“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.'” (Mark 9:35 NRSV)
Jesus had asked his disciples about a conversation on the road. They couldn’t answer. Well, they could, but they didn’t want to.
“Who got into the cookie jar?” a parent would ask us.
“Not me,” we replied with cookie crumbs all over our shirt.
“What were you talking about back there?”
“Oh, nothing,” their heads bent, sandals scuffing nervously in the sand.
Jesus knew exactly what they’d been talking about. They were pondering who was the greatest among them. Sadly, this argument came on the heals of Jesus’ predicting his death and resurrection for the second time. It was a scary statement. Jesus would be betrayed into human hands.
No one wants to be put into human hands. David prayed that he would be poured into God’s hands where he would experience not only God’s judgement, but also God’s love and mercy. Here, Jesus will be at the mercy of humans.
The disciples were afraid to ask what that meant. And they must have entered into a sort of land of denial as evidenced by their argument about who would be the greatest among them. It seems heartless and selfish, to me. But, then how many times have I crucified my Lord with a heartless remark or a selfish thought, giving no consideration to repentance?
I once worked for a man who was talented and skilled in his field. Sadly, he had a poor self-esteem. He had been an all-state football player prior to entering World War II and he learned a hard lesson there: To be a winner, someone has to lose.
He kept that motto throughout his life. When we had a discussion over a course of action in my department, he had to be right. That translated to the expectation that I had to be wrong in order for him to be right. And with that “win” notched on his belt, he could strut his sense of “rightness” in front of the staff.
So sad. I’ve met people like him since then and I feel for them, because on the occasions when they are wrong, it’s harrowing for them. They can’t accept themselves or love themselves. Caught in this endless loop, they go out to find another battle where they can win by making the other lose.
Jesus reminded the disciples that to be first, they must be last. He certainly modeled that many times: the healing of an impure woman, demoniac and the possessed. Dead girls brought back to life; those with disabilities healed. He was servant of all. He included those that society would exclude. He fought against the status quo. He purposely chose anonymity, though it rarely worked. He told people not to tell others what he had done; his ministry was more important than him.
What does servant leadership look like today? Servant leaders empathize and understand what their staff members may be experiencing. They try to remove the road blocks. Servant leaders are more interested in the worthy goal than the acclamation for themselves. Servant leaders are strong and wise.
Servant leaders welcome children, Jesus says. This reference to children isn’t what we might expect. Today we believe that children are valuable and must be protected. In the first century, children held little value because they could not do much towards the economic care of the family. They were little better than women or chattel.
Jesus challenges us to care for these: those who live on the edges of society; those who others won’t touch; those with whom Jesus would dine and spend time. When we serve these the least of all society has to offer, we are welcoming Jesus. And when we welcome Jesus, we’re welcoming God.
Taken in that perspective, it’s freeing. When we look to serve God and welcome God into our lives, the demands of egoism and stature in this world don’t matter. We’re free to do the right thing. Money takes it rightful place in the backseat of our lives. Others aren’t hurt because of our need to get ahead. And when we look in the mirror, we like what we see: a beloved child of God.
All glory and honor be to God.