Tall Tale

October 15, 2006

Mark 9:33-37


33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?"

34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."

36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,

37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."


Back in the 1300s, the soldier known as the Black Prince was a giant on English battlefields, but when he got off his horse, he was a shrimp. Also, King Henry V, who led English forces some 50 years later, was an excellent soldier, but he was a little guy. I remember, as a young man, going to the military museum at West Point, and seeing ancient suits of armor. I was surprised that they were so small, and I was told by the museum guide that people were smaller back then. I was told that little guys like the Black Prince and Henry V were average in height for their time. Ancient dwellings had small doorways, ancient armor was for smaller people leading to the conclusion that people used to smaller.

Well, like a lot of things I learned in my younger days, it turns out that it “ain’t so.” According to research conducted by two British archaeologists, Charlotte Roberts and Margaret Cox, the shortness of earlier generations is a tall tale. The researchers made this determination by analyzing skeletons from a cemetery at the medieval village of Wharram Percy in Yorkshire, England. Based on their measurements, the average height of men, at least in Britain, has remained about the same over the centuries at about 5',7", and the average height of women has remained about 5',3". So an adult in the Middle Ages would have been about as tall as an adult today.

But Roberts and Cox discovered something else equally significant. Medieval boys, ten years of age, were about eight inches shorter than ten-year-olds today. So if a person reached adulthood back then they grew to a normal height, but the children were much smaller than children today.

You might ask then, how do we account for the small clothing the Black Prince and Henry wore? They were just runts. Like some people in our time, they were below normal height. What about those small suits of armor? Medieval armies were drawn from the lower classes which had poor nutrition. More importantly, many medieval soldiers were just children. That has not changed as much as you might think. Many armies today on the African continent are filled with kids under fifteen years old.

Well, you might say, what about those low medieval doorways? They were built that way to conserve heat. The height of the doorway did not have anything to do with the height of the people.

Thus, we can conclude that most men and women of medieval times were about as tall as men and women today, but medieval children were grievously neglected and mistreated.

Now, what about the people in Jesus’ day? Evidence collected by the same two archaeologists, Roberts and Cox, suggests that ancient adults may have been just as tall as today. But whether they were or not, they, like we, were concerned with other matters of stature. They wanted to be tall in other ways. We see this in today’s reading from Mark 9.

In v33, we are told that Jesus and the disciples had come to a house in Capernaum, and Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about during their journey. The disciples would not tell him, probably because they were ashamed. They had been arguing about who was the greatest among them. Who has priority? Who is the tallest? The very fact that they are arguing about such things shows us how little they understood Jesus and how little they understood discipleship. Back in Mark 8:34, Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” But, in chapter 9, by discussing who was the greatest they were focusing on themselves, not denying themselves.

Jesus realizes that the disciples are totally clueless and so we read in v35, “He sat down.” This means he is going to teach. In the ancient Middle East, when a teacher was going to teach, he did not stand up. He sat down and the students stood out of respect. We do it the opposite way, the teacher stands and the students sit.

In any case, Jesus said to the disciples, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." And for an example, Jesus called over a child who lived in that house, took the child in his arms, and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

The point he was making probably had more impact in that culture than it does in our culture. In that culture, children were essentially non-persons. They were left with the women, who themselves were considered subservient to the men, but children were even further down the social ladder. Only slaves were lower in social standing than children. I know that in our society, we treasure our children, but historically children have been regarded more as a burden than a treasure. Historically children have been neglected, mistreated, and ignored.

As if to reinforce the insignificance of children, the gospel of Mark does not even identify the gender of this child. The Greek word Mark uses is paidion, which is neuter. Thus in the NRSV, the account says that Jesus “took a little child and put IT among them.” IT! You can’t get much more impersonal than that.

Thus, to say that the followers of Jesus could welcome him by welcoming a child, an IT, was a mind-blowing suggestion. But Jesus wanted them to understand how God views greatness. We do not become great by climbing society’s status ladder; we become great by serving those on the bottom rungs or those who don’t have a place on the ladder at all.

Greatness” is a word based on measurement. In our usual way of thinking, a person is called great only if he or she excels in some way beyond others. For us to be called great means that others do not measure up to our status or achievement, and therefore they are less than we are.

