by Kurt K. Hendel
Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History
Does it really surprise you that the disciples were debating about who among them was the greatest? Should they, perhaps, even be admired and applauded for doing so? After all, Jesus had given them a special status by choosing them to be His initial followers, to benefit from His teaching, to observe His ministry, to become the leaders of those who would join their ranks. Is it so difficult to imagine that parents, teachers, friends and colleagues during the first century of the common era encouraged their children and each other to be the best that they could be, to strive for greatness, to be outstanding rather than mediocre, just as parents, teachers, friends and colleagues urge us to do today? The people of Jesus' time must have admired greatness just as we do. They must have viewed it as something to be celebrated, encouraged and emulated. Greatness must have been awarded with fame, public attention and perhaps even economic benefits, as it surely is today.
The issue in the gospel lesson for this week is not the notion or ideal of greatness. Rather, the issue is the disciples' and, dare I say, our understanding or definition of greatness. The text clearly implies, indeed, it asserts that there was something wrong with the disciples' debate about who was the greatest. The disciples themselves recognized that this was the case because when Jesus asked them what they were discussing their response was absolute silence. They obviously did not want Him to know the topic of their conversation, most likely because they sensed that there was something problematic about what they had been debating and perhaps they were even embarrassed about their own self-perception and desire to be the greatest. It is also interesting to speculate why they had the conversation. It may be that they had a lofty view or high expectations of themselves. Perhaps they were focusing on the power dynamics within their community and each coveted authority and privilege. They may have been eager to discover what their colleagues thought about them. They may even have believed that greatness would be the criterion which would determine who would ultimately be the closest and dearest to Jesus, who might become His most trusted follower, who might be chosen to be His most intimate confidant and advisor and who would likely be designated as His successor. The text does not clarify the disciples' motivations, although it is possible that some or all of these concerns explain their conversation. I also wonder what criteria they used to determine who was the greatest. Were exceptional intellectual gifts, perseverance, courage, loyalty, creativity, leadership potential and a charismatic personality significant criteria? Again, we do not know, but it would not be surprising if they defined greatness in these or similar terms. We surely do. What seems to be rather obvious is that being the last and a servant were not criteria which qualified any of them for greatness.
It should also not surprise us that Jesus responds to the disciples' conversation with a dialectical word, a word that is both law and gospel. Jesus' short, yet incisive instruction was a word of law because it clearly rejected their perception of greatness and confronted them with their misperceptions and brokenness. It was a word of law because it challenged the disciples' priorities, ideals and perspectives. The One who was aware of the disciples' conversation, even though they refused to share what they had been discussing, exposed their ambition, self-centeredness, pride, competitiveness, desire for power and authority and their failure to comprehend what Christ had been teaching and modeling for them. All of this was revealed by Jesus with a simple, though telling, question and with a short, though radical, statement. His words were law because they silenced the disciples in the presence of their teacher and, most importantly, before God. They had nothing to say. They could not defend themselves. Their world was turned upside down, and they realized once again how much they needed to learn, how skewed their priorities were, how different their ways were from Jesus' ways. One of the functions of the law is to reveal sin, especially when sin is not recognized or when is denied; especially when human beings have an unrealistic or erroneous self-image. The law is then brutally honest, and it reminds us again and again who we are and that God knows us better than we know ourselves.
However, the unique power and character of God's word is confirmed by the fact that Jesus' words were not only law but also radical good news. "If anyone would be first he must be last of all and servant of all." At first glance, this does not particularly sound like good news, but it is precisely that. After all, Jesus indicates to the disciples that they can be so much more than they imagine or than they expect of themselves. He provides them with an alternative vision of who they are and how they are to act. Please note that Jesus does not reject the notion of greatness but affirms it. Greatness is a worthy ideal, and it should be sought. However, Jesus redefines greatness. The greatest is the one who is last and who is servant, not the one who is first, who is in the limelight, who is served, whose rewards are fame, power and wealth. Christ's words are gospel because they provide His disciples with a new vision of their identity and of their vocation. They are gospel because they can also empower Christ's disciples to affirm that vision and to pursue their vocation with joy and faithfulness.
