Greatest, Least, First, Last!

Jesus welcomes the children - Mark 10:13-16
Jesus welcomes the children – Mark 10:13-16

Jesus is so patient with the disciples. Having asked them the question about his own identity, he teaches them about what “the Christ” really means. But the disciples don’t get it. In this Sunday’s gospel Jesus for a second time predicts his passion and death. The disciples still don’t get it! The “wicked” in the first reading try the patience of the “just one.” It seems as though the disciples in the gospel are also trying the patience of the “just one.”

We humans test God and each other all the time; our transgressions are all too evident in the world around us. It is as though we are like those wicked folks in the first reading—we push and push to see how far we can go. Undaunted, God does “take care of” us, but not in the way we think. God did not spare the Son from “revilement and torture”; God delivered him by raising him from death. The same is true for Jesus’ disciples. We will be tested and God will care for us, too. But along the way we can expect others to revile us, too. Being a disciple means that we will be obnoxious to some people (those for whom transgression is a way of life). This is the risk of discipleship.

Jesus uses the model of a little child to illustrate his point. Children are innocent and without pretensions. They naturally embody what “least of all” means. This also illustrates to what extent the disciple is to become the “servant of all” by receiving even the “least of all.” The total self-emptying that enables one to receive the “least of all” describes the disciple. This is how we receive Jesus—by receiving the least. No one is insignificant. Everyone is worth dying for.

The scandal of this gospel is that Jesus, the leader and teacher of the disciples, will be reduced to the least when he is handed over and dies. How do the disciples react to this scandalous teaching? They argue among themselves about who is the greatest! Jesus rightly reduces them to silence. The disciples do not understand greatest and least, first and last, servant of all. They do not understand that Jesus’ own death is a call to die to self, to choose to become the greatest by being the least. Confronted with this saving mystery, we ought to all be reduced to silence—but now for the right reason.

How and when does Jesus reduce us to silence? This is a good question that each of us ought to ponder seriously and at length. We are reduced to silence when Jesus teaches us what we do not want to hear because we will need to change our way of life. Being least and servant of all goes against the grain of all of us. Yet, this is the only way to share in Jesus’ risen Life.

No wonder Jesus focused his time on the journey to Jerusalem on his disciples—this teaching is so hard to hear! No wonder the disciples do not understand—this teaching is so hard to accept! We are no different from the disciples. How often do we fail to come to Jesus to question him so that we can understand the cost of discipleship? How often do we fail to take time to be with him in silence, to listen to him? We are afraid to question Jesus about discipleship when we choose the easy way which is not discipleship: when we ignore the plea of others for help; when we only spend time with people in our own inner circle; when we harbor racial, sexual, or religious prejudices; when we . . .

Who Is the Greatest?

What happens when we are caught with our hand in the proverbial cookie jar? Our face turns red, our heads drop, our eyes are cast down and we are silent. So we can easily identify with the disciple’ silence in the face of Jesus’ asking them what they are discussing.
Twice in this Gospel the disciples are reduced to silence. First, they are afraid to ask Jesus about his teaching that he must die and rise. Second, they are afraid to tell him that they have been arguing about who among them is the greatest. The first silence indicates a stubborn resistance to accept the demands of what they hear; the second silence indicates that they intuitively understand how far they have strayed from what Jesus is teaching them. The disciples spend the rest of their lives coming to understand what it means to follow Jesus and serve him through the least among us.

By dying to self and serving the least among us, we rise to new and great life. Dying to self doesn’t simply mean we write a check to our favorite charity or bring non perishables to St Vincent de Paul Society [as good as these gestures may be]. It means surrendering our very selves for others – all others- not just those of our own picking and choosing. It means reaching out to the least among us.

Like the disciples, Jesus gives us the room we need to grow and come to deeper understanding of what it means to be a faithful disciple serving others.