“And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’” (Mark 9:35)
Last Sunday, we read the account of Jesus rebuking Peter for his false theology making it clear that suffering is part of our lives as Christians. Jesus said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). Unfortunately, while Jesus was predicting his death, his disciples argued among themselves who was the greatest.
The disciples assumed Jesus was about to take over earthly power from the Romans and imagined themselves in different political positions already. Jesus was literally disappointed at their lack of understanding. He didn’t want to disgrace them publicly so He waited till they go home and asked them: “What were you discussing on the way?” In shame they kept quiet. As always, there are many lessons to learn in our readings today:
1. The Desire for Greatness is in our Nature as Humans.
The shocker in today’s liturgy is that the very men Jesus used in beginning the Christian Faith were not only slow in learning but despite their closeness to Jesus remained power-conscious. This shows that the desire for greatness is wired into the very core of our being.
Psychologists agree that the deepest human need is RESPECT which is another word for greatness. Whether we like it or not, we all long to be number one; we are all politicians by nature. The difference between a Christian and an unbeliever is how each chooses to pursue greatness.
2. Service and Humility: Jesus’ Formula for Achieving Greatness.
Jesus’ disappointment with His disciples was their criteria for greatness. The twelve understood greatness from the perspective of ruling over others just like the Roman officials who rode on horses and had countless servants running after them to do their wishes. Jesus made it clear to them that being great is not about having others serve you but the very opposite. “If anyone wishes to be first (great), he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35)
In Matthew’s version of this passage, Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4). Show me a man who is childlike; a man who makes people feel greater than himself and I will show you a really great man.
3. True Greatness is Wisdom from Above.
By asking us to become like little children in order to be great, Jesus is teaching the very opposite of what the world teaches about greatness. Of course, what Jesus is recommending is not ordinary wisdom, it is as St. James put it: “Wisdom from above.” While the world wants us to be assertive and lord it over others to be feared by them, Jesus says we should serve others instead and have a childlike humility. Jesus’ political ideology may not make sense to the world it remains the only key to true greatness.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5). This is a confirmation that there is truly a connection between being meek (humble, subservient, docile, etc.) and becoming great. Again in the book of Proverbs, the Word of God says: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18). If pride goes before a fall, it follows that humility goes before an elevation.
Jesus taught us: “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12). Jesus would have lambasted his disciples in public but in His humility, He waited till they got home. A truly humble person will never seek to humiliate others.
Imagine a world where everyone is struggling to serve others rather than be served. Would we still experience assassinations, fighting, and killing? According to St. James, the origin of fighting (wars, bitterness, quarrels, and unanswered prayers) is the insatiable quest for the satisfaction of our bodily passions and the desire to lord it over others.
4. True Greatness is Being Calm in the Face of Persecution.
By placing ourselves in the service of others (being childlike), the world soon starts to see us as weak, useless, and unwanted. As the book of Sirach puts it: “My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation. Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be hasty in time of calamity. Cleave to him and do not depart, that you may be honoured at the end of your life.” (Sirach 2:1-3)
Our first reading today explains that the acts of violence and hatred we face from the worldly-minded are done to test the authenticity of our convictions. We only become victorious when we remain calm and steadfast despite the provocations. Show me a man who will turn the other cheek when slapped and I will show you a really great man.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus help me follow your guide to greatness. Amen.
Bible Study: Wisdom 2:12-20, Psalm 54:3-8, James 3:16-4:3 and Mark 9:30-37).