Reference: Mark 9:33-37
“If only I could be with Jesus the way the disciples were privileged to be, day in and day out learning from him, sharing his love directly, knowing him in the same real manner that I can know the people around me, my family and friends.” This sentiment has been expressed many times over the centuries.
How did that actually work for the disciples? The answer is of some ironic comfort for every preacher and teacher who has ever realized that his or her message has not gotten through. After learning directly from Jesus over time, in an intense inter-active mobile “seminar” on the meaning of life and their role in it, how did they express themselves?
They were spending their time arguing about who of them was the greatest, as it turns out (Mark 9:33-34). This was just after the experience that three of them had at the Transfiguration (they didn’t get that, either), and while Jesus is trying to focus their attention on what will shortly unfold as he goes the way of the Cross and to the Resurrection.
Before being too hard on the disciples, we might want to review both the history of Christianity and our own take on what it means to live as a Christian. The history of Christianity has some wonderfully inspiring moments and people. But most of it is filled with the usual human preoccupations with power, riches, and glory. In short, it is primarily a story of disciples who sought to be the greatest. And in reviewing your own goals as a Christian, this passage from Mark is somewhere between being so troubling that it needs to be ignored or explained away, or alternately, so profoundly life-changing that your future will be absolutely altered. Nor do you need to be in First Century Palestine, hanging out with the disciples. Just reading the passage will do.
In that passage, the story is told quite simply. The Twelve did understand how inappropriate their discussion was, because it says they were too embarrassed to admit to Jesus the subject of their conversation. Nevertheless, Jesus has figured it out. He comments that if someone wants to be the greatest of Christians, he or she must be the servant of all, the last and not the first in the pecking order. As an object lesson, he points out a child and says the test is in how a humble child is welcomed by the disciples.
Whether personally present with Jesus in Palestine or many centuries removed, it has gone down the same way ever since. Jesus’ message has sunk in at some level: Christians are called to be humble, to be servants, to welcome the least among us, those with no prestige or standing. Jesus’ own example of radical humility, of kenosis, emptying himself of immense glory and power to live among us as servant and ultimately die on behalf of all, stands as the ultimate witness.
How ought we respond? We do know the answer. But as the “church lady” used to comment, “It isn’t convenient.” The usual race for power and riches continues, the humble are swiftly shoved aside. To pay attention to the lesson of Jesus concerning servanthood would hurt our standard of living, cause disruption, impact the Church’s standing in the community, force us to interact with people we don’t want to mix with, seriously interfere with profit and the markets. Our society’s message is the opposite: be number one, get to the top any old way you can, and glory in it, flaunt it.
Thus, many Christians relegate this text to a slogan for the Pro-Life movement, advocacy for unborn children. It is an appropriate application, but very incomplete. The goal of the Pro-Life movement is to impose legislation, a power move. The Christian goal is to love and to serve both those who are conceived and the parents who conceive them, and to continue to sacrificially serve those who are born as well as unborn, giving of ourselves that they might have wellness, a good education, proper nutrition, opportunities and a society free from violence, abuse and gross inequality. After all, if you are indeed “the very last and the servant of all,” as Jesus instructs (Mark 9:35), discussions about inequality take on quite a different perspective.