Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.
Fain I would to Thee be brought,
Dearest God, forbid it not;
Give me, dearest God, a place
In the kingdom of Thy grace
Lamb of God, I look to Thee;
Thou shalt my Example be;
Thou art gentle, meek, and mild;
Thou wast once a little child. Etc.
Nothing against Charles Wesley, who penned the words of this hymn; but these words demonstrate well my starting point today: we like to think of Jesus as meek and mild.
On his way to Capernaum, Jesus notices some of the disciples arguing among themselves. So, rather than pointing out their pettiness, in his meek and mild way Jesus waits until they’ve reached their destination.
There, really knowing what the argument was about all along—because he’s Jesus, after all—rather than sternly rebuking these disciples openly, Jesus calls a little child to himself, for an object lesson. And we all say, “Aw!”
Aw! because, well, there’s a child involved; and aren’t children just so precious! And Aw! because Jesus is just so meek and mild and wise precisely because he does not rebuke his disciples openly but instead chooses to teach them through subtlety and persuasion. And oh! don’t we all want to be just like him now?
But let’s look at this passage afresh. Is Jesus being meek and mild here? Is this the Sunday-school Jesus here we’ve come to know and love, the Jesus who takes time to notice the small joys of life that others take for granted? Is this the Jesus here who exercises wisdom through gentle persuasion and compassion?
Not to discount any of those traits! Jesus is, at times, meek, mild, and gentle. He does take time to notice the small joys in life. He does exercise wisdom through persuasion. He does all this—but elsewhere! Not here!
Notice that the disciples are actually afraid of him. Yeah, afraid! Along the road Jesus teaches his disciples that he must be betrayed and killed; but that he will rise again. Then v. 32 tells us, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
A little later, after Jesus asks them what they were arguing about amongst themselves on the road to Capernaum, they do not answer him but remain silent. This time we’re not told directly that they are afraid, but the silence strongly suggests it.
Who then calls over a little child!
And we’re thinking, “Aw!”
Shame on us!
This isn’t some saccharine-sweet Sunday school scenario. There’s raw emotion here. Jesus isn’t being meek and mild with the disciples. Rather, he’s challenging them and their views—their selfish, egocentric, pushy views—about who among them is the greatest.
Now, let’s step out of Jesus’ world for a moment and think about the world we know: our world. Who in our world is the greatest?
Just to clarify, I’m not asking the same question as the disciples: I’m not asking us to consider who among us, the parishioners of St. Paul’s in Yuma, is the greatest. Rather, it’s a question in general. In our modern-day, independence-valuing American culture, what kind of person gets ahead? Who rises to the top positions in leadership? Who wins?
Isn’t it—at least all too often—the pushiest, most self-promoting person? We all want the underdog to win; it seems almost inherent to our nature. And there are exceptions to the rule. But the fact is that most people in positions of leadership get there by being a fighter. We thrive on competition. Vying for the top job means competing against others—sometimes hundreds of others—in order to get there. This requires a certain amount of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and relentlessness. Even my former seminary dean—one of the meekest, mildest, and humblest men I’ve ever known—admitted to having to do these things in order to become the dean. It’s how we rise through the ranks in our culture.
Well, guess what. It was no different in Jesus’ day.
We all know stories, of course, of Caesars who were egocentric megalomaniacs. But a common Roman citizen might zealously desire to become a member of the equites, or even a senator. And the way to get there—you guessed it—was through shameless self-promotion and otherwise fighting one’s way to the top. It was about being the greatest.
But all this relentless pursuit to become something or somebody, to amass more wealth, to acquire more clients, to increase in status, to become more well-known and respected—does a mere child concern itself with these things? (By the way, did you notice? Our English translation captures the impersonalized pronoun for the child: it. This child, It, no doubt, was at the very bottom of the bottom rung of the Roman social ladder.)
The relentless pursuit of self was miles from this child’s point of view. So, here, today, Jesus is not some syrupy Sunday school caricature. Quite the contrary, today Jesus is stern. He’s turning the selfish pursuit for self-promotion head over heels. He welcomes this child into his arms, and thereby sternly rebukes his disciples for arguing among themselves about who is the greatest; and likewise challenges the dominant values of society.
Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is not the same as leadership in the world. Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is not about fighting your way to the top. Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is about being the servant of all.
Which leaves me with just one application for today.
We have a turnover approaching in the leadership here at St. Paul’s. The term of four vestry members will conclude in January; four new vestry members will be elected.
My application for you today, then, is a kind of homework assignment. Over the next few months, think about those you know in this congregation who demonstrate the kind of servant leadership Jesus demands. Then, if someone comes to mind, go and tell that person you’d like to nominate him or her for one of the upcoming vestry vacancies.
And if you’re a person who is approached, well, you have a follow-up assignment. Pray. Ask the Holy Spirit to work in your heart and help you discern whether this area of servant leadership is for you. Then allow your name to be put forward as a nominee; and tell your nominator “okay” and to let me know.
And don’t worry about too many names! Wouldn’t it be great if ten such nominees were to rise to the surface over the next four months?
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”