Once upon a time, Jesus and his 12 friends piled into a house in a small seacoast town, kicked off their sandals and probably started to relax with a nice beverage. Jesus coyly says, “Hey, back there on the road earlier, what were you guys talking about anyway?” He already knew the content of their conversation.
The Bible reports that the disciples “were silent,” caught.
I suspect Jesus let his question hang in the air a while because the disciples had been arguing about “who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34)—a dozen grown guys posturing as the Dos Equis Man.
Maybe it’s hard to imagine getting sucked into a spat with your friends about something so dumb. Maybe their argument isn’t yours. But it certainly is the climate of our culture—to be first and best. To “win” in all things, as one notable national leader often puts it.
Literary critic Dan Via says the Bible comes alive as you imagine yourself standing at an upper window, observing a familiar Scripture story acted out below. Watching the action unfold from a distance, you notice the reflection of your own face on the windowpane, superimposed upon the action you were taking in. This is similar to how the Bible works—one becomes part of a story you thought you were only reading.
The presence of certain foibles in the disciples (and other Bible characters) gives me great hope as I hold up the mirror of these stories because I see my own stupid mistakes in their biblical lives. And yet God stuck with them, sticks with me.
So, when the disciples gather with Jesus in that living room and he throws out that loaded question—Now what exactly were you guys talking about back there?—it’s safe to see yourself in that house all of a sudden, swallowing your own tongue because Jesus has your number. We are the disciples who sometimes struggle with prestige and power, greatness and gossip, and want to be noticed, acclaimed.
Would it matter if we suddenly discovered that Jesus has access to even our private aspirations? Well, he does, right? This lesson reveals that truth exactly. We were talking about, well, who is the greatest. We were at least thinking it, constantly wondering about our value measured alongside the worth of others.
The biblical mirror exposes this timeless game. Jesus talks about the cross and dying for others in one breath (9:31), and his disciples jockey for position in the very next scene. I’d laugh if this didn’t describe me so closely.
So Jesus slowly sits down in that house. He almost always sits down when it’s time to teach. The silence is palpable; he has their attention.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).
Those 14 words are so out of step, so upside-down, so counter to everything we often value in America that it’s often difficult to imagine what it might mean to live out their truth. The silence undoubtedly increased in that living room after Jesus offered those words.
Jesus then notices a child playing outside and invites this little one among them (9:36), but not because children are impish and cute. Children then were nonentities—expendable and without status, often abandoned. Jesus placed what was unvalued in the middle of the circle. “Welcome those without status,” he says, “and you’ll be welcoming me. Indeed, that’s precisely how you will find God.”
You know those snippets of wisdom we tape to the refrigerator or morning mirror? I think these words from Jesus might qualify as one of those pieces of wisdom we take portably into each day.
Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
Jesus isn’t opposed to success. He is concerned about elevating the self to some sort of god-like status.
Placing ourselves last opens up a whole new vantage point on the world. It helps us to see more clearly the people God has given us to love.