Friday, June 1, 2012

Arguing with Children

We have recently covered a little side trip of episodes only recorded by Luke as Jesus started His determined final approach to Jerusalem; lastly discussing Jesus' visit to Martha's and Mary's home.

It is now time to rejoin Matthew's timeline, where previously we saw how Matthew, Mark, and Luke all presented different stances on whether or not the Disciples understood Jesus' coming fate. Then Matthew reported his own unique episode, where Jesus tells Peter to get money to pay Jesus' share of Temple tax from the mouth of a fish, which is sometimes suggested to be meant metaphorically according to the "fishers of men" theme, meaning for Peter to go make a new convert and let that convert's money pay for Jesus (Matthew 17:24-27).

Arguing with Children
Modern Bible scholars often make the case that the Gospel of Mark served as source material for the authors of Matthew and Luke. There is much material that is copied across the Synoptic Gospels, nearly word-for-word, which would strongly support theory, but, to me, the more interesting bits are where Matthew and Luke deviated from Mark's script. These deviations can reveal motives, perspectives, and possibly even different versions of the source material

We will begin with Mark 9:33-37 to unveil the different evolutions of the story. Mark states that the Disciples had argued on the way to Capernaum about whom among them was the greatest. Jesus confronted them about their discussion, and told them that if "anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." Then Jesus grabbed into His arms a nearby child and told them in Mark 9:37 that:

"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My Name (Jesus) welcomes Me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the one who sent Me." NIV

Mark has a very physical message: serve everyone and welcome even little children. Of course, if you are welcoming little children and serving everyone, then you are even serving little children. This is one of the better messages in the Gospels. By promoting a sentiment like this, we can see how a spirit of family and community would be developed in the early church, and we can also understand the communist nature which the early church took on (Acts 4:32-37).

Preceded by Jesus arriving in Capernaum and telling Simon/Peter to look for money in the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:24-27), Matthew 18:1-5 offers a different, less communal, more spiritual message. Matthew drops the Disciple's argument and Jesus' confronting them. It seems that Matthew found the the Disciples arguing over which of them was the best too distasteful for him. Instead, the Disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in Heaven in a manner so vague that you do not know if the Disciples are asking about their own ranking in Heaven, or about that of past prophets like Elijah. After Jesus calls a child over to stand in their group (as opposed to holding him), Jesus gave this reply in Matthew 18:3-5:

And [Jesus] said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in My Name welcomes Me." NIV

This is similar, but different to Mark's message. Matthew's Jesus spoke of changing perception, not necessarily of serving. Matthew's Jesus wanted the Disciples to forget about rankings and be humble like a child. A child is no longer literally someone who should be welcomed in Jesus name, but rather a child symbolically represents someone who is humble and meek; the ideal character, and necessary prerequisite perspective for being Saved. A dose of humility can be healthy, but we can also understand how fostering a spirit of humility would have benefited the early church leaders; by yielding power to their leadership and by suppressing people endowed with questioning natures.

By the way, the "servant of all" sentiment found in Mark 9:35 is not completely lost in Matthew. When it does show up, it does so explicitly coupled to Jesus' example in Matthew 20:25-28 (parallels in Mark 10:42-45 and Luke 22:24-27) and Matthew 23:8-12. Jesus leads by example, and given that He truly served all (or at least all of the Elect), there is no question then that Jesus is the greatest in Heaven. Of course, it is a little easier to serve everyone when your act of service is just dying. ;-)

In some unknown location in Luke 9:46-48, we find that Luke is almost a hybrid of Matthew and Mark, but Luke stayed much closer to Mark's original content. Luke kept the argument the Disciples had about being the greatest. Then, after having a child stand near Him, in Luke 9:48 we find:

Then [Jesus] said to them, "Whoever welcomes this little child in My Name welcomes Me; and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the one who sent Me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest." NIV

Luke dropped the "servant to all" as well, but kept the "the least is the greatest" theme. Luke appears to be using the child as a metaphor as well, but amplifies the transubstantiation; the vicarious reception of God. If you welcome the least among you, then you are actually welcoming God. Luke's message accentuates Mark's humility, but at the same time neuters it by dropping the servitude.

By the way, did you notice above that Luke 22:24-27 was a parallel with Matthew's later reference to a "servant to all" sentiment? Well, Luke made some interesting tweaks there too, but that discussion is for another study. ;-)

So Mark's Jesus instructs humility put into servile action, Matthew's Jesus demands a humble spirit for Salvation eligibility, and Luke's Jesus speaks of doing things as if you were doing them for God. These are three different views.

While these views are not mutually exclusive concepts regarding Jesus' teachings in general, they cannot all be simultaneously accurate to this one episode. That means that we are seeing the author's different motives and/or perspectives here. If that is the case, then we cannot exactly call it the Truth, now can we?

One final particularly interesting to ponder: Why is it that Mark 9:36's Jesus actually holds the child in His arms, while Matthew 18:2's and Luke 9:47's Jesus just has the child stand nearby? Either Matthew and Luke found the idea of Jesus hugging the child too unsavory, or (I think more likely) Matthew and Luke were drawing from a different, possibly earlier, version of Mark, one without Jesus' embrace of the child.

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