6 An argument arose among the disciples as to which of them might be the greatest. 47 But Yeshua, knowing the thoughts of their hearts, took a child, stood him beside himself, 48 and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me. In other words, the one who is least among you all — this is the one who is great.” 49 Yochanan responded, “Rabbi, we saw someone expelling demons in your name; and we stopped him because he doesn’t follow you along with us.” 50 Yeshua said to him, “Don’t stop such people, because whoever isn’t against you is for you.”
Matthew and Luke are using Mark as their main source for this material. Matthew omits the story of the unknown exorcist, and he also adds Jesus’ words that disciples ought not only to welcome children, but also become like them.
Luke’s version, like Mark’s, deals with two great dangers facing faith communities, hierarchy and sectarianism.
Hierarchy: Jesus rejects the whole notion of power over others in the kingdom of God. By using the example of welcoming a child, he emphasises humility and openness, to the exclusion of what the world calls power. All Christian churches have found this difficult, those who have obeyed it literally find themselves open to charismatic takeovers (pentecostalists) on the one hand or vagueness of doctrine on the other (Quakers); while those who decide not to obey, risk overbearing clerical domination (Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed). This suggests that Jesus’ teaching puts the finger on a real temptation (human delight in power), while creating problems for the management of believing communities, especially with regard to the preservation of truth and the exercise of discipline. Jesus never had these responsibilities, although he may indeed have appointed the 12 apostles. They however were meant to be emissaries of the gospel rather than administrators of the church. Although within the gospels there is material about how squabbles are to be settled, that is for me evidence of additions made to Jesus’ teaching to assist the life of Christian communities. I interpret Jesus’ teaching about welcoming children and being the least important as essential for all Christian leaders, amongst whom modesty of personal bearing, of heart, and of lifestyle should be evident. Exposure to children is a not a bad way of ensuring this.
Sectarianism: “He’s not one of us!” is the classic statement of sectarian religion, whereby membership of the religious group becomes the main instrument for judging another human being. This kind of prejudice can be seen in apparently innocuous practices like using only the Free Church Garage to the more serious, like killing people because they are Catholic or Protestant (see the history of Scotland, passim!). Jesus rejects this completely, urging his followers to see people as allies rather than enemies.
In the Spanish newspaper El Pais today there is a challenge to the Pope by Hans Kung on both of these issues. He says that the hierarchy of the church, protected by the doctrine of Papal infallibility, which Kung had challenged, stands in the way of any non-sectarian partnerships with other denominations and faiths. Kung was banned from his teaching office because of his challenge, in the time of the now-sainted thug, John Paul 2; his appeal to Francis will almost certainly get nowhere.
Martin Luther’s faith that all matters of dcotrine and order could be solved by reference to Scripture alone, has proven to be a mirage, because it then comes down to whose interpretation of scripture is accepted. It’s notorious that when Luther’s own interpretation of scripture was challenged, he took to shouting and banging on the table.
The gospels were written for communities that were on the verge of becoming a multiracial institution. Doubtless their authors hoped that genuine sharing and modest leadership, as advocated by Jesus, would prevail over intsitutional hierarchy and sectarianism. I have learned over 50 years that it is very easy to conceal arrogance under the forms of Presbyterian ministry, but that it is not fruitful to do so; whereas the desire to share tasks and decisions and to enable people to do so, is more likely to build a community worthy of Jesus, who welcomed God by welcoming children.