“If anyone wants to be first he must make himself last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9: 35)
The Gospel of Mark records three accounts of Jesus’ prediction of His Passion (see Mark 8: 31; 9: 31; 10: 33-34). This Sunday we are presented with the second. In each of these predictions Jesus links the Passion with the Resurrection on the third day. His death was not “an annihilation” but was filled with profound hope of immortality (Wisdom 3: 3-5). The Readings of today are, as usual, carefully chosen to help us understand the Person and mission of our Lord Jesus Christ. They invite us to relate with His message and to open our hearts to the challenges they pose. The First Reading (Wisdom 2: 12, 17-20) is a prophecy of the Lord’s Passion: we hear the scheming of the enemies who lay in wait for a virtuous God’s Son because he annoys, opposes, reproaches and accuses them for their evil ways and actions. We also hear the chilling words that foreshadow the torture, suffering and condemnation to shameful death that Jesus would have to undergo for the sake of sinful man. The Psalm (53) joyfully expresses the generosity of “the virtuous” who sacrifices with a willing heart trusting he for his help, God Who upholds his life. The fact that there are enemies who oppose and attack us should not deter us from living the life of the Gospel. The Response of the Psalm: “The Lord upholds my life”, should always serve as an encouraging reminder that in all situations and against all forces God will be with us a “Mighty Hero.”
The message of the Second Reading (James 3: 16-4:3) is revealed in the light of the Gospel (Mark 9: 30-37) where Jesus enumerates further from last Sunday, His Messianic identity; and the demands of discipleship – humility and service. Jesus knows He needed more time with His disciples, away from the noise of the crowd, in order to teach them more about Who He was and the kind of mission He was to accomplish. So He makes His way through Galilee heading towards Jerusalem, not wanting anyone to know, and is telling them: “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men; they will put Him to death; and three days after He has been put to death; He will rise again” (Mark 9: 31). At this second time, like in the first, the disciples still do not understand what Jesus really means. But they are afraid to ask Him. Perhaps they are afraid of the whole truth, which may be too depressing for them – that their beloved Master will die in deed. The part of rising after three days is even more complicated for them because the idea of resurrection is too far-fetched. Some truths can be very hard, and here is one of such for the disciples. Like some of us are afraid to check our health status for fear we might discover something terminal. And so the disciples prefer to looked ahead to a brighter future, when they will hopefully assume the throne with their Master. They initiate an argument about who is the greatest among them, and perhaps the possible successor of the Master. Here they were victims of misguided notion of the Messiah and are trapped in the human web of vain desires for prestige, power and position. Their perception is diametrically opposed to that of Jesus, Who was sent to attain victory through suffering, death and resurrection.
What is the antidote for these human desires? St. Mark tells us that Jesus sat (the customary posture of a teacher in ancient world) and called the Twelve and began to teach them what exactly it meant to be “the greatest” in this new Kingdom that He was initiating. “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last and servant of all” (Mark 9: 35). Jesus is setting new standards here that are turning the familiar standards of worldly kingdom on their head. Jesus is not here condemning nor discountenancing the innate human desire for firm and position but He is raising the bar by substituting raw ambition for humane ambition – for the ambition to rule, He substitutes the ambition to serve; for the ambition to be first, He substitutes the ambition to be last; and He substitutes the ambition to be the greatest for the ambition to be the least. This is completely strange in a culture where humility and meekness are not revered as virtues but mocked as signs of weakness. Jesus knows that vain ambition cannot further His Kingdom. St James in the Second Reading (James 3: 16-4:3) describes the scenario of the fruits of raw ambition: “Wherever jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice … You desire and do not have; so you kill. You covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war” (James 3: 16, 4:2). Truly selfish ambition breeds unhealthy competition, hatred, divisions and conflicts among the children of God. No kingdom can stand on such principles. In Christ’s Kingdom authentic leadership means – to serve, and to serve others first. He has given us this perfect example for He, our Lord and Master, “came to serve and not to be served; and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20: 28; Mark 10: 45). William Shakespeare articulates this in Julius Caesar: “What touches us first, must be last served.” The leader is called to be the servant of his people, who thinks, speaks and takes actions based on what is best for the people and not for himself. Humility and meekness are virtues which enable the leader to see his office as a position of grace; make him/her available to all; patient with others; attentive, sensitive and responsive to the needs of those placed under his care. These qualities produce empathetic and transformational leadership, which inspire and empower. St. Paul exhorts the early Christians of Philippi as follows: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interest of others” (Philippians 2: 3-4).
Jesus’ lesson on servant-leadership is followed by an illustration: “He then took a little child, set him in front of them, put His arms round him, and said to them: ‘Anyone who welcomes any of these little ones in My name, welcomes Me; and anyone who welcomes me, welcomes not Me but the One Who sent Me’” (Mark 9: 36-37). Why the little child? In the ancient Palestinian society, and in fact in the ancient world, children were powerless, considered the weakest in the society; they had nothing to offer, they were abused and forced into slavery. It is not a surprise that Jesus would identify Himself with the little child because He came to save the weak, fallen humanity. In Matthew 25: 40 there is a similar identification when He said: “When you did it for one of the least of your brothers, you did it for Me.” But the identification here goes beyond Jesus to God, the Father. The commission to welcome these little ones is to let the disciples, and in deed all of us, know that the new Kingdom would be an all-inclusive one, where everyone is first born son, created in the image and likeness of God united in one faith and one baptism in the one Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. The disciples and indeed all members of this Kingdom are to warm up to the weakest in the society, to receive those who have nothing to offer, to respect the dignity of every human being irrespective of status and to serve “the least” of the Lord’s brothers/sisters. We may need to examine our relationships with “the child” in our society today: how do we relate with the weak and the powerless? How do we receive those who have nothing to offer? Where are the underprivileged in our considerations?
Every personal, political, social, economic and religious problems of our world today would have been resolved and solved if every man, especially those in positions of power and influence, aspired and lived for what they could do for others and not for themselves; what they could do to better the society and not their families; and how they could serve the weak instead of favouring the strong. May the Lord grant us the grace to be humble in our various positions of leadership, to realise that as leaders, we are first and foremost servants, called to serve after His model of humility, selflessness and love for all.