James 3:13-4:3 & Matthew 18:1-7 Feeling Good About Ourselves and others

 The Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi until a month or so ago was not really known to most of us. Now we all know who he is. Why? Because the rulers of Saudi Arabia seemingly had him executed when he entered their Embassy in Turkey to obtain certification allowing him to remarry. If media reports are to be believed a hit squad was sent to the Embassy from Saudi Arabia some time prior to Jamal entering the Embassy. They murdered him and then disposed of his body before flying back to Saudi Arabia.

When confronted with the disappearance of Jamal Kashoggi, the Government of Saudi Arabia denied any knowledge of his disappearance saying that he had left the Embassy. They even dressed one of their own people in his clothes walking away from the Embassy. Unfortunately the shoes were not those of Mr Khashoggi and close up inspection on the video showed it was not him.

As the pressure increased on the Saudi’s they acknowledged that Mr Khashoggi had been murdered at the Embassy by a rogue group who would be punished in Saudi Arabia.

One of the interesting asides to this story is that as the News was breaking the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia phoned the President of the United States son-in-law, Jared Kushner, mystified why the world was concerned at the disappearance of a journalist who was writing material objectionable to them?

Mr Khashoggi had criticised the Saudi Royal family, which is why they had him killed. It’s what dictatorships do. Stalin silenced his enemies, Putin, Xi and Kim Jong-Un silence theirs and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia silenced one of his.

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated while he celebrated Mass; Henry VIII had Thomas More beheaded because he wouldn’t annul the King’s marriage. History is littered with countless examples of power bringing wealth and seeming immunity, which is why the powerful like it. The powerful, in many countries get away with theft and murder. The poor and those seeking social justice tend to be eradicated. Thank God we live in New Zealand with a democratic form of government.

This brings us to our reading from the Gospel for today – another of the enacted parables!  What is being enacted?

It is the action of Jesus taking a child on his knee or in his arms – it depends which Gospel we read. Mark says that Jesus took a child and put him in the midst of them and taking the child in his arms…” Mark says that he put him by his side or on his knee.

What is Jesus indicating to his followers by taking a child as an example? In The Messenger Version of Scripture Eugene Peterson translate our passage for today this way, “The disciples came asking Jesus, “Who gets the highest rank in God’s kingdom?

For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me.

But if you give them a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck. Doom to the world for giving these God-believing children a hard time! Hard times are inevitable, but you don’t have to make it worse – and it’s doomsday to you if you do.”

Now I expect you can hear the frustration of Jesus coming through in this reading when he said “I’m telling you once and for all…” What is Jesus on about?

I suspect that Jesus was getting sick of the one upmanship occurring in his group of close disciples. John talks of the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved.-  Which we believe to be John. Were the other disciples asking “Do you love him more than me?”

In Matthew 20:21 the mother of the sons of Zebedee, James and John, asks Jesus to do something for her without telling him what it is? When Jesus asks what it is she wants she replies to offer her sons pride of place in his Kingdom, one on the left and one on the right.”

Mark cuts the mother out of the picture, and has James and John asking the same question.

In all of these instances (and there are many more in Scripture) it is about who is to receive power and with power authority over other people

.In the Gospel, Jesus promises his disciples that he will suffer. This is not actually what his disciples have planned! Their plans are quite different – they plan to use Jesus to help each of them achieve greatness and power. When Jesus discovers their intent he calls to him a little child and blesses the child with the words, “If you want a place of honour, you must become a slave and serve others. . . When you welcome even a child because of me, you welcome me. And when you welcome me, you welcome the one who sent me!”

Jesus in every instance of taking a child is using the child as a parable – as an example to his disciples. Children are vulnerable and totally dependent on others for their survival.

In the time of Jesus it was a man’s world with men’s rights – not human rights. Children and women were treated as chattels by the men. What the men said went. A husband could divorce his wife but she could not divorce him without his consent. It is this power and authority of men which Jesus is challenging by placing a child in the midst of his all male disciples.

Greatness and wealth are not easily turned down by most of us for we know that with wealth and greatness come the trappings of honour and the freedom of influence and the ability to do what we want to do when we want to do it. But also with wealth and prestige comes an awesome responsibility and accountability as many have found to their cost.

Who is the greatest?  Who do you look up to and honour and why do you look up to them and hold them in high regard? What is it about their life and values that attracts you –  power, influence, wealth, humility, service, honesty, integrity?

What does this say to us as the Church today about how we live our life and what values we hold?

As human beings we spend an inordinate amount of time and money on making ourselves ‘look good.” Maybe we don’t want to be the greatest but we certainly don’t want to be counted amongst the ‘also rans.”

Yet most of us, like the early disciples of Jesus, are quite good at self validation. Those who hounded Jesus and had him killed were masters of the art of self validation or self justification.

When the other disciples heard what had been asked of Jesus by the brothers they were very angry. Jesus, it would seem, while being disappointed with the attitude of his disciples also understood their motivation.

Self promotion can be a good thing – but what do we do when it is at the expense of others?

To God be the glory. Amen