30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 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.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
What was it like to be that child whom Jesus used as an example? I imagine Jesus sitting on a stool, embracing this little boy in his arms, standing the lad right in front of himself, and looking at his disciples over the little boy’s shoulder, their faces side by side. How close they must have been. The Bible tells us nothing of that that little boy felt or thought of this event.
There are more children in this passage, are there not? Look at those disciples as Jesus asks them what they had been talking about on the road. They look just like a bunch of fourth graders whose teacher has confronted them about some playground incident. They all stare at the ground and say nothing. No one is willing to talk. The disciples had been arguing about who would be great in the kingdom of God. I suppose Peter thought he would be the prime minister and poor James the Less would be relegated to secretary of agriculture or something like that. It was foolish and shows that they had not been listening to Jesus.
But also look at our Lord himself, as he describes himself in the opening words. The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, they will kill him, and he will rise again. Notice how helpless Jesus looks in that prediction. He is betrayed. Men kill him. He is a corpse, lying helpless in a grave until the Father raises him. Even more than a little child, he looks helpless.
Jesus uses the little boy to make a point. God’s kingdom, the kingdom in which they are trying to leverage a place for themselves, operates on a completely different principle from that of the world. In a worldly empire, the emperor is served by all the citizens of the empire. He is at the top of the service food chain. But God’s kingdom inverts. God assumes his place of greatness in the heavenly kingdom by serving all, by become the one who submits to betrayal, scourging, death, and a tomb. He rose, but not to renounce his role as servant. He rose to shepherd and serve his people to all eternity.
There is a tradition, we do not know if it is true, but I like to think that it is, that this little boy grew up and eventually became the Bishop of Antioch. This is the very congregation which sent Paul on his missionary journeys. When an old man, in his 80’s, he was accused and convicted of being a Christian and sentenced to die in the arena in Rome. On his way to martyrdom, he wrote at least seven letters. You can read them; an internet search will connect you to translations which are freely available. His name was Ignatius of Antioch. I recommend his letter to the Romans. He wants to look like Jesus, servant of all. He wants to give his life to save others.