17 PENTECOST, PROPER XX - B - 15 MARK 9: 30-37
Can you recall being in a classroom listening to a lecture when a question popped into your mind and you wanted so bad to raise your hand and ask, but were afraid to? I have, and resisted because I thought it might embarrass me to do so. I kept silent hoping that someone else might ask it for me?
In today’s gospel Mark gives us Jesus’ second prediction of his death and resurrection as Christ and his disciples are passing through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem and the cross. Mark says Jesus is teaching his disciples, but like all students, they only hear what they want to hear. I think Mark is kind in saying that they did not understand Jesus and were afraid to ask what he really meant, because I think they did. At least the part about Christ dying.
Why else would they begin to argue about which one of them was the “greatest?” Jesus made his first prediction of his betrayal, death and resurrection in last week’s gospel to which Peter immediately rebuked him. Jesus, seeing the impact Peter’s words were having on the rest of the disciples, turns and rebukes Peter for not being on God’s side.
Obviously Peter understood what Jesus was saying about his death, but his thinking was earthly in terms of the Messiah he wanted Jesus to be. In rebuking Peter, Jesus made it quite clear to all of his disciples that his death was part of the plan, God’s divine plan, and that Peter and the rest needed to see it that way; to look past the cross to the new life it would bring.
And yet here we are with Christ’s second prediction causing an argument among them. It must have been deeply disappointing to Jesus to overhear their words. Obviously they had totally misunderstood what he was trying to teach them about who he really was and what it was they were called to be and do, including what constituted “greatness” in the kingdom of God.
So Christ asks them, “what are you arguing about?” But he already knows. They are silent because they are embarrassed and ashamed.
The disciple’s argument, you see, represents selfish interests and worldly power. Their thinking is strictly earthy. Their concern is for their own welfare; their own status. It’s about what is in it for me. They understand half the message, the half they wanted to understand; the part about His death, but not the resurrection.
The real teaching about discipleship/servant hood, occurs when Christ takes a child and places him in their midst in an effort to jolt them out of their narcissistic thinking. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Christ’s words and illustration point out the pitfalls of pride and the love of power. Both are fermented in the spirit of rivalry and cruelty that arise out of the hearts of men. Neither of which has anything to do with being His disciple much less entrance into the Kingdom of God.
Christian “greatness” consists in renunciation of all that the world values and in the service of those whom the world rates of least account. So Jesus takes a little child and holds him before them. Children had no status or prestige in ancient times. What Jesus is trying to say is the disciples won’t gain particular favor or social standing because they are followers of His, and neither will we.
The gospel does not exist to make us feel good about ourselves. If this is what we think, then, it is unlikely we will be able to hear what God is actually saying. Being a Christian does not somehow make us special. True “greatness” calls for reversal of selfish goals. It is not enough to be last, but last and servant of all.
The child in Jesus’ arms “incarnates” this revelation of discipleship. His action reminds us of the virtues required for entrance into the kingdom of heaven: humility, obedience, and a willingness to love and to be loved. God’s way turns our earthly thinking upside down and inside out, and sometimes even puts it in reverse.
Jesus’ teaching, then, was meant to be an eye opener to those whom He had chosen to carry on His mission after Him and for all who choose to follow Him. The disciple’s eyes, as well as ours, needed to be opened to what it truly means to serve in Christ’s name.
Not only that, but we are called to see the Passion for what it truly is; to see beyond the cross, to see in the cross a path to new life, to see in servant hood not a demeaning of personhood, but an enhancement of life.
Jesus’ teaching on servant hood did not sink in all the way, as we might imagine. That would occur after His death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. For now, the seeds have been planted. Christ will continue to give them a living example of servant hood in the things he will do and say as they make their way to Jerusalem, up to and including His death on the cross.
No longer will they argue about which one of them is the greatest, rather I can see them discussing among themselves, as they ponder in their hearts, what He really meant when he placed that child in their midst, and what it would have to do with them. Eventually, they will come to know and understand, as we all must: the virtues required for entrance into the kingdom of heaven: humility, obedience, and a willingness to love and be loved.
Christ’ teaching impacted their lives in ways they would have never imagined, and it continues to impact lives today; the lives of those, that is, who are open to hear what God is actually saying. For the gospel does not exist to make us feel good about ourselves, because it is not about us.
To be a Christian does not somehow make us special, rather it comes with the awesome responsibility to serve others in the name of Him who came not to be served, but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many, even Jesus Christ, Our Lord. AMEN+