30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
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.” (Mark 9:30-37 NRSV)
Sometimes it’s hard being a disciple of Jesus. He demands much and we want so badly to measure up. We want Jesus to smile at us and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant…”
Jesus and the disciples are traveling south, headed to Jerusalem. Jesus is about as clear as he can be when he says, for at least the second time, “The Son of Man will be handed over, killed and, three days later, rise again.” The disciples don’t get it. Perhaps they don’t get it because they can’t get passed their own sense of who a Messiah is and what he does.
They believe that the Messiah will ride a war horse into Jerusalem and fight the oppressive Romans and bring Israel back to her former glory. The Messiah will be a true son of David, who grew the kingdom and made it great. So, this talk about being handed over and dying just doesn’t make sense to them. If Jesus is the Messiah, then dying isn’t part of the plan. If he dies, so does the dream of greatness.
Speaking of greatness…
They’re so wrapped up on their own mission statement of the new Israel that they find themselves in conversation about who will be the greatest. Old fashioned competition has entered the picture.
They’re silent. Not for the first time. They’re silent because they’re afraid to ask Jesus what he means by this dying and rising stuff. They’re afraid to ask, because they aren’t ready to hear the answer. They’re silent because they’ve been caught. They know better because they’ve been with Jesus long enough to know that being the greatest isn’t one of his tenets.
It was so delicious having that conversation. I can imagine they discussed their God-given gifts and talents. Some were smarter, others more street-smart. The fishermen would have discussed best business practice with an assurance that they had a corner on the market. They had received power to heal. What a head rush that would be! They were teaching as they traveled. They were beginning to get it. They felt pretty full of themselves. The competition to be the greatest was just too tempting.
The scripture says that Jesus sat down. That’s a code word. In our day, when we have something to say of great importance we stand up. We stand and make our presence known. In Jesus’ day one sat down when he was ready to teach. Jesus sat down and the disciples knew that they were going to get another lecture.
“To be great,you have be least.”
“To be great, you have be last and servant of all.”
Sure. Ever hear of Caspar Milquetoast?
This is a difficult stance to take. It’s human nature to regard greatness. It’s human nature to compete for the best slot or to be the best. As I write this, my husband is watching a football game (or two or three) on the television. It’s a game whose players strive to be best so that their team will be the best. College athletes look to the greatest as the one who receives the annual Heisman Trophy. NFL teams compete to be the greatest by winning the Super Bowl.
At its best, competition is important. We improve as human beings. Sports’ fans advocate for public schools because sports “builds character.” At its worst, players believe their own press and cross ethical lines that hurt, even damage, other people.
Greatness is determined not by weakness, but by strength; not by sacrifice, but by taking; not by humility, but by stepping up; not by being truthful, but by skirting around it.
First the disciples are afraid to ask questions. Now they’re stunned into silence. They’ll see an example of servant leadership during their week in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration. Until then, they’ll continue to listen and try to learn. They’ll continue to be silent when the question at the forefront of their collective minds has the potential for an unwanted answer.
To be first we have to be last and servant of all.
This is Jesus’ way and one we’re called to follow. So, perhaps we can see what this looks like by watching the master. Jesus was no push-over. He called out those who used insincere remarks. He wasn’t always nice; in fact he had moments of being quite cranky. He regularly stood up to the Jewish leadership, naming their egregious behavior in specific terms. He even emptied the temple one day when he’d had enough.
Caspar Milquetoast: take notes.
In fact, being servant of all takes courage and stamina. It takes courage to stand up to those who would sideline people based on their looks or their social status. It takes stamina to stick it out with a person in poverty who can’t hold down a job no matter how hard they try. It takes wisdom to recognize the phonies and the users among us.
Who do you know who shares these characteristics? She is probably someone who knows who she is. His strength outweighs his weakness because he knows his true value. These describe authentic people who don’t need to seek greatness in order to be great. They do what they feel is important and if that means taking a step back from the spotlight, so be it.
As Jesus explained this to the disciples that day, he needed an example. His eye fell on the children. First century children held no value, because they produced nothing. Their only worth was what they could produce when they came of age. They were nobodies who knew about being silent and unseen.
This is who Jesus used as his example. “Welcome one of these and you welcome me. In fact, welcome me and you welcome the Father.”
This would have been a stunning moment for the disciples. Welcome a child?! Who would be a better example today? One of the panhandlers with their signs looking for food and money? A person with disabilities? Name someone and see if you can sense the strangeness like the disciples did.
The truth is, we’ll be asking who is the greatest until the end of time. The world’s standards will continue to hold us down, at times. We’ll walk past the Gentile women, the leper and other unsavory “sinners.”
The truth is, we run into “greatness seekers” in every walk of life. In my own profession I feel deep sadness when I hear about or meet a minister who can wax eloquently about “his great ministry,” or “her church” or allude to his “great preaching.” I tire of the pompous preacher and the questions about church size. The truth is, I go there myself sometimes, especially in my most judgemental moments.
The good news, though, is that we follow the Son of Man, the Son of God, who was faithful unto death. He practiced what he preached through solidarity, relationship and encouragement. He was faithful unto death, the weakest position of all.
And he was the greatest of them all.
All glory and honor be to God.