Upside Down Wisdom

'Child' - by Jennifer Paliga and Kimberly Mcintosh

Mark 9.30-37, Proverbs 31.10-end

Our readings today continue the theme started last week about God’s wisdom, a wisdom, as Richard said last week, that turns conventional wisdom on its head.  It’s an upside downness that we saw Jesus trying to put across to his disciples on the road to Jerusalem where he would face execution, instead of what they probably hoped would be a kind of victory parade.  This week they are still on the way to Jerusalem and Jesus is talking about his impending death a second time and the disciples are still missing the point.  And because the point is so important we have several Sundays to enable us, Jesus’ disciples today, to get it.

I spend a certain amount of time with very young children.  If you are of crawling or toddling age you spend your days at ground level with adults towering above you.  There are various ways of attracting the attention of an adult and one I find especially touching is when a child points to the ground, indicating that they want you to sit down there with them.  They know that once you are down on the ground they will have your attention.  You are on their level.  Play might be possible.  They can show you things.  Sitting down can enable attention.

There’s sitting down going on in our gospel reading.  Jesus and the disciples (a larger number than the 12) have been on the road, but now the twelve and Jesus enter a house and it’s a house with children.  Jesus has picked up that following his telling them for a second time about his impending death there has been animated conversation about something on the road.  He learns that it was about which of them would be lead people in the great Jesus project.  So, he sits down and asks the 12 to gather round.

Mark specifically says that he sits down.  It seems an insignificant detail but it’s Mark’s way of highlighting that what Jesus is about to say is important.  Jewish rabbis sat to teach, with their disciples gathered round them on the ground.  Jesus sits.  We’re about to get some teaching.  We need to pay attention.  Then Jesus does something very upside down; he draws a child into the group.  The child is standing.  The disciples are on the ground looking up at Jesus and now also at the child.  They are looking up at a child rather than down (the opposite of how it usually is with us adults).  Jesus deliberately changes their perspective by this physical movement.  The child has something to teach them and Jesus tells them what it is and then underlines the point by blessing the child.

As usual we have two readings from the bible.  If we were to give each a title, the first reading might be headed ‘the Good Wife’ and the second, our gospel reading, ‘The Good Disciple’.  The book of Proverbs is one of the wisdom books in the bible, offering practical insights on how to live a good life.  We had this morning’s reading at my Mum’s funeral.  The poem speaks of a woman who is very capable in managing her household and her family.  That was my Mum.  I don’t think it’s an accident that both models of wisdom this week are people of lowly standing in the ancient world – a woman and a child.  It’s upside down again.

There is a detailed description of the good wife and it all makes sense.  What about the good disciple?  Apparently a good disciple is one who is last of all, servant of all and looks up to children.  Do we want toddlers ruling the world?  Well, do we?!  This is why we have several Sundays to get our heads around this teaching.

There are a number of reasons why children might offer a model for good discipleship – wonder, trust, hope, playfulness…However, here the point seems to be about their lowly status, a status linked with the similar status of a servant/slave.  There is something important about being at the bottom of the pile, being close to the ground. Jesus is using what you might call shock tactics to get a point across – getting us to see something differently, challenging conventional wisdom.  In John’s gospel he does this by washing his disciples’ feet so that they are looking down on him rather than up at him.  Their rabbi is their servant.  Here he does it by standing a child next to him so that they have to look up at the child as well as him.  Suddenly a child is more important than them.

In his biography of Pope Francis Paul Vallely describes how early on in his papacy he was flying from Rome on a papal visit.  When travelling he carries a small, black rather old case with him.  Before boarding the plane he reached for this case and couldn’t find it.  One of his aides explained that a member of staff had carried it on to the plane where it was waiting for the Holy Father.  ‘No’, he said, ‘I want to carry it on to the plane myself like any other passenger’.  They had to retrieve it from the plane so he could do this.  The pope carrying his own case!  It’s like the pope living in an apartment rather than the papal palace, or the pope inviting people living on the streets to dinner with him.  These are shock tactics, getting us to enter a different paradigm, one where the first are last, the last first etc.

So, what is it about children and servants?  There’s just one word I want to consider – obedience.  Children and servants are under orders.  They have to do what others tell them.  In a recent tv programme about Princess Margaret her former chauffeur, Mr Griffin, reminisced about his time with her.  What he seemed to remember were instructions.  After all, he was a royal servant.  ‘Griffin, drive to Windsor today’.  ‘We’ll take the Ford Prefect, not the Rolls today, Griffin’, ‘Burn those letters, Griffin’, and so on.  While Mr Griffin was on the job he was under orders.

Jesus describes himself as a servant.  (The Son of Man came to serve Mk 10.45).  He is one under orders.  He wants his disciples, us, to be like him, to be those under orders.  There is a simplicity, a freedom, a clarity about being under God’s orders.  We see that simplicity in Jesus’ repeating at intervals to these disciples that he is going to Jerusalem whether or not they think it’s a good idea.  He’s obedient to his calling.  He’s under orders.  Immediately before the conversation reported in today’s gospel he’s been up on a mountain where an encounter with Moses and Elijah confirms his sense that his exodus, his departure, his death, lies ahead and he is to meet it.  So he moves towards Jerusalem with that assurance.

Being under orders is not the same as someone taking control of our lives.  Princess Margaret couldn’t do that with Griffin.  God doesn’t do that with us.  He is not inviting us to become his robots.  He doesn’t manipulate us.  We can see Jesus wrestling with his orders in Gethsemane; he was free to choose.  He wasn’t God’s puppet.

‘But how do I know if what I am doing, if this choice I am making is following God’s orders?’  I can hear someone asking.  ‘Perhaps I’m on the wrong path!’  The most basic thing God asks of us is that we express a desire to be under his orders.  We will not necessarily know if we’re on the right path.  There may not even be a right path in the terms we are thinking of.  But in expressing our desire to be following God we are already on the way and here in today’s gospel Mark offers a picture of how we might do that.  He gives a picture of the Good Disciple.  Jesus sits, he looks at the 12, and now at us, and, gently pointing to the ground, invites us to sit there, to give him our attention and to listen to him.  As we listen we absorb this new upside down wisdom that can seem like folly and over time the choices we make and the decisions we take are shaped by it.  It can be a daily practice for us; sitting, looking up at Christ and listening, demonstrating our desire to be under his orders.  Try it!


Featured Image: ‘Child’ – by Jennifer Paliga and Kimberly Mcintosh