WHO IS THE GREATEST?
(Wis 2:12, 17-20; Jas 3:16 – 4:3; Mk 9:30-37)
Last Sunday, we reflected on the fact that while the crowd saw in Jesus only a great man, the apostles at a certain point realized that he was “the Son of God”. We also saw that although the formula used to express their belief was correct, they haboured a dangerous misunderstanding of who Jesus is. In a sense, their idea of the Messiah was totally different from the plan of God. They had an image of a worldly Messiah.
The whole central part of Mark’s gospel is taken up by Jesus’ attempts to correct the wrong idea that his disciples had of him. Nothing shows so well how far the disciples were from realizing the meaning of Jesus’ “Messiah-ship” as the discussion held at the beginning of today’s gospel text. There is something heart-breaking in the thought of Jesus going towards a Cross and his disciples arguing about who would be greatest. Three times, Jesus announces his death and resurrection, and even adds that his disciples are to follow him to self-giving if they want to achieve true life. Yet they keep thinking of his kingdom in earthly terms and of themselves as Jesus’ chief ministers of state. They thought he was to be a glorious conqueror while, instead, Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem to give up his life and be “defeated”.
- THEY WERE AFRAID TO QUESTION HIM
Today’s passage reports the second of those announcements of his suffering, death, and resurrection: “The Son of Man will be delivered into the power of men; they will put him to death… he will rise again” (Mk 9:30-32). This kind of Messiah announced by Jesus was too different from what the disciples had in mind already. But curiously they “were afraid to ask him” (Mk 9:32). They had probably seen how important and delicate this question was and how Jesus was in no mood to joke on certain topics.
This fear of the apostles is similar to our being perplexed when we put ourselves before Jesus and assess ourselves in the light of his gospel. Like his disciples, we are afraid when Jesus reveals to us his true state of “servant” who gives up his life. His demands frighten us. We prefer to continue with our prayers and attendance of religious rites, rather than to stop and reflect on a passage of the gospel that forces us to change so many of our ideas and habits. We do not like to admit that we have gone wrong and perhaps induced others to wander away from the authentic image of Christ. We prefer to be left in the illusion that we are in the right.
It takes courage to put ourselves honestly face to face with Jesus, to listen to him, and to ask him questions. It is much more convenient for us to keep our convictions and traditional ideas and perhaps even attack whoever makes us uneasy with a different interpretation of the word of God.
- THE PROBLEM OF “FIRST PLACES”
The disciples consistently misunderstand or ignore Jesus’ preoccupation with putting their mentality straight. They keep slipping back to their own private concerns. In the first instance, Peter remonstrates with him at Caesarea Philippi. Here, in the second instance the disciples start arguing about which of them is the more important: “Which of us is the greatest?” And in the third case, James and John creep up to Jesus asking for privileged places in the Kingdom. It shows clearly none of these important prophesies of Jesus has much impact on them.
There a problem that the gospel does not touch directly. It is the problem of “First Places”. In this gospel text, Jesus deals with it very clearly: “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). The gospels report these word of the Master six different times.
There are some who try to justify the existence of classes and the right to honorific titles and special places within the Christian community by comparing it to the civil society or to the way a country is structured, or by saying that they are part of the cultural heritage of a nation. They say, for instance, our African culture demands that whoever is in authority should impose his will and receive honours and privileges. Even the Jewish culture had the same traditions, but Jesus very explicitly condemns this way of thinking: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” (Lk 22:25-26). How do we manage our Parish Pastoral Councils, Apostolic Groups or other Church associations? Are they seen a opportunities to render service or place of receiving Honours and privileges? We must watch our that we do not hide our sins behind the curtain of culture!
- BUT THEY REMAINED SILENT
In their heart of hearts, the disciples knew they were wrong in arguing about places of honour. When Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about, they had nothing to say. This was a silence of SHAME. They had no defense. It is interesting to note how things take their proper place and acquire their true character when they are set in the eyes of Jesus. So long as the disciple thought that Jesus was not listening and that he had not seen, the argument about who should be the greatest seemed fair enough. But when that argument had to be stated in the presence of Jesus, it was seen in all its unworthiness. It happens very often when someone is caught “red handed” doing something wrong. It leads to some form of speechlessness, coming from shame.
If we were to take everything and set in the sight of Jesus, it would make all the difference in the world. If of everything we did, we asked, “Could I go on doing this if Jesus was watching me?”, there would be many things which we would be saved from doing and saying. Furthermore, the fact of our Christian faith is that there is no “If” about it. All our deeds are done in Jesus’ presence. All our words are spoken to his hearing. We should avoid all words or deeds that we would be ashamed that God should hear or see. He hears and sees everything, anyway!
