And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35 ESV)
Imagine being a disciple of Jesus Christ, having witnessed all the events we’ve considered since beginning our expositions in the Book of Mark. As you and your friends follow Jesus toward the next adventure, what do you think you would talk about on the way? Would you wonder about those predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Perhaps you would try to understand his teachings about the sower and the seed? Or maybe you would reminisce about the feeding of the 5,000 or the time in the storm or the transfiguration? Whatever the case, in such a short time, your experience with Jesus ought to give you enough to talk about for quite some time!
However, in this passage, the disciples don’t seem engaged to any of those topics. So, what do they talk about? Mark tells us they spent their time arguing about who was the greatest!
Now, before we beat up on the disciples, we need to ask ourselves: is this really that far off what we would do? Indeed, there are plenty of other things to discuss, but the truth remains that no matter what age you are, what time period you live in, or what culture you are from, pride is pervasive. We, as prideful, sinful human beings, can take any situation and make it all about ourselves. The disciples, even being so close to Jesus, were no different.
In Mark 9:33-41, the disciples would learn some valuable lessons about the kingdom that Christ came to inaugurate, and how that kingdom is vastly different from the kingdoms of the world. In the world, kingdoms are empowered by great people who do great things. They build great empires. The disciples, still not grasping that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, envision a kingdom in worldly terms and thus wonder which of them would be considered greatest in Christ’s kingdom. However, their concept of greatness was way off.
Jesus tells them that if they want to be first, they must be last; if they want to be great, they must be the servant of all. How counter-cultural! Last? Servant? And, Jesus illustrates this concept with a small child! Children had no place of greatness in the first century. How humbling! The disciples’ vision of occupying great spaces in a great kingdom as great warriors was torn to pieces and replaced with a humble, insignificant, dependent child.
Such humility, despised by the world, pleases God. God’s kingdom is inhabited by childlike, humble people. People who serve one another, who defer to one another, who put to death their ambitions and put others first. Jesus, of course, would be the ultimate example for us.
After challenging their notions of greatness, Jesus challenges another misconception: that of the size of the kingdom. The disciples at this point were used to a sort of “us vs. them” mentality; they had seen Jesus rejected time and again, yet these loyal 12 stood by his side. Imagine, then, when they encountered someone who was ministering in Jesus name. He’s not one of us! And so the disciples tried to get this man to stop, but Jesus would have none of it. “He who is not against us is for us.” In short, the kingdom is wider than the disciples thought.
Our text for this Sunday will challenge all of us to take our eyes off of ourselves and our inner circles. It will provoke us to see the vastness of God’s kingdom and find our place in it as humble servants of all.