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 9:36-37
If we could time travel to the first century we would be amazed at some similarities and one peculiar difference. In our day, children are valued, lavished upon, sometimes even put on the priority list ahead of God. In the first century, however, they were somewhere between a nuisance and a slave. Into this world, and ours, steps the Lord Jesus Christ, who uses a child to illustrate our need to stop striving for the top and race to the bottom.
Ambition can be earnest and honest, or it can be sinful and selfish. You know the difference. More importantly, God knows the difference in you. If your striving for the top is an effort to be the best Christian you can be, or spouse, or parent, or employee, God is with you. Go for it. If you are striving for excellence in anything, be it work or sport or friendly competition, God does not mind. Be your best.
In the kingdom of God, though, there is only one King, Jesus. Everyone else is a servant of the king. We are certainly not better than the king. Furthermore, we are not better than any of the other servants. You can rank football teams, have a top 40 countdown for songs, but in Christianity the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
And Jesus said instead of trying to race to the top, our aim should be for the bottom. He demonstrates this with an astonishing object lesson. The first century crowd would have been shocked.
When we see Jesus and children in the Gospels, we think, oh, how cute. But kids were not considered cute in Jesus' day. Men were kings, women belonged to men, and children were chattel, generally a nuisance until they reached the age of usefulness for the family farm or business. They were, even in Jesus' time, the bottom of all social and spiritual order.
So, to take a child in His arms and put one on display was a confounding and controversial thing. Of course, Jesus had a real and revolutionary love for children. But this was not because of that. Jesus was using a child as an object lesson, to make a point about the kingdom of God, and how to be a great citizen of it. Race to the bottom, Jesus said.
How do we get there? We get there when we realize the greatest example of Christianity is not who can preach the best sermon or who can give the largest offering. We reach the bottom and may consider ourselves great Christians when we "receive," accept, make time for, get involved with, a person or persons considered to be the least in our society.
Indeed, any time spent with a child is one way to race to the bottom. Or perhaps you could try something harder, like sponsoring a child through Compassion International, or harder still, like becoming a foster parent.
We should also consider how in the first century, children may have been discarded but the elderly were held in high esteem. The reversal in our culture elevates children but overlooks the aged. An earnest race to the bottom might place a lonely and needy senior adult at the finish line.
Government overreach and disingenuous panhandlers make this harder in our day, but the hard work of caring for the poor must still be done. Why not contact a local ministry to the needy and see if you can lend a hand? Or, don't tell your left hand that you are reaching out with your right hand to give food and money to a person or family you know is struggling.
But there is something still harder, lower, requiring superlative Christianity, if you are interested. The most odious person in first century Jewish society was not actually a Jewish child, but a Gentile or Samaritan of any age. It was not the color of their skin that turned up Jewish noses. It was the fact that they did not worship the same God in the same way as the Jews.
We have names for such low people on the totem pole in our modern Christian subculture. We call them the lost and the unchurched. And Christians all too rarely touch them.
On your mark, get set, go!
Chuck DeVane is the pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs. Call him at 501-525-8339 or email [email protected]