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The Greatest in the Kingdom

At the heart of this play is a simplistic Sunday School lesson that gets away from us and changes into something much more complicated. The basic framework is that the disciples argue about which of them will be the greatest in the kingdom, and then are taught a lesson when Jesus presents a child to them and says that those who treat the child with the most kindness (or, in the parallel reading, those who become most like the child) will be the greatest. So far, so simple, though I do try to make things a little more interesting by not portraying the arguing disciples as Sunday School clich├ęs. (In fact, half of them argue not for themselves, but on behalf of someone else that they admire.)

If this were all there was to the reading, then there simply wouldn’t have been enough material for a full play, but fortunately, the narrative comes to the rescue. Immediately after presenting his object lesson about the child, Jesus goes off on a tangent, talking about how children should be treated in this world, and then on an even bigger tangent in which he considers (but with surprising vehemence) the abstract question of whether a person would be culpable of a wrongdoing if the wrong were inevitable.

If none of this has ever seemed strange to you, it might be because everything makes sense – in isolation. We can say “Amen” to each piece of it, and therefore don’t notice how odd it is that those particular pieces led one to another. We treat the story like a Sunday School lesson, and never try to imagine what human reality might be required to cause this particular sequence of utterances.

I take a crack at this, basing my interpretation on another strange aspect of this story: in Luke’s and Mark’s accounts of it, it immediately follows the story of how Jesus tried to tell the disciples he was going to die but none of them would hear it. What exactly did I make of this? I’ll leave it to you to discover in the play itself.