September 23, 2012 – Hugs and Greatness
To listen to the recorded version, click here: hugs and greatness
I learned the most wonderful Greek word this week, while I was translating the Gospel reading for today. I’m not quite sure why I got so excited about this word, but it made me feel happy just to read it. The word is enankalisamenos and it’s found in verse 36 – “He took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them….” enankalisamenos is the word – just one word! – that means “he took him in his arms,” it means Jesus hugged the child. It’s only used twice in the New Testament, both times within two chapters of the gospel of Mark, and both times it’s talking about Jesus and little children. The other time we find this word is in Mark chapter 10, when parents are bringing their little children to Jesus for a blessing, and the disciples are annoyed, because Jesus clearly has more important things to do with his time and his talents than to spend time with a bunch of noisy kids with their runny noses and their sticky fingers and their scraped knees. But Jesus rebuked them, and said what we love to remember, “Let the children come to me; don’t keep them away. For the kingdom of God belongs to people like this. And in fact, if you don’t receive the kingdom like a child you won’t enter it at all.” And then he did it again – enankalisamenos– he took the children in his arms, and he blessed them, laying his hands on them.
I think there are several reasons why I got so excited about learning this new Greek word. First of all, it absolutely blows my mind to be reminded that the God who was before all things, who created all things just by the power of his word, who rules over everything in the cosmos, visible and invisible, past, present and future, that this very God stooped down and took a little child in his arms. The God before whom every kingdom on earth will fall down in fear and awe is so gentle that the smallest child had no fear of him. It is a terrible and blasphemous thing to think of Jesus as the wimpy milquetoast-type Savior of badly-done Sunday school art that is so often associated with the story of Jesus and the children. But it is equally wrong to write it off as childish sentimentalism, because the truth is that in these stories Mark has opened a window through which we see the Son of God in all his tenderness and humility. And in his tenderness and humility Jesus has something to teach us.
These were the days when Jesus was training up his disciples, teaching them what they would need to know in order to carry on his ministry in the world. They were traveling under the radar as much as possible, while Jesus prepared them for the difficult days to come, warning them that he would be betrayed into the hands of their enemies, that he would be killed, and that he would rise again from the dead. It was a really hard teaching, and the poor disciples had no idea what he was talking about. As the saying goes, it was Greek to them, but not one of them had the nerve to ask Jesus any questions. We’ve all been in that same situation I think, completely bewildered, but afraid to say anything or else we will reveal how stupid we are. It’s a pride thing we all fall into, and the disciples were no exception, so as they walked along they got into a debate to make themselves feel better. They began to argue about which one of them was the greatest, but quietly, muttering among themselves so Jesus wouldn’t hear them. And when they got to Capernaum of course Jesus asked them, “By the way, what were you guys arguing about back there?” nobody was brave enough to answer him.
But Jesus knew very well what they were discussing. He knew his friends well for one thing, and he knew what it was to be human. And so, without rebuking them or putting them down, he sat down and he called them to gather around him, and he began to teach them. If you want to know who is the greatest, he told them, I’ll show you. And he took a child and set him in the middle of them. And then he took the child into his arms – enankalisamenos. He hugged the child, and he said to them, if you receive a little child in my name you receive me. The word receive means welcome or accept. He was telling them, if you open your arms to a little child you open your arms to me, and if you open your arms to me you are welcoming the one who sent me – and by that of course, he meant God, the Father.
And so what did that have to do with being great? I think a lot of times we read this as telling us that greatness is humility – the more humble you are, the greater you are. But of course, as soon as you think about becoming great with your humility, you’ve failed completely to be humble. It’s like one of those optical illusions that disappear as soon as you look directly at it. But Jesus wasn’t trying to make them play mind games like that. The point he was making is that the greatest is God himself. What you need to be seeking, he was showing them, is not how to be great, but how to welcome the One who alone is great. And what’s more, the amazing, incomprehensible thing about the Creator of the Universe is that he loves his creatures so much, he identifies so closely with the very least of them, that when you take the smallest child into your arms you are welcoming the God and Father of all. If you want to be first, become the servant of all, the servant even of those you think are less than you, those you think are beneath you, and in doing that you will find you are serving the One who is first of all.
Jesus also set that child before them as a model of who we all are before God. Coming to us as the Son of God, Jesus taught his disciples to come to God as their Father. One thing about being a child is you are always surrounded by people who are bigger than you, who know more than you, who can do more things than you can. As adults we spend a lot of time trying to prove to ourselves and others that we are bigger or better or more important, but for a little child humility is a fact of life. A small child knows she is dependent on others for everything she needs; she lives in humble expectation of good from those who care for her. We all grow up too quickly, and too quickly lose our humility as we learn the ways of the world, but the smallest child can be for us the best example of life before God.
There is a wonderful Psalm, Psalm 81, where God calls out to his people, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and said, ‘Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.’ And yet my people did not hear my voice, and Israel would not obey me.” What child is there who would not open his mouth when its mother held it close to nurse? But as stubborn, rebellious people we forget the way of being children before God, and in our pride we stubbornly and stupidly shut our mouths when he comes to us with good gifts. Like the disciples, we are too busy trying to figure out who is greater than who to remember that we are children of the only One who is great. And like the disciples we are too busy with important matters to stop and receive the little ones that are beloved of our Father, and so we don’t receive the Father either.
When you go to a theme park or a carnival, there are generally rides where you have to be a certain height or you can’t get on. There’s sometimes a plywood cutout of a clown or a little man, with markings beside it, and you have to measure up to the mark or else you can’t ride and you have to go ride on the merry-go-round or something embarrassingly childish like that. That’s the kingdom of this world. We waste our lives measuring ourselves and our neighbors. We are fearful in our pride and we are prideful in our fear. And the Jews and the disciples and we modern Americans, we all get trapped in thinking that God is just like us – that he has a marking system for us and if we don’t measure up to it we are out.
But the truth is that entering the kingdom is much more like being born. We don’t grow up to be good enough and then get born into our family. We are born, tiny and helpless and knowing nothing, and then we grow within our family. And that is how we enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus told Nicodemus – and Nicodemus found it very confusing – “Unless you are born again, you cannot enter the kingdom.” “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it,” Jesus told the disciples, when they were trying to keep the children from bothering the Master.
God’s purpose for you is that you grow into the fullness of maturity, like the magnificent passages we read today about the virtuous woman whose family will rise up and call her blessed, about the blessed man who meditates on the law of God day and night. In the kingdom we are like trees that are planted by streams of water, that will yield their fruits in season, and whose leaves will never wither. But we come into the kingdom as babies, naked, and helpless, and ignorant. We open our mouths for the good milk of God’s word, and he takes us in his arms – enankalisamenos, just as Jesus took the little children in his arms and blessed them. Our God is the God who loves his most humble creatures so much that when someone welcomes them, it is the same as welcoming the Father himself. And we are growing to be like our Father when we open our arms to the least of his sons and daughters, just as he opened his arms to us for no other reason than that he loved us. And as his children, members of his family and heirs of his kingdom, when we hug a little child, when we visit a lonely neighbor, when we spend time talking to someone that other people can’t be bothered with, we are welcoming Jesus, and the Father who sent him to us. And living day by day in his kingdom, we are growing up into the perfect and blessed goodness of being like our Father.