He knew what was in store for him. He shared it with his disciples. “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise. But they did not understand the saying and were afraid to ask him.” Mark 9:31-32
Jesus could not have said it more clearly. The deliverer was soon to be delivered. The disciples did not understand. They didn’t get beyond the stabbing force of the word, “kill”. They received no assurance from the promise that, “after three days he will rise”. They didn’t get what he was talking about at all. They were afraid to ask what it might mean. It’s like when you are afraid to go to the doctor, even though you feel lousy, because you don’t want to learn about what’s happening with your body and what it might mean.
“And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” Mark 9:33-34 To overcome their anxiety, the disciples evidently attempted to fortify their spirits by arguing with one another about who was the greatest among them. If you are insecure or frightened about your position, the easiest way to bolster confidence is to compare yourself with others. You can always find someone with whom you compare favorably. The disciples’ attempt to regain confidence was exposed by Jesus’ question, “What were you discussing on the way?” They wouldn’t tell him because they were ashamed. Their discussion had wandered into a very distant place from where he wanted them to be. I imagine Jesus had hoped they would reflect upon his upcoming death and resurrection. Instead, they were carrying on about greatness without reference to the cross.
Jesus did not condemn them. He responded to their desire to be seen as the greatest and redirected it. The desire to be seen as the greatest has accounted for all manner of evil when it is seen as being enthroned at the expense of others. There is a greatness, however, that lets a person’s God-given ambition become not the master of life but a servant of it. It lets God’s gifts be used as intended rather than for selfish gain. It comes about by letting ambition motivate willingness to be used to the glory of God.
And so, Jesus challenges his disciples and us to willingness to serve. In willingness to serve is true greatness in God’s eyes. God’s gifts are then used to benefit others. This is greatness, not as the world measures it, but as God measures it. Let’s be very careful here, though, so we don’t get all fouled up and misunderstand what our Lord is saying. He isn’t saying, “To the person who does the most good works goes the crown of greatness.” Rather, he puts a child in the midst of his disciples, takes him in his arms and says, “Take one of these, they are all around in the poor, the sick, the distressed, the lonely, the grieving and anyone who isn’t so great in the eyes of the world, take one of these in your arms and show them my love. In that act you have allowed yourself to be truly great, not because you have done something spectacular that shows how wonderful you are, but because you have been a part of the work of the kingdom of God. And be motivated to do that again and again as the opportunity arises, which it will. And keep your focus always on me and not yourself. You will then unleash my power of love in their lives, which is far greater than anything you could give them on your own. And you will also begin to understand the way of the cross.
Spreading, Serving and Sharing with You,