But that did not happen immediately! The call to be last of all and a servant of all is obviously a challenging one because it is a call to radical humility. It is, therefore, unlikely that the earliest disciples immediately recognized and affirmed Christ's words as good news. They were too startled, too confused, perhaps too disappointed. This was clearly not what they had wanted to hear, and that should not surprise us. After all, they had not yet accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem, although He had already begun to prepare them for this journey, as the first part of the Gospel text indicates. They had not yet gathered in the upper room. He had not yet washed their feet. They had not yet walked the way of the cross with Him or witnessed the empty tomb. They were still awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit who would enlighten and empower them to be what Christ called them to be. Thus, when Jesus addressed His disciples, His words may very well have struck them as absolute foolishness. They may even have been offensive and, hence, a stumbling block.
And what about us? We have experienced all the wondrous events of Christ's ministry. We see more clearly than they did, if we look with the eyes of faith. We understand more fully. Thus we rejoice when we hear Christ's words—or do we? "If anyone would be first, he must be—she must be—last of all and a servant of all." These words of Christ are, indeed, addressed to us as well—to us who are Christ's disciples today—, and they remain both a word of law and of gospel. They also remain a challenging vision of the Christian calling. Jesus words anticipate the kenosis theology of the New Testament as well as the theology of the cross, and this theology of servanthood, of emptying oneself, of suffering for the sake of others still inspires lively debates within theological circles, within the church catholic and within the LSTC community. Some of us would argue that Christ's words are only gospel—radical good news—for the powerful, the privileged, the ones who exercise and often abuse authority. However, they are not good news for those whose sin is not pride but a willingness to be subservient, for those without power, for the silenced, for the suffering.
It is true, Jesus was speaking to men when He addressed His disciples, but women were clearly also numbered among His early followers. Very few of the disciples, men or women, appear to have come from the privileged classes of society. None wielded much power in their world. Yet, Jesus addressed His dialectical word of judgment and grace to all of them, to all of these seekers of greatness. His word of law and gospel is, therefore, intended for all human beings, for the greatest and the least, and it provides all of us with a divine vision of what it means to live in a fully human, indeed, in a divine way. To be last and a servant of all, as Christ envisions this calling, does not imply servitude nor does it justify hierarchy, self-centeredness or the reckless and abusive use of power. It is does not foster self-neglect or a disdain for God's creation. The call to be a servant is also not an obligation, a responsibility or a burden which weighs heavily on us. Rather, as disciples of Christ and people of faith who have been freed from all the powers which seek to compromise life and which make us less than God intends us to be, we serve precisely because we are free and thus able to serve. Service is, therefore, a voluntary and blessed exercise of faith.
For this reason I believe that it is appropriate to interpret Jesus' words in a descriptive rather than a prescriptive or imperative sense. "If anyone would be first he/she must be last of all and servant of all." With these words Jesus is not so much giving His disciples a command but stating a fact, a reality. His disciples have no choice. They cannot help themselves. They simply must be servants because faith quite naturally, willingly and necessarily expresses itself in loving service of God and of our fellow human beings, indeed, of the whole creation. Faith does this because through faith we are united with Christ and, through Christ, with God. Our whole life is, therefore, lived coram deo, in God's presence, and it is a life which emulates Christ. Dear people of God, we should not really be surprised that Jesus defines greatness in terms of humility and service or that He calls His disciples to be servants of others. This is, after all, precisely who He was, what He did and how He lived. And in doing so, Christ revealed the wonderfully paradoxical nature of God. Our God exercises power in weakness, reveals God's essence by taking on human flesh, restores wholeness through brokenness and brings life by means of a cross. What foolishness! What a stumbling block! What a paradox! However, these are God's ways, and Christ now invites and empowers us, His disciples, to make them our ways as well. And when we do, we will be God's instruments of peace, of wholeness, of life, of salvation in the lives of others. They, too, will be freed and will, in turn, become God's instruments in the world. Who would have thought that all of this is possible through humble service? But, it is, my sisters and brothers, and Jesus is our assurance of that fact. Thanks be to God who has freed us so that we might be servants of one another! Rejoice in your calling and pursue it with joy, and you will be a blessing to many. That is Christ's promise to you, not mine. Amen.
Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37