Mark 9: 30 – 37
This Gospel is similar to that of last Sunday when Jesus spoke of his passion. After that first mention to the apostles of his passion he goes to Caesarea Philippi where he teaches them about the cost of discipleship, is transfigured, and heals a boy who was possessed by a demon. The Apostles witness this and Jesus begins to journey to Galilee and speaks to them a second time about his passion. There response is a discussion among themselves over who is the greatest. Could it be that in the midst of Jesus’ talk of his passion their focus becomes which one will take over when he is gone? Maybe it was their way of coping with bad news they did not want to hear and were having difficulty accepting: a way of expressing denial. Jesus calls them out on this conversation. They are silent when he asks what they were discussing, so Jesus goes on to give them a lesson on what it means to be the first. He shows them and us that he knew very well what their conversation was all about.
Like so many other teachings of Jesus he presents a paradox to them. In order to be first one has to be last and a servant to everyone else. This was not the common understanding of what it meant to be first, or the leader, at the time of Jesus, and in our own time. Being first means being in a place of honor and power, of being served by the various underlings, in no way does it mean putting oneself as last and being the servant to all others. With Jesus we receive a new teaching, a new understanding and a new example of being a leader. The leader is to humbly serve and place all who are served ahead of him. Jesus is the ultimate model of this for he is the Son of God who humbled himself to be born into our world and be like us in all things but sin. Jesus, our Lord, took upon himself the death reserved for a criminal and did this so that by his dying we might have life. The paradox of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is best understood in the paradox of the cross.
Being first is probably a universal part of human nature. Who sees being last in line at the check-out counter or for some event as an honor. Who doesn’t get annoyed when someone cuts in ahead of us? We probably wouldn’t mind if someone came and moved us up closer to the front of the line, or if a new line was started and it began with us. This teaching runs against the grain of our thinking as it did to the Apostles. But we cannot deny that not only was this a teaching of Jesus, it was the way that Jesus served us.
The example of Jesus is far more than a teaching of patience in a check out line: it is a call to humble service. A term that is currently popular in Church teachings is “Servant Leadership.” Those who are called to lead have the call to do so by service. For some of us this means a radical change in how we might view leadership, but it is a change that brings us more in line with the teachings and example of Jesus. How do we do this? It is best to begin with praying for a humble and contrite spirit. From there it is stepping back and humbling ourselves to serve those around us.
Father Killian Loch, O.S.B.