- JESUS SAT DOWN AND CALLED THE TWELVE TO HIM
In order to clarify the issue of “first places” to his disciples, Jesus is said to have SAT DOWN. When the Rabbi was teaching as a master teaches his scholars and disciples, when he was really making a pronouncement, he sat to teach. Here, Jesus deliberately took up the position of a Rabbi teaching his pupils. And then he told them “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” It means that if they sought greatness in his kingdom, they must find it not by being FIRST but by being LAST; not by being MASTERS but by being SERVANTS FOR ALL. By his teaching Jesus does not abolish ambition.
Ambition is not always a bad thing. It can be very good; it can be a driving force in a person’s life and can help us to achieve our goals. It can help us to use our abilities to the full. We also want our children to show some ambition. We want them to get good grades at school, a good university degree, and to establish themselves in a worthwhile profession. This is good, as long as it takes into account the true abilities of our sons and daughters, and as long as it is in accordance with their wishes.
Furthermore, an individual can be ambitious on his/her own behalf and can strive very hard to achieve a specific goal. Often people will put off short term pleasures in order to achieve what they perceive to be a greater good. We call this deferred gratification and it is one of the important lessons one ought to learn as one goes through life.
However, there is a negative side to ambition. Unrestrained ambition can take over our whole lives. It can become an end in itself. (That seems to be the driving force behind the argument among the disciples of Jesus). Such ambition makes one become competitive in every single area. This competitive impulse can take over someone completely and ends up spoiling one’s relationships and destroying one’s life. Ambition is good if kept in check, but bad if we let it get out of control.
Our second reading today fits in very well with the theme of the Gospel. St. James warns his listeners that jealousy and ambition can play wreck within a Christian community. He says that ambition sows dissent and anger within the congregation. He tells them that the best antidote to unrestrained ambition is PRAYER, because in prayer we see things in their true light. According to James if we want inappropriate things and then we begin to pray, we will see them for what they are and come to the realization that these things may not be in our best interests. This would lead us, then to begin to pray for the things that we really need such as a spirit of humility and peacefulness.
Jesus, therefore, redirects the ambition of his disciples. In place of the ambition to RULE, he substitutes the ambition to SERVE. For the ambition to have THINGS DONE FOR US, he substitutes the ambition to DO THINGS FOR OTHERS.
- JESUS PLACES A CHILD IN THEIR MIDST AND PUTS HIS ARMS ROUND IT
This a very significant gesture of Jesus. To help apostles understand his words, he puts his arm around a little child and invites the disciples to take children as an example. He says: “Anyone who welcomes such a child as this in my name, welcomes me” (Mk 9:37). Little children are essentially vulnerable and innocent. They are trusting; they take pleasure in small things; they enjoy being good; they are without ambition. It is these qualities that Jesus prizes. By giving them the child as a model, Jesus does not want his disciples to be ambitious for the wrong things. He would rather that they adopt the characteristics of a child and be without guile or unhealthy competitiveness.
“Who is a child for us?” A child is one who depends completely on the others, does not produce anything, only uses and needs things; it is the one who easily breaks things; if its parents do not watch it, it may even burn down the house! It is the one who does not reason like an adult.
Jesus tells us that we should not look at these children in the same way the world does. In spite of their flaws, they are still valuable. Jesus affirms that people are valuable because they are created in the image of God. When we treat people with respect and honour (regardless of the worldly labels or reputation), we show respect for the Lord and we honour our Father in Heaven.
- TRUE GREATNESS
Jesus ushers in a new culture. The world tells us to climb over others to get to the top of the mountain. They say the only truly great person is the one who stands in the spotlight. But in God’s eyes, “great” is determined not by what we achieve for ourselves but by what we give of ourselves. The greatest person in God’s mind is the one who is willing to serve others. The secret to importance, happiness and peace lies in serving the needs of those around us. But, often, we lose sight of this truth, and spend most of our time NOT SERVING people, but EARNING MONEY. We spend time like the “unwise” in the First Reading of today. Because the “unwise” clamour for social positions and wealth, they are ready trample on other people in order to achieve their ambitions.
Every economic problem in our society today could be solved if people lived for what they could do for others and not what they could get for themselves. Every political problem would be solved if everyone’s ambition was only to serve the state and not to enhance his/her personal prestige. The divisions and disputes which tear apart families, churches, tribal communities, nations, etc. would for the most part never occur if the only desire of its leaders and its members was to serve without caring what position they occupied. When Jesus speaks of the supreme greatness and value of the person whose ambition is to be a servant, he lays down one of the greatest practical truths in the world.
Jesus Christ served others first. He spoke to those to whom no one spoke. He dined with the lowest members of society. He touched the untouchables. He had no throne, no crown, no crowd of servants or armored guards. A borrowed manger and a borrowed tomb framed his earthly life. Yet he is the greatest of all time. Let pray that we may seek true greatness by following in the footstep of Jesus Christ.