a waiter to everyone else.”
Jesus did not end the instruction there, adding, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.” A person who understands the Gospel will have the humility to wait even on a child. The Gospel makes a play on words. “Receive” could mean “adopt, foster.” If Jesus had spoken only of the child, that meaning would have been clear. By adding himself and the Father to the list of those being “received,” he pointed to a different meaning, the sense of “welcome, offer hospitality.” Those with the humility to wait on a child will understand the divine grace Jesus has to offer.
One does not need much cultural context to grasp the radical nature of Jesus’ instruction. Parents will put down their work or modify their goals to respond to one of their own children, but this is not what Jesus commands. He presents an unnamed child—one probably unknown to most of his disciples—as a person worth waiting on. Few adults in any age or culture would have the humility to take orders from such a person, yet this is exactly what Jesus commands.
Many disciples first find Christ because they seek something from him—hope, salvation, healing, community, esteem. All these are available, but the greatest disciples are those who can recognize in these gifts a call to become like the one who granted them. Those with the humility to wait on the least will be the ones in whom God will find a flawless reflection of the Son.