This week’s lectionary passage continues the ongoing theme of Jesus’ clueless disciples. They had a lot to learn, and even though they had Jesus with them continually, sometimes Jesus had to slow things down and keep it simple:
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” –Mark 9:30-37 NRSV
As usual with a Gospel lection, there’s much to “chew on” here, so to speak. And so it’s best in this example, I think, to focus on one specific element.
In my faith tradition (Community of Christ) congregational pastors, in the vast majority of cases, serve on a volunteer basis. The more precise term is “bivocational,” but that sounds rather pompous considering the topic. In any case, these men and women offer their pastoral ministry and leadership skills in addition to family and career responsibilities. The best, most effective ones serve with considerable humility and grace.
I have great admiration for those who take on the challenge. Having served for four years as a pastor, I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone who eagerly seeks such a role should in most cases be permanently barred from serving. Maybe that’s because I’m by nature introverted, quiet, and lacking in obvious social-pastoral abilities.
Regardless, let’s move on, to that moment in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus wants to know what his disciples had been arguing about: But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Mark expands on this theme in chapter 10 with James and John wanting to be at Jesus’ right hand in glory. Matthew alludes to that incident, as well, but in his Gospel account it’s expanded even more. James and John are the brothers who want to sit at Jesus’ right hand. But because Matthew doesn’t want to cast the original twelve disciples in a totally negative light, he places the blame squarely on their mother. Poor mom, once again gets shafted. (By the way, that passage is the Gospel lection for October 18 this year.)
The point of all this, of course, is that ministry is not about position or power or influence; it’s about servanthood and service (two words with the same root). Jesus even took it a step beyond what the male-dominated Judean-Jewish culture would have found acceptable by bringing children into the equation. Yes, Jesus had a way of bringing issues into focus, especially in ways nobody would have expected. Who knew? The first must be last; the last will be first.