The island of Capri in southern Italy is a playground for the rich and famous. Visit and you’ll see super-yachts, fancy restaurants, and high fashion boutiques. Capri is a place synonymous with opulence and wealth, and the Roman ruins there tell us it was the same in Jesus’ day. By the time Jesus was in his mid-twenties, the Roman Emperor Tiberius had completed a monstrous palace on Capri, living there from AD 27 until his death in AD 37. The stories about Tiberias and Capri are legendary, and many are too grotesque to share here. For ten years the Emperor lived in extreme seclusion, luxury, and paranoia, fearing his enemies’ schemes in the Roman senate. To be fair to Tiberius Rome had a history of conspiring against her leaders, so he shut himself away, indulging himself every way imaginable until he died. This was the ultimate picture of “greatness” or power in the Roman Empire during Jesus’ lifetime. When Jesus was asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, Tiberius was who they were asking about – the very top of the food chain, everyone below him following suit. Greatness, in the ancient world, meant power and wealth, but also removal from the masses, safety, assurance that you will live as long as humanly possible, and after that leave behind a formidable legacy. How much has changed today?
Between Tiberius and Jesus, we hear a tale of two kings and remember them each for very different reasons. One hoards to excess, locking himself away, serving only “number one”. The other gives to excess, opening his circle to anyone who shows interest. One was untouchable, the other, you could say, was the most hands on figure in human history.
I wonder if Tiberias and Jesus spent nights looking up at the same moon. How could two men see things so differently?
In the story we just heard we find Jesus’ disciples arguing about which of them is the greatest. There’s a few stories in the gospels about this kind of thing going on in the group, so it may not have been an isolated incident. Who was the best, the crème of the crop, the top dog disciple, they wondered? In Mark and Matthew’s telling of this story Jesus asks them what they had been arguing about on the road to someplace and they didn’t answer him because they were too embarrassed about it. So the group had obviously spent enough time with Jesus to have known a little better, but still they couldn’t help themselves, could they? They just had to establish a pecking-order, they needed to climb on top of one another to feel important, to feel loved, to feel safe. Can we blame them? Look at the world they lived in, a world of dominance and dog-eat-dog. And turning the question in our direction, can we help ourselves? Just look at the world we’re living in, full of the same in many ways. The story of Capri and Tiberius wasn’t taken as a cautionary tale in the West, people still scramble there to feel secluded and powerful, or visit to fantasize about being an Emperor for a day. As we hear from famous figures like Lady Gaga, “I used to walk down the street like I was a star. I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be – and then to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth.”
Greatness, as the world sees it is always attractive, and was to Jesus’ very close friends too. Here they were with Jesus, the very embodiment of humility and service, and they were arguing about who should get the best seat in the house. That’s perhaps the first thing to point out in this story. Just because we’re in Jesus’ company doesn’t mean we’re going Jesus’ way. It’s entirely possible to call myself a Christian and live nothing like Christ. This is the first of two stories in this chunk of Luke’s gospel where the disciples get it wrong and Jesus has to correct them. Because human ideas about power are always suspect, no matter who has them.
Human ideas about power are always suspect because we’re all sinners, including those of us who claim to follow Jesus. “Sinner” isn’t a very popular word today, but it just describes someone who’s gone off the rails, going the wrong way. And therefore, someone like that is in need of someone else to show them the right way. In this little story, Jesus is showing his disciples (still sinners no matter how saintly they’re depicted later) that they’ve gone off the rails and need to get back into alignment. Maybe a story like this is the gospels is good evidence that these books can be trusted. Eventually, those same disciples ensured stories of their failures were told honestly. What other motivation would there be to show yourself in a bad light as emerging leaders unless you simply felt compelled to tell the truth? It’s certainly highly unusual in ancient literature. Usually, people try to make a lie sound like the truth.
The point is, no one’s entirely holy, entirely right except Jesus. So there’s nothing wrong with admitting we’re sinners, that we’re prone to going off the rails, in fact it’s quite liberating. It’s fundamentally what it first means to be a Christian, the admittance we need help. All we’re saying when we admit that to ourselves is that we’ve somehow taken a wrong turn, and need redirection. In the Eastern Christian tradition a popular prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s incredible the perspective you gain, the grace you invite, if you pray that little prayer in a moment when you’re finding it hard to go Jesus’ way. Pray it ten or more times in a row while breathing slowly and you gain even more perspective and find that even more grace opens up in your heart.
There’s no sense in sugar coating it, it can be hard to be a Christian and always has been. There is a massive gravitational-like force pulling me in the other direction from Jesus, there are voices that tell me to live like Tiberius and dominate my way toward upward mobility. Of course, we’re not always obvious or shameless about it, we’re usually devilishly subtle. A passive-aggressive jab at a co-worker to make sure they “know their place”, a snide remark to one friend about another, a disregarding of another person’s experience, a lie on social media projecting to the world that we have it all together when in our guts we know we’re a mess. We’ve got lots of little ways of arguing among ourselves about who’s the greatest, and many days they go undetected. And you know what? It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting because worrying about our own greatness is born of fear, not love. It’s rooted in the anxiety that we’re not loved, not cared for, not safe, and so we have to drum up that respect from others, that perceived temporal security from sources other than God. Today there’s an entire generation online aiming at illusory greatness in a way which is eating them up inside, sending many young people spiraling into desperate anxiety and depression, all because they’ve grown up in a world obsessed with becoming “great”. And we gave them that world, and then we gave them the technological access to obsess over those projections without restraint. It’s exhausting being a sinner and trying to solve your own problems, heal your own pain, with more sin.
Well the disciples had Jesus to snap them out of that exhausting and ultimately self-defeating spiral. And we have Jesus too. “But Jesus knew their thoughts” writes St. Luke in this little story. Jesus knows our thoughts too.
Do you find that a disturbing thought, or a comforting one? The more we get to know Jesus the more we will find it a comforting thought. With Jesus we experience the freedom of being known, the joy of not having to pretend to be something we’re not any longer. He can see where we’re tired, where we’re wrestling with what it means to be a Christian today in a time when posturing and projecting greatness is as popular as ever, even among Christians themselves. He can see that our ideas about human power are always suspect, and it doesn’t surprise him in the least. That’s why he’s walking with his disciples in the first place, while he’ll wash their feet the night before he dies. He knew how much grace and guidance they needed and was more than happy to share it then. He’s more than happy to share that same grace and guidance with us now. Jesus knows you better than you know yourself and is here to help.
This story is also wonderful because of the contrast Jesus’ draws by inviting the little child to come stand by his side. In one simple picture Jesus turns the moment on its head. It’s as if Jesus says, “Don’t worry about trying to topple one another, try lifting up this little one instead. There is nothing to be gained, really, from pretending you’re a little Emperor; see what serving the most forgettable among you will do to you, will do for the world.”
It shouldn’t be lost on us that children were often quite forgettable in the ancient world, sub-human even in many societies. And it shouldn’t be lost on us either that the same goes in our time. The stories of the unborn, the enslaved, the oppressed surround us, especially in Canada today. And there’s no sense in burying those international or national stories or shutting our ears to them. If we shut those voices out we might well be shutting God out, because Jesus said that welcoming the often forgettable means welcoming him and the One who sent him. If we reject or ignore those among us like this little child in the story, we reject and ignore God. For Jesus, it really is that simple.
But if you pay close attention to Jesus’ words in this story you won’t hear a dire warning (though it might be right to hear one anyway) but the opening up of possibility: “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me.” What a mysterious and wonderful thought! What might open up to us if we forget about paving our own paths to glory for a moment and turn to the care and attention of another?
The sense we get from Jesus here is that we’ll not only be welcoming a fellow human, but welcoming God. Maybe this is what Jesus also means when he says that we must “give up our lives in order to gain them”. When we let go of our delusions of grandeur, hoping the lie will become the truth, we find the truth itself. The truth that we are loved, accepted, cared for, safe with God through Jesus. And a moment with God, in the lives of the little or forgettable ones, is just around every corner.
This week our church hosted our annual Arts Camp, served by an incredible team of ministry leaders and volunteers. They were, quite literally, welcoming the little ones. Weeks like these aren’t institutional or governmental, but are laboured on by thousands across our country to love and serve children as Jesus did. As much as we should listen to stories of children from our shared national past, we must continue to invest in the stories of children today. If you pray, please pray for the children who attended Arts Camp this week, and for all those children across the country who need to know the real story of Jesus, the real love, security and possibility Jesus brings. Also this week we’ve seen more reports emerge about the toll isolation has taken for those in care facilities or reliant on in home care, including the elderly. Those stories are heartbreaking, because we have a tendency to forget, even ignore, those living on such margins. God bless you if you’ve done something, anything, during the pandemic to care for family, friends, patients or clients facing isolation and extreme vulnerability. I’m quite certain that Jesus is talking about you when he describes “the greatest in the kingdom.”
So that’s it, really. As Jesus’ followers we’ve got a choice. We can set sail for Capri along with Tiberius to live in paranoia and seclusion, cut off from one another and from God. Or we can take Jesus’ path of humility, of recognition of our need because we’re sinners, and gain more than we bargained for. What do we gain? We gain connection, and in a sense we gain our very humanity. We gain each other, and in turn we gain God. Aren’t you glad we don’t have to pretend to be little emperors anymore, living on our silly little islands waiting to die? Jesus knows a much better way. The way of truth, the way of into a growing life.