“They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest. Sitting down, he called the Twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and servant of all.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Is there anything you do that you can say you’re the best in the world at doing? If you’re like me, while you may be good – even really good – at a few things, to say you’re the best in the world is probably not something you can claim honestly. Perhaps, though, you hold a Guinness World Record for doing something. You can search their archives for really obscure records and get them to come and watch you do it in order to claim the title. That would technically make you the best in the world until someone breaks your record. In spite of knowing we’re not the best in the world, though, most of us still want to be the best. We simply opt for a different level of greatness. If we can’t reach the pinnacle of world domination, then we’ll settle for being better than the people around us. This is a natural human tendency. It is a natural human tendency that Jesus here wanted the disciples to understand works very differently in the kingdom of God than it does in this world.
It is really interesting to me that Mark organizes his Gospel so that this story follows immediately on the heels of the last one. In the verses we looked at yesterday, Jesus was once again predicting His death and resurrection, and the disciples were once again failing to understand what He meant. That particular conversation seems to have taken place on the road from wherever they were back to Capernaum. Capernaum was Jesus’ home base and this would have been the last time He visited before going to Jerusalem for the final time. The very fact that the disciples were having this argument among themselves reveals how profoundly they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying about dying and rising again.
Jesus had convinced the group that He was the Messiah. They were abundantly clear on that fact. If nothing else, the experience on the mountain with His inner trio settled all debates. Unfortunately, they simply could not get their minds wrapped around what kind of Messiah He was going to be. They could not break from assuming on the currently vogue cultural image of a victorious, conquering, royal Messiah. Some scholars speculate such disappointed hopes or perhaps an attempt to force Jesus into becoming that kind of Messiah is what drove Judas to eventually betray Him.
For right now, though, the disciples were focused on what their pecking order would be when Jesus revealed Himself to the world and became its rightful ruler. After all, they were in position to be the greatest twelve men in the world after Jesus. They were His closest followers. They were going to get their pick of positions. And naturally, each one of them figured he would be the greatest among them. Thus the debate.
But it was a quiet debate. After all, Jesus seemed to value humility and such arguments were not terribly humble. So, they kept their position-wrangling to themselves. If you’re a parent, you have probably experienced something like this. You can hear your kids debating and arguing about something, but you can’t quite tell what it is because they’re keeping their voices down. They know if you catch them arguing you’ll just put a stop to the whole thing and no one will get any of the things they want. As a wise parent, you let them finish the argument, but with the intention of taking time for a teaching moment later. That’s what Jesus does.
When the group arrives in Capernaum and gets to the house where they are staying – possibly Peter’s house since the group had stayed there before – Jesus casually asks them about their argument. “What were you arguing about on the way?”
No one wanted to answer him. All twelve of them suddenly became intensely interested at a little pile of dirt on the floor. They knew they were caught. All their attempts at being so quiet and subtle had failed. Jesus had known all along. They knew He wouldn’t ask a question like this unless He already knew the answer. They began to brace themselves for a scolding. And yet that’s not what came. What came was a teaching moment. It was a teaching moment that is one of those places in the Gospels which reveal the ethics and values of the kingdom of God are the exact inverse of the ethics and values of the world.
Sitting down – which was a common posture for teachers to take then – Jesus called the group over to Him and started talking to them. We’ll cover some of it today and some more in the next few days. He started with the point and then began unpacking it. “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and servant of all.”
Now, that idea is baked into the cake of Christianity. We assume on that and speak about it with a very high-minded idealism. Actually living it, on the other hand, is something that happens about as frequently as it did for the disciples themselves. This is one of those ideas that sounds really good in theory, but in practice goes so hard against our natural inclinations that we’d prefer to leave it in the realm of good-sounding theory, thank you very much.
The reason for that should be obvious. We want to be great. Actually, that’s not quite true. We don’t simply want to be great. Being great makes us little better than all the other people who are great in the world. We want to be greater. You see, the thing about being great, is that it makes you just like everyone else. When you are greater, though, you have a leg up. Even if you aren’t the greatest, you are still better than other people. And as long as you can keep yourself surrounded by people you are greater than, you will be the greatest in your circle of influence. It’s good to be the biggest fish in a small pond. It’s good, at least, as long as you plan to never leave that particular pond. Thus our world has the regular feature of self-appointed kings and queens ruling over tiny kingdoms. I may not be able to be the greatest, but at least I’m greater than you.
That is simply how the world works.
Not so the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God runs on a completely different ethic. Greatness is not measured by power and might. It is not measured by how many people bow to you as you walk down the street. It is not measured by wealth or status. It is not measured by how many people’s lives are dependent upon your magnanimity. In the kingdom of God, greatness is measured by service. It is defined by how quickly and well you put others first. It is marked by elevating the needs of others beyond your own. It is a race to the bottom with the singular goal in mind of lifting up all of those above us. In the kingdom of God it is not the rulers who are regaled. It is instead the servants who are celebrated.
The thing is, this isn’t easy to do. It goes hard against what we do on our own. In any situation it is our last instinct to voluntarily give up what we want for the sake of seeing someone else get what they want. But there is nothing that will make us more like Jesus than doing this. And you’ve been around people who get this right before. You love being around them. They make you feel better about yourself. You always feel like you get your win when they are near. Making other people feel like that is the goal in the kingdom. And, when everyone does it, everyone wins.
The challenge, of course, is that not everyone around us does it. In fact, most of them don’t. Most of them will see our service mindset and take advantage of it in every way they can. They’ll treat us like doormats. They’ll be perfectly content for us to be a step ladder in their efforts to get what they want. And when this happens, our first instinct will be to quit serving them and start working to grab for ourselves whatever we can get even if that comes at their expense. It will be to join them back in behaving according to the rules of this world. We can do that, but then the rewards of the kingdom of God won’t be ours.
Putting others first is never easy to do. Ever. But we do it because that’s what Jesus did. He did it all the way to the point that it cost Him His life. But once He gave that up for us all, He got it back and then some. The same will be the case for us. When we follow His path, we’ll get His rewards. The path will be difficult, but the rewards will make it all worth it in the end. We just keep that end in mind when the going gets tough and keep moving forward. Because at the end of the day, this world will be gone and the kingdom will be the only thing that remains. If greatness is really our goal, we might as well work toward the greatness that will last longest.