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Our world is consumed with issues of status. Titles, degrees, offices and positions affect one's image and self-esteem. We even speak of wearing power suits and power ties to give an official air of status and authority. The last unit of the Galilean ministry section of Luke addresses the issue of status. The synonym of "status" for most people is "power," and its antonym is "being a nothing." But Jesus calls us away from pursuing status and power. Viewed spiritually, the opposite of status is humility and a lack of concern about where one fits on the corporate ladder. Such an attitude is fundamental for the disciple.
Jesus' remarks emerge because of a debate among the disciples about who is at the "top of the table," as the British say. Who are the top dogs among the disciples? There is an intense irony here: as Jesus discusses the Son of Man's approaching rejection, the disciples are consumed by their own discipleship rankings. In response Jesus points to a child, a person with little status in the ancient world. In that world a child was barely seen and not heard at all. In Judaism, where children were held in more respect than in other ancient cultures, it still was often considered a waste of time to teach one under twelve the Torah. In fact, m. `Abot 3:10 reads, "Morning sleep, mid-day wine, chattering with children and tarrying in places where men of common people assemble, destroy a man." Here children and status issues appear side by side. Jesus does not view children as insignificant. For him every person counts. Mark 9:36 notes that this child is small enough for Jesus to take into his arms.
Bringing the child to his side, Jesus says, "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest." Jesus' point is that everyone, even the lowest person on the ladder, is important. Receiving a child is like receiving God. Jesus speaks of people in these terms elsewhere (Mt 25:35-45).
In all likelihood the theology behind this statement involves a recognition that every person is made in the image of God and deserves respect for that reason alone. The effect of Jesus' words is to rule out debates over status. Greatness comes from one's status as a human being, as one created by God. Even little children are great. Disciples are to affirm the greatness of all persons; they all have dignity, even those who need to get right with God and deal honestly with sin. Every sinner deserves some respect. No persons are so low on the ladder that they are beyond the reach of divine compassion.
The danger of the pursuit of status is a destructive elitism. Like a cancer, elitism eats into the gospel invitation that is made to all humankind. Cliques and withdrawal into an air of superiority within the church often destroy its ability to draw in those who need Jesus the most. Those in the church who worry about where they rank are thinking too little about how to serve others who need God.
There is another point here. Jesus defines greatness without using explicit comparison to anyone else, as people often measure greatness. Greatness is found in an attitude, humility; it does not require someone else's lack of greatness. All relative scales are removed. Greatness has only one mirror, the reflective eyes of God. He sees greatness in those who do not need to be great to have stature.
The next event brings to the surface yet another error. Another destructive attempt to project greatness is the attempt to limit the right to share in ministry. When the disciples try to stop a man from performing exorcisms in Jesus' name, Jesus tells them they are wrong. The principle is that whoever is not against you is for you. Jesus' point is not that those who are neutral about Jesus are for him; in fact, the man invokes Jesus' name in doing his work. This exorcist is not neutral. Rather, the point is that all disciples are to minister and should be allowed to do so. The disciples who travel with Jesus are not to see themselves as professional ministers who must perform all the tasks of ministry. Rather, all can labor for Jesus and should be encouraged to do so. Ministry is a cooperative venture.