Jesus agrees that greatness is a word based on measurement, but he says that we do our measuring in the wrong direction. True greatness is not from how far we rise above others in status or fame or achievement; true greatness lies in how far we are willing to go in including and caring for the least and the lowly in his name.

Jesus says our tallness, our greatness, is measured by our servanthood. Jesus himself serves as our example. He was one who served by suffering. Jesus calls his disciples to a servant ministry. We serve even the least and the lowliest.

Jesus ties the word “greatness” to helping other people, to really helping them, not just throwing them our leftovers or hand-me-downs.

A ten-year-old boy came home one day from school saying that his class was collecting canned goods to give to the needy, and he wanted to know if he could take some cans from the family’s pantry. His mother told him to help himself, so he started setting out cans of beets, and spinach, and squash—things he did not like. He was very willing to give all the squash in the world to help the needy.

His mother went to the pantry and added a can of SpaghettiOs to the pile. The boy objected. He liked SpaghettiOs. He did not want to part with SpaghettiOs. His mother patiently explained to him that really helping others means accepting that the needs of others are as important as our own needs. To really help, we must offer what we value ourselves. If we give to others only what we do not want or do not need, that does not make us generous people, or Christlike people. It is only when we give what we want that we stand tall like Jesus.

Let’s do a little Bible trivia here. Who is the shortest person in the Bible? You might guess Zacchaeus, but maybe it was Nehemiah (KNEE-high-miah). But there is one even shorter than that. What about Job’s pal Bildad the Shuhite (shoe height).

I am joking of course, forgive my strange sense of humor. The Bible does mention a race of giants called Nephilim (Genesis 6:4; Numbers 13:33), and King Saul was noted as standing “head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2), and there was Goliath. But all these are negative mentions. The Nephilim did not serve God, nor did Goliath, and Saul was a disaster as a king. You could argue from these examples that in the Bible physical size is considered something of a detriment. Not so. The point is that size does not matter. Whether you are Zacchaeus or Goliath, size does not matter in the things of God.

It matters to us. It mattered to people in biblical times. When God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king from the household of Jesse, Samuel took one look at Jesse’s eldest son Eliab, who apparently was tall and striking, and Samuel thought, “He must be the man!” But not so, for God told Samuel to pass over Eliab, and said, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

In God’s eyes, people can stand tall in many ways, and physical height is the least important.

Earlier this year, Dana Reeve, widow of actor Christopher Reeve, died of lung cancer at the age of 44. Tributes have poured in about her. She was an actress and singer in her own right, but the praise was largely for the years of care, support, and love she gave to her husband after he was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident in 1995, and for her work on behalf of others through the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center.

We might point out that in caring for her incapacitated husband, Dana Reeve was simply keeping her marriage vows — “for better or worse, in sickness and in health” — but many people faced with a husband so totally paralyzed would have left. Dana did not. Dana put her own goals aside, she put her own life aside, to care for Chris. And through the foundation, the Paralysis Resource Center, both Reeves reached out to care others whose lives have been destroyed by paralysis. You may know that during his acting career Christopher Reeve played Superman in several movies. Dana Reeve stood taller than Superman when she stopped acting and devoted herself to caring for Chris. That was servant discipleship.

Thanks to the research of Charlotte Roberts and Margaret Cox, we know that our ancestors were, on average, about the same height as we are. But it may not always be that way. In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of injections of human growth hormone for healthy children who are simply short. Four years of shots could add three inches to an individual’s adult height. So the human height average may go up a bit in the future, and injections may be the way to get there.

But for growing tall spiritually, the prescription remains unchanged. The long and short of it is to serve. When we serve the least and lowly, we serve Christ. That is what Jesus did when he was among us. We are called to be like him. We only become like him when we help others. Amen.



Hammond, Norman. “Medieval ancestors measured up to our height standards.” The Times (of London), September 19, 2005, timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,61-1786767,00.html.

Medieval people weren’t shorter”. Discover, October 28, 2005, discover.com/web-exclusives/medieval-height-not-shorter/. Roberts, Charlotte and Cox, Margaret. Health and Disease in Britain from Prehistory to the Present Day (Sutton, 2003).

Stock, Gregory. “Stamping out short people.” Wired, November 2003, 131-32.


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