By David Barr
In this week’s readings for the Good Book Club (Mark 8:27-10:52), we see two of the most prominent expressions of Jesus’ divinity back-to-back. Our reading opens with Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8:29), and continues with the account of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13), which reveals how Jesus is the perfect prophetic expression of God’s will for Israel (Elijah) and the fullest manifestation of the law (Moses). These two neighboring texts have certainly proffered heavy (and important!) Christological reflection. But let us not also forget that the Christ, the anointed one, was the messianic answer to a world broken under the rule of sin. He was good news to a broken people. And that is what we see in the following verses and chapters, people encountering the Word made flesh.
One of the surest ways that I can determine if I’ve engaged with Scripture as a living word rather than an interesting set of ideas is by asking myself if I have found anything attractive or good about Jesus. Jesus is, of course, convicting and awesome, challenging to us, but this aspect of his character is wrapped up with his goodness. Christians kneel before Jesus not simply because he has power but because he wields that power with goodness and wisdom. Additionally, Jesus can convict us not simply because he knows all things, but because he is the perfect expression of God’s good law. And in this way, the events that follow the Transfiguration are a “fleshing out” of the truth revealed on the mountaintop, a living, breathing, personal extension of the Son’s glory. Jesus and his closest friends descend from the mountain, and then we see his glory and his goodness in action whether we comprehend it or not.
The sequence of interactions from Mark 9:14 (immediately after the Transfiguration) to Mark 10:52 (immediately before Jesus enters Jerusalem) is a profound window into Jesus’s goodness and glory. Jesus engages children (Mark 9:36; 10:16), a wealthy inquirer (Mark 10:17-22), religious scholars (Mark 10:2-9), his own disciples (Mark 9:33-50), a needy father (Mark 9:21-24), and the vulnerable of the earth. He engages each of them in different ways, uncovering their hidden intentions and desires, but in each of these interactions we see goodness on the move. He is good to challenge the testing of the Pharisees, good to resist the competitive aspirations of the disciples, and good to tell the rich man what he truly lacks if he would become a disciple. Most obvious to the intuitions of our hearts, Jesus is good to take up the little children in his own arms. Why?
At the core of the God-man’s theological identity is that mysterious concept of condescension. Another term for it is accommodation, but I like condescension better, as it grasps at the drama of who Jesus is — the all-powerful who would condescend to hold little children in his arms (Mark 9:36; 10:16). The idea is not that God in Christ condescends into some other thing, but that he becomes what he does not have to be for the sake of relationship. In some theological conversations, condescension is another way of communicating the covenant. Condescension, that is, exists for the sake of the continued relationship, and relationships, as far as I’m aware, only take place in interactions at the speed of our own creaturely limits. And so, when Jesus takes little children into his arms, not once in our reading, but twice, we see how condescension lives. It is not a talking down to. It is also not belittling; Jesus tells his disciples that they must be like these little children. The condescension of Christ is his taking up of these little ones onto his own lap, blessing them with his hands, drawing them closer to his heart. What a remarkable movement!
There are no details about the ages of these children in either of the interactions, and there is certainly no guarantee that they will remember this encounter. In this way, Jesus’ actions are not a strategic maneuver in terms of recruiting a new set of potential disciples, they are only actions that flow directly out of who Jesus is. He is God incarnate, and he is the messianic answer, giving us whatever it is that we need — rebuke, healing, challenge, hard truth, an invitation. But who could believe in this kind of goodness? And that’s the point: children. The children are, in fact, the ones who come into the closest literal proximity with Jesus, and what that might mean figurally is exactly what the master says: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter into it” (Mark 10:15).
I often find myself reflecting on Jesus in a particular theological key, but let us not forget to connect the theological with the scriptural: Jesus is the good law that will lead you to living pastures; he is the wise prophet who knows what to tell you; he is the answer to your ailing body; he is the one who lifts you up when you’re forgotten; he is the one who tells you to sell your belongings; and he is the one who asks what you want and gives it to you.
When you walk through this reading, I ask that you look at this Christ. Look at the healer. Look at the answer, the anointed one. And when you ponder his greatness, don’t simply venerate him; adore him.
David Barr is associate rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN.