I can just imagine the dispute among Jesus’s disciples referenced in today’s Gospel: “I’m the greatest!” “No, I’m the greatest!” “No, I’m the greatest!” It sounds completely absurd, especially considering that it came right after Jesus had taught them that he was going to be handed over and killed, and “then after three days would rise.” I would not be surprised if Jesus had heard their discussion about who was the greatest and so already knew how they were going to answer his question. He did not want to let this opportunity to teach them something important pass by. The fact that, after Jesus asked them what they had been talking about along the way, they remained silent shows that they suddenly realized just how ridiculous their discussion was.
It might seem amazing to us that the disciples would actually argue about who was the greatest after hearing Jesus tell them that he was going to be handed over and killed. How could they be so obtuse? As we heard in last week’s Gospel, Peter had professed his faith that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, God’s anointed one. But then we heard how Peter completely misunderstood just what kind of Messiah Jesus was. And this week, we have a continuation of this theme. Although Jesus’ disciples recognized Jesus as the Messiah, like Peter, they did not understand what kind of Messiah they were following. I would guess that they regarded Jesus as a great and truly righteous man, but they also believed that he was going to conquer the enemies of the Jews and they, as his disciples, would then become great rulers of Israel alongside Jesus. Perhaps they believed that Jesus would usher in a great, new, powerful nation of Israel where justice would reign and injustice would be banished, and that they would be a part of noble undertaking. No doubt they believed that they would share in Jesus’ earthly glory as the triumphant leader of a new and powerful Israel. I think it very probable that the disciples’ intentions were noble; they weren’t just excited about grabbing and exercising power. But their understanding of who Jesus was, was incomplete and flawed.
Again, we might wonder how they could be so off the mark. But we of course have 2,000 years of hindsight, so it makes sense that our understanding of just who Jesus is, is more complete than was that of the disciples. Although, as I talked about last week, even our understanding of who Jesus is must likewise grow and develop. But perhaps an even greater challenge for us now is the challenge that Jesus then presents to his disciples. As He said to them: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” And, “taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.’”
After revealing to his disciples that he is going to suffer, die, and then rise, Jesus then teaches them the cost of being his disciples: they too must suffer and die in order to rise. He begins a series of teachings, not given to the multitudes as before but instead just to his close followers, on “three deep-rooted tendencies of fallen human nature: the craving for power, possessions, and pleasure,”
the first of which we hear about today, and then “shows how they must be countered with the lifestyle of the gospel.” (Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
So today, Jesus tackles the human tendency to crave power. His disciples were craving the power that they believed they would have as followers of the Messiah. As I said, perhaps they sincerely believed that this power would enable them to do good for their fellow Jews. But Jesus wants them to understand that being his follower means letting go of the desire for power – even if one plans to exercise this power to do good.
And he likewise wants us to understand the same thing, and perhaps that is the greater challenge for us in this day and age than understanding what kind of Messiah Jesus is. Two thousand years have passed since the time of Christ, but human nature remains the same, and the desire for power remains. People crave power just as much as they did then; we always have. We desire attention, we desire the esteem of others, we desire influence. The world has always had its elites and its celebrities, but today more than ever. Who hasn’t secretly wanted to be one of the elite, who gets to make all the rules and tell people what to do. Who hasn’t wanted to be a celebrity, a sports star, or the recent phenomenon of the “social media influencer”? Does anybody post a comment or a photo on social media hoping that no one will notice it? Of course not! We want the amazing vacation we had and our parties with cool people “go viral” so that everyone will know how awesome we are!
There’s a beautiful litany called the Litany of Humility, composed by Cardinal Merry del Val, who was a cardinal around the beginning of the 20th century under the pontificate of Pope St. Pius X. It’s a beautiful litany, but it’s very hard to pray and really mean it. It includes lines such as: “From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, O Jesus.” “From the desire of being honored, deliver me, O Jesus.” “From the desire of being praised, deliver me, O Jesus.” I would guess it’s fairly rare to say these words and really mean them. But, if we say them but struggle to mean them, that’s OK – that’s why we’re praying! We can’t manufacture this desire on our own – that’s why we need God. Recognizing that we can’t do it on our own and that we need God is what humility is all about – and that is what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel. In order to be his disciple – to truly be Jesus’ disciple and not a disciple of our idea of who Jesus is – we need to be humble; we need to grow in humility. Like Jesus’ disciples in our Gospel reading, we shouldn’t follow Jesus because of any worldly advantages we think doing so might give us. As we heard last week, being Jesus’ disciple means taking up our cross and following him.
Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” True greatness, then, comes from putting oneself last, seeking to serve others rather than being served. How antithetical this is to what our society implicitly teaches us! How can we live this out in our daily lives? Here are a few suggestions: we shouldn’t assume we’re always right. We should own up to our mistakes, just as we would want others to own up to theirs. We should be willing to accept a word of correction from someone who knows us well. We don’t always have to have the last word. We should look for little ways to love and serve the people the Lord has put into our lives each day, whether it’s family, roommates, friends, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, or even strangers we happen to interact with. Do some chores without being asked. Ask a friend or co-worker how their day is going and then take time to listen to their reply. Perhaps reach out to a neighbor or relative you know is alone. Spend less time on the news, video games, social media, or following “influencers”, and more time quietly performing little acts of charity and mercy without anyone having to see it or know about it.
We don’t have to do incredible things in order to follow Jesus. If Jesus wants us to do incredible things, he will make that happen, and then we should give him the glory. Mother Teresa used to say, “Do little things with great love.” This is a part of what it means to follow Jesus. Let us seek to follow the way of humility, which is the way of Jesus.