RACE TO THE BOTTOM
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.”
— Mark 9:33-37, ESV
If we could time travel between the Greco-Roman world of the first century and the modern western world of the twenty-first century we would be amazed at a couple of great similarities and one peculiar difference.
One constant between the two cultures is the worship of false gods. In the first century they were mythological, but their legends and influence were quite real. They engaged in self-worship and sexual immorality in ways that came to be accepted and duplicated by the mere morals of that ancient world. It is the same in our world, today. Only our gods are not myths, they are politicians, movie stars, athletes, even mega-church pastors who engage in self-enrichment and sexual immorality in such ways that we feel excused when we do it ourselves.
Another great similarity between the two worlds is the prideful penchant for power and prestige, the desire to be on top of whatever food chain you are linked. Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” could be the national anthem for both time zones. Greeks wanted to be Alexander, Romans wanted to be Caesar, Jews wanted a seat on the Sanhedrin, and today’s ambitious Americans all want to be first in any line and captain of every ship.
One striking difference between the two time periods, however, is each one’s estimation of children. In the first century they were somewhere between a nuisance and a slave. In our culture, with the exception of abortionists and pedophiles, children are valued, catered to, lavished upon, sometimes even put on the priority list ahead of God.
Into both of these worlds steps the Lord Jesus Christ, the true and living God. He has a word for those serving false gods, for those striving for the top, and He uses a child to illustrate our need to repent and race to the bottom. Which way will you go?
After ages of false gods it is good news to learn there is a true and living God. He touched down in human history during that Greco-Roman period. He is very much with us in our world, in spirit and truth.
The Bible, and the Gospels in particular, demonstrate in various ways and means that Jesus of Nazareth was, is, and always will be God. Jesus often proved to possess the big three incommunicable attributes of God. God has many such exclusive characteristics, but chief among them are the three omni’s, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience.
Jesus had all power to turn water into wine, make storms cease, and raise the dead. Jesus could actually see in all places, as He proved when He spotted the disciple Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree too far away for mere human eyes to see, and when He saw the death of Lazarus in Judea, all the way from Galilee. And Jesus, being God, knows all things, including the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.
Consider Hebrews 4:12-13, and understand the context is a description of the living Word of God, Jesus, not necessarily the written word of God, the Bible, which is a sword of its own:
For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
That’s right, Jesus Christ is Lord, He has all power, He can watch over all people and places, and He knows what every person on the planet is thinking. This goes for His disciples, then and now. Our text in Mark gives us a prime example.
Jesus did not ask them what they were talking about because He did not know. He is omniscient. He knew what they were thinking and talking about. He knew they had misjudged His messianic purpose and were contemplating on how to cash in for themselves. They had been captured by the false gods and selfish spirits of the age. They were all politicking for the top spot.
Climb to the Top
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.
But, if you want to be considered the greatest in order to feed your ego and exert power over other people, God will not be impressed. As a matter of fact, He will be greatly offended. As another matter of another fact, it is a violation of the first commandment. There is only one greatest. There is only one superior being. There is only one God, and as Joan Baez sang, “I believe in God, and God ain’t us.”
In the kingdom of God 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 forty countdown for songs, but in Christianity the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Never judge yourself by another Christian, only by Jesus Christ.
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.
Race to the Bottom
When we see Jesus and children in the Gospels, we think, oh, how cute. Some churches even try to emulate this on Sundays with the children’s sermon, or moment, or whatever else they call it. I have always found it a little misguided, for it shuts down our serious vertical focus on God in exchange for a silly moment of horizontal amusement with the kids.
Children were not considered cute in Jesus’ day. There were no children’s designer clothing stores, no toy stores, no daycare centers, no children’s programs at the synagogue. If you want to gauge the value of children in pre-modern times, even by people of faith, take a good look at Lot’s treatment of his daughters when he lived in Sodom. 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 done by the Lord Jesus Christ. 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, or who can obtain a twenty-year pin from the Sunday School Board. 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.
I’ll be passing around a sheet now to give you an opportunity to accept an upcoming Sunday in the church nursery! Indeed, that’s 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. The lower you go, the better you are, in the eyes of the Lord.
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 and makes them prime candidates for the least of these. An earnest race to the bottom would place a lonely and needy senior adult at the finish line, where a small amount of time and money could yield great rewards when you reach the finish line at Jesus’ feet.
What about those living in poverty? The word of God is replete with admonishments to “remember the poor” (ref. Galatians 2:10). Government overreach and disingenuous panhandlers make this harder in our day, but the hard work of caring for the truly disadvantaged must still be done. Why not contact Jackson House, Habitat for Humanity, Cooperative Christian Ministries and Clinic, to 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. This is Christian greatness, according to Jesus.
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, nor a Jewish old person, nor a Jewish poor person, but a Gentile of any age. It was not the color of their skin, not the part of town they lived in 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 we all too rarely touch them.
Bless children. Honor seniors. Help the poor. But the greatest act of Christian love and service you will ever render is to receive, take time, show love, and share the gospel with a person who does not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
This is not a sermon about how to become a Christian, but on how Christians can become better Christians, even great Christians. It is not about child-like faith, but the faith to love a child, or a retiree, or the poor, and especially the lost. The Christian life is a race, and Jesus says it should be a race to the bottom. On your mark, get set, go!