They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 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." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 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)
I love the gospel of Mark for many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons I love it is because of the way that this gospel portrays the disciples.
Mark doesn’t portray the disciples as a group of pious, faithful, wise men. He portrays them as difficult, slow to understand, grumpy, awkward, frustrating, clumsy, and, well, downright human. I like to read the gospel of Mark on days when I feel like my human-ness is getting in the way of my faith. It’s nice to know that Jesus kept daily company with a group of twelve people who sometimes doubted, even in the midst of their faith, and who stumbled over themselves along their journey with Jesus.
The disciples don’t disappoint today! In our gospel reading, the disciples are cranky with one another, focused on everything but what Jesus wants them to focus on, sheepish in front of Jesus, and dim enough that Jesus has to resort to an object lesson to get his point across.
We begin the story along the road. The disciples, for whatever reason, are engaged in an argument about which one of them was the greatest. Which one of them is the best leader, which is the greatest model of faith, which one of them will take over this whole Jesus movement when Jesus is no longer with them. The feel pressure to make these arrangements, and they feel pressure to be great.
Do you feel the pressure? Do you feel that the world is demanding greatness of you? What messages are you hearing in your daily life that tell you what greatness is supposed to be?
The world tells us that we are great because of what we own. This is obvious every time we watch a television commercial or flip through advertising pages in a magazine. Image after image of people who are happier because they repainted their living room, living a better life because they bought a new mattress, are greater as parents because they stocked their freezer with easy-to-cook-meals, more successful because they invested in a new wardrobe. The message here: greatness is a matter of consumption.
The world also tells us that we are great because of what we do. Our jobs are what determine our status in society. We aim for more prestigious jobs, for better-paying jobs, for jobs where we have upward mobility, or where we can fill our resumes with accomplishments and contacts that will raise eyebrows. The message here: greatness is a matter of vocation.
The world likes to tell us that we are great if we are winners. I love baseball as much as the next person, and love watching games, either on TV or in person (when I can find the time and money to go to games…). And for others, it’s football or basketball or hockey. And it’s good and fun to have favorite teams and to have players you root for. But if we aren’t careful, all of these sports start to fool us into thinking that greatness is accomplished only by winning, and only by being a star player. It fools us into thinking that team rivalries are actually determinations of greatness. It fools us into thinking that winning is everything, both on the court and off. It fools us into thinking that greatness is a competition.
The world tells us that we are great by how we live – whether we have big houses or nice cars. The world tells us that we are great by how much we know – either education or trivia!. And if we aren’t careful, the world can fool us into thinking that we are great people of faith only if we never doubt, if we never mess up, if we make it to church every week, if we are strong and certain about what we believe, even to the exclusion of others.
And so we, like the disciples, find ourselves arguing along the road, arguing about greatness while Jesus, meanwhile, is trying to get a word in edgewise.
While the disciples are arguing about greatness, Jesus is trying to share with them his own story: how he will be betrayed, made to suffer unto death, and then rise again in three days. If ever there were a story that made arguments about greatness look silly, this would be it. Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one, the great one, has not come to earth looking to rule with power and might and fame and prestige. Jesus, in a true reversal, has come to earth to save it by dying, and to lead it by humbling himself as a servant.
The disciples, it turns out, totally miss the point.
The miss is so badly, in fact, that Jesus has to try a new tactic to get his point across. He sits them down, pulls a child into their midst, and says to them, in so many words, “greatness has nothing to do with power or leadership; it has everything to do with welcoming children and outcasts and the powerless into our midst, humbling ourselves so that we can serve them.”
The child is a good foil for the concerns of the disciples. A child, who in those days, had no status, no privilege, who might have been viewed primarily as property or a source of family security. A child was the antithesis of greatness: unsophisticated, powerless, dependent…and in this Jesus tries to get it through the disciples’ heads that God’s idea of greatness is very different than the world’s idea of greatness.
It’s a message that we, too, need to hear. It’s a message that humbles us and that lifts some of the pressure off of us: Whoever wants to be first, Jesus says, must be last of all and servant of all.
Whoever wants to be first must be last: this means that we turn our focus away from money, fame, power, and prestige, and instead focus on the saving news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Whoever wants to be first must be last: this means that we put the needs and cares of others before our own, and that we are more concerned with peace and justice than we are with winning.
Whoever wants to be first must be servant of all: this means that we live our faith in service to others. It means that God does not demand of us perfection, but rather compassion. We are to serve those who, like the child in today’s gospel, are powerless and dependent upon others. And who are those people for us, here in Naperville, here in our neighborhoods, or even here in our church?
Those people are the homeless in our neighborhoods who we so often turn a blind eye to. They are the people served by Bridge Communities and Hesed House and by our partnerships with those ministries. Those people are the hungry, who depend on resources like Loaves and Fishes for their basic needs.
Those people are those at our workplaces and in our communities and even here in our church who are struggling with their families, their relationships, their heath, or their jobs. They are the people in our midst who feel helpless, hopeless, or broken, and who need Christ’s message of hope and grace and love.
We are not called to be great as the world defines greatness. We are called to be great in the ways that God has asked us to be great: by humbling ourselves in order that we serve the world that God made.
We come to the table, not because we are great or because we are worthy, but to be humbled. We come because we need God’s help to see the powerless and voiceless in our midst. We need strength to serve and strength to be served.
Whoever would be first would be last of all and servant of all. This, friends, is good news, for us and for